The offspring of a Prussian-Huguenot family, Humboldt grew up bilingual: for all his life, he moved between various countries, cultures, and languages. His writing and correspondence was in German, French, Latin, Spanish, and English. On his scientific travels, Humboldt stayed in contact with US presidents, viceroys of New Spain, and Latin American revolutionaries, dined with the Russian Emperor and met with Polish dissidents, lived with Cuban sugar barons and travelled with indigenous Sherpas. He was as interested in the ancient monuments of Asia as he was in those of Europe and the Americas.
Humboldt was a European in the sense of an enlightened republic of scholars and a cosmopolitan in Kantian terms, at the same time a Prussian chamberlain and a member of the Parisian Academy, a political advisor and an independent documentarian of power. His thinking and writing were concerned with the colonial system, slavery, and the question of the independence of the Hispano-American colonies for many decades. They found their most radical expression in his works on New Spain/Mexico (1811) and Cuba (1826).
Humboldt had a conflicted relationship to the city of Berlin. He only finally settled in the city of his birth in 1827 at age 60, almost two decades after the great expedition to the Americas and after many years of research and writing in the metropolis of the arts and sciences, Paris.
Berlin and its residents were often the target of his fine sense of humor. At the same time, as a world-famous scholar, scientific planner, and royal chamberlain, he helped to make the Prussian residence a European center of scholarship. While Humboldt first found Berlin to be a “moral desert, decorated with locust trees and blossoming fields of potatoes,” the honorary citizen of the city recalled at the end of his life, looking back at his own achievements, “the sacred duties and tender obligations of the life of a citizen.”
Humboldt always lived as a tenant in Berlin, first from 1827–1841 Hinter dem neuen Packhofe 4 (on today’s Museum Island), then for several months at Werdersche Rosen-Straße Nr. 3 (next to the Friedrichwerderschen Kirche) and finally from 1842 until his death von 1842 at Oranienburger Straße 67. None of Humboldt’s residences remain standing today.
Patron and Supporter
Already during his years in Paris (1807–1827), Humboldt sought to promote young artists, scholars, and travelling researchers in Prussia and France. His quite successful “Kosmos lectures” at Berlin’s University and at the Singakademie (1827/1828) heightened the public awareness for the natural sciences. With evaluations and recommendations to the Prussian cultural ministry, Humboldt directly influenced university policy, the naming of professors, and the establishment of the state’s scientific research collections. As a member of the Preußische Akademie der Wissenschaften and the Académie des Sciences in Paris, he promoted transnational academic exchange.
Traces of this wide engagement lead into our present: Humboldt was the first chancellor of the Order Pour le Mérite für Wissenschaften und Künste, which was founded in 1842 and still existing today. In 1860, in memory of the recently deceased patron of numerous scientific travellers, members of the Preußische Akademie der Wissenschaften founded the Humboldt-Stiftung für Naturforschung und Reisen, the Humboldt-Foundation for Natural Research and Expeditions, which later became the Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung.
In the course of his almost 90-year life, Humboldt published an oeuvre of printed texts that was impressive in terms of its range of material and scope. In addition to around 50 monographs and more than 800 essays and articles, the scholar presented numerous academic lectures as well as the “Kosmos lectures” in Berlin, which were open to the public free of charge. A highly prolific and creative writer, Humboldt addressed the academic audience as well as the general public: and not only in German. The cosmopolitan thought, communicated, and wrote in several languages.
Humboldt drew this enormous diversity from an extensive base of material, much of which is still extant today. This includes the travel journals of his major American and Russian-Siberian expeditions and other research expeditions as well. Using a wide-ranging network of his correspondence, the information from thousands of letters and writings by third parties, Humboldt created a life’s work that is still fascinating today.
In 1796, the 27-year-old Alexander von Humboldt described the scholarly program that he would pursue for an entire life of research: the science that he called physique du monde understood nature as the unity of all phenomena, materials, and living beings. By combining empirical geophysical and life sciences, he seeked to explore a dynamic balance of natural forces.
The idea of an inner link between nature and culture formed the core idea of his works on the economies of the Spanish viceroyalties in America and his studies on the history of European discovery in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Even in his last work, Kosmos: Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung (1845–1862), he interpreted human history as the “story of an awareness of the world as a whole.”
Humboldt’s self-conception as a researcher was inseparable from travel. In an autobiographical sketch from 1806, he professed: “Full of impatience and excitement, I am never pleased about what I have achieved, and I am only happy when starting something new, and then three things all at once.”
It is this “sense of moral unrest, the consequence of a nomadic life” that drove Humboldt his whole life long. His scientific travels were intended to inform about the dynamic interaction of natural forces. Towards that end, he felt compelled to travel across the continents, draw mountains and stone profiles, collect data and flora, all in order to better understand the world by way of comparison.
His first travels in Europe were preparatory in nature. Humboldt tried out instruments, methods of measuring and writing, and practiced mountain climbing. On the river travels, tours of the steppes, and volcano ascents of his journey through the American tropics (1799–1804) Humboldt found his place in the world and his life project. The world as a whole came into view. In 1829, he completed a second great research expedition, this time across Russia and Siberia to the Chinese border.
Alexander von Humboldt’s life (1769–1859) shaped by endless movement and lifelong productivity. He spent his childhood and youth with his brother Wilhelm at Schloss Tegel near Berlin and was taught by several of Prussia’s best tutors. He then studied botany, cameralism, classics, geography, and mining studies in Frankfurt/Oder, Hamburg, Göttingen, and Freiberg. This was followed by a stunning career as a Prussian mining officer.
The inheritance left by his mother Elisabeth made Humboldt financially independent. In 1799, he left Europe for a research expedition to the American tropics. He returned in 1804 and began work on his Opus americanum: his travels and his work made Humboldt famous around the world. His second great journey set out from Berlin in 1829, traversing 18,000 kilometers across the Russian Empire to the Chinese border. Humboldt’s model of study was completed in his comparisons of Asia and America. This was followed by the project of a physical description of the world, the Kosmos, his most successful work. During its completion, Humboldt died in 1859 as perhaps the most famous scholar of his day.