Bold, Bold, Humboldt

I brought up Wilhelm von Humboldt in an earlier essay, in one of the texts I wrote on the aesthetics lectures. I noted that while apparently fairly influential in the 1800s, as well as in the 1900s, he is one of those figures that have eluded me. This may well be just by chance alone that I didn’t encounter his work as an undergrad, yet something tells me that, as I pointed out, that he, alongside a host of other German scholars, got effectively erased from curricula due to certain events in the last decades of the first half of the 1900s. While not stating such as the reason for it, James Underhill (xi) comments in ‘Humboldt, Worldview and Language’ that his work is largely forgotten in the Anglophone circles, which, I reckon, are by and large just the circles these days as other circles are considered of little importance in academics. Oddly enough, I’m more familiar with the work of his younger brother Alexander. His name kept cropping up during geography lectures, at least on the lectures by the older generation of lecturers.

Anyway, as I’m supposed to read to an exam, I decided to have a closer look at the notes provided to us during the lecture. I can’t say who wrote them, mere four pages or so, but I assume that if it wasn’t the lecturer, it’s someone familiar with von Humboldt’s work. My money is on the lecturer, Tuomas Tolonen, considering how I cannot find a single book by von Humboldt at the university library that isn’t in German. In other words, I’d be surprised if someone else has come up with this concise summary of his linguistics works. It could be that someone else typed this for him, considering that he has stated that he doesn’t have a computer, but that doesn’t really change much.

The only work translated into something that I can actually comprehend is an edited volume by Michael Losonsky (translation by Peter Heath) titled ‘On Language: On the Diversity of Human Language Construction and its Influence on the Mental Development of the Human Species’. In the introduction to this translation of the 1836 original, Losonsky (viii, x) notes that the problem with von Humboldt’s work is that is that it tends to be incomplete, as he was, apparently, known for starting projects that he didn’t finish or just otherwise ended up reworking much of what he had already done, resulting in rather fragmented works that are not exactly the most reader friendly. Now, it’s worth noting that it’s not that there aren’t others who’ve worked on von Humboldt, but rather that his works haven’t really been translated that much, which is a bit of a bummer here, considering that while yours truly can understand some German, it’s hardly enough to tackle this. I always prefer reading the originals, even if translated, rather than commentaries by others, but I can’t always do that. Sometimes it’s possible to dedicate enough time to translate something, but by the looks of this, von Humboldt didn’t exactly write concise articles. For example, his works are included in a collection made up seventeen volumes.

First things first, it’s indicated in the summary that von Humboldt builds on Johann Gottfried von Herder and Johann Georg Hamann. In ‘German Philosophy of Language: From Schlegel to Hegel and Beyond’ Michael Forster notes that, what is also indicated in the summary, von Humboldt’s early short 1795-1796 essay ‘On Thinking and Speaking’ was, in particular, influenced by Herder’s ‘Treatise on the Origin of Language’. The former can be found, for example, as included in Nathan Rotenstreich article ‘Humboldt’s Prolegomena To Philosophy of Language’. Anyway, in the summary it’s stated that his theory is Romantic language theory and for him the focus is primarily on what language is rather than how they’ve developed. That’s the premise for all this. After that there are a total of twelve parts on some three half pages or so.

In the first segment, it is stated that being human and language are inseparable. One cannot make or invent language because one already has language. I think here it’s worth clarifying that, the way I interpret this, it’s not that we cannot invent a language, say Klingon, but rather that we cannot invent language itself. There’s a clear distinction here, one that pertains to whether we only have language and a continuum of it, now with certain gaps of course, or distinct languages, marked as this or that. What I take from this is not that languages don’t matter, they do, but that’s secondary to language itself. Of course, you cannot altogether ignore languages either, just because they are what they’ve become, or so to speak. I think trajectory is an apt word here, as used by Underhill (73). Anyway, back to the summary, this is indicated as what separates humans from animals.

In the second segment, it is indicated that human language cannot be explained via biology, nor via any other natural science for that matter. Here it’s noted, or conceded, that animals may well have very complex systems of communication, whatever that may entail, yet one cannot derive language from such. Language is irreducible nature, as well as consciousness. Instead, it is simultaneously mental, as well as material.

In the third segment, what is stated in the second segment is emphasized. To be more specific, it is indicated in the summary that language overcomes the mind/matter or mind/body duality. As Losonsky (xi) characterizes it, “[c]entral to Humboldt’s thinking about human language is the idea that there is a mental power (Geisteskraft) that is responsible for language[.]” In other words, these are inseparable. Simply put, consciousness does not take precedence over language as that would relegate language into a mere instrument of communicating the content of consciousness. It’s also noted that this also works the other way around, meaning that thinking is only possible because we have language. In a way, it’s speaking in silence.

In the fourth segment, it is indicated that for von Humboldt language is not simply something that is, but something that is done. Simply put, it’s not about being, but about doing. It does not consist of phonemes and graphemes (albeit I reckon he doesn’t actually use those words). Instead, language is about the practice of it, articulating, speaking, using the relevant parts of one’s body to accomplish such. Relevant here, Forster (88) notes that for von Humboldt verbs are fundamental parts of language. It is emphasized in this segment of the summary that for von Humboldt the difference is between what is produced, ergon, and producing, energeia. Therefore, as one might expect, energeia takes precedence over ergon. Losonsky (xi) points this out as well, stating that “[w]hat science understands is the finished product – the completed work – but language, in Humboldt’s famous words, is ‘no product (ergon), but an activity (energeia)’”. This reminds me of the pragmatics of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, as presented in ‘A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’, because for them, similarly to von Humboldt, it seems, language cannot be understood as complete, as a fixed system. To be clear here, Losonsky (xi) adds that for von Humboldt this activity, energeia, is not something voluntary, as in something one would put into use intentionally for some specific task. That sort of makes sense here, considering that it is established in the third segment that language is not preceded by conscious thinking.

In the fifth segment, it is stated that, I assume I no longer need to state whose view on this this is, language is about articulation. To be more specific, it’s about the ability to produce certain combinations of sounds consistently. In this sense, it is stated, language is about singing. This may seem rather curious, but at least in ‘On Language: On the Diversity of Human Language Construction and its Influence on the Mental Development of the Human Species’ Humboldt (60) does actually state such, noting that “[f]or man, as a species, is a singing creature, though the notes, in his case, are also coupled with thought.” Anyway, the point here is that in order for us to understand, or even begin to understand, one another, the sounds produced must remain consistent. The way I read the summary, it says constant, but while I may err here, in translation, I’d rather use the word consistent. That’s, of course, on me, but that’s because I’m not fond of constants to begin with. It’s just a bit too fixed a notion for me. Consistency is, in my opinion, more apt here because it does not assume something always stays the same, yet once situated it functions as if it were, regardless of whether it is or isn’t. A day later, reading Underhill (76), it is stated that the word is indeed constant, yet it is not to be understood as fixed or static. To be more specific here, Underhill (76) clarifies that it only remains fixed inasmuch as language is used the same way over and over again. Underhill (76) refers to this as language having patterns. I’d still prefer consistency over constant though. Anyway, in the final bit here, it is stated in the summary that this makes phonetics central in linguistics as it pertains to the structure of articulation.

In the sixth segment, something very crucial is expressed. Language is not only an activity, something that one does, but a social activity, something that one does in the company of others. Moreover, to be specific, this is necessitated. Just think of it. How does one come to use language, to speak, to write? Oh, yes, not by yourself, that’s for sure, well, unless I’m missing something crucial. To put it very simply, language is first and foremost a conversation, a dialogue. There’s quite a bit of extra here, how one comes to realize who speaks, me or the other person, but the gist is, as emphasized in the final bit here, for von Humboldt there is no me without you and the other way around. I can’t help but to think of, for example, Louis Althusser, Deleuze and Guattari, as well as Valentin Vološinov here.

In the seventh segment, it is stated that a conversation or conversing is futile unless words mean something. In other words, it just doesn’t work if there isn’t language. In a way that’s sort of obvious, really. This is what the second bit in this segment addresses, otherwise this would be just stating something hilariously obvious, yet that’d still be a bold claim with little support for it. It’d be like saying that we understand one another because all words have an inherent meaning. Anyway, so, it’s added that by themselves words don’t mean a thing. What is needed is someone who means something by using them and someone who must understand what the other person means by whatever the word happens to be. The point here is that, as emphasized in the summary, words cannot be understood merely semantically. In other words, language doesn’t exist separate from people. To borrow a word that I encounter used by Deleuze and Guattari, language as a system and as speech are in reciprocal presupposition. In simple terms, you work your way within that system as you were born and taught into it, yet that system requires people, you included, to have that system. This also means, at least the way I understand it, that the system is in a flux, so it’s never exactly stable, no matter how much we wish to codify and fix it. So, as it is stated in the summary, on one hand speaking is about upholding as well as changing language as an institution and on the other hand language as an institution permits speaking. You can’t have one without the other.

In the eight segment, it’s indicated that that language is a worldview. It organizes both sensing and thinking. Underhill (18) notes that this is what von Humboldt refers to as the Weltansicht, operating at very fundamental level that pertains to sensory contact with the world, a point made in another segment, not to be confused with Weltanschauung which is rather one’s interpretation of the world as influenced by various other factors. Simply put, therefore, as summarized by Underhill (55), the latter has to do with not a view of the world, but rather a vision of the world, “in the sense of the conceptions or ideologies.” He (55) offers a number of examples, such as the communist and capitalist visions or worldviews, as well as Catholic and Protestant visions or worldviews, which may well exist in the same community, despite opposing one another, thus not being bound to language itself. Moreover, as Underhill (55-56) clarifies it, the former is about the nature of language itself, how it has to do with “the capacity which language bestows upon us to form the concepts with which we think and which we need in order to communicate.” Therefore, as Underhill (55-56) makes it clear, this is what’s language-bound. Underhill (57) also defines it “as the capacity to coin concepts”, which makes me think of Deleuze and Guattari in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’. Anyway, back to the summary provided during the lectures. This also ties to an earlier point made about dualism. There’s no thinking outside language and therefore one doesn’t merely use language to articulate thought. Instead, to put it in other words, thinking is, as already expressed, speaking in silence, as absurd as that may seem to you. What’s important here, to bring in something new, which I reckon is the point of each segment, is that as a result, there’s no separation of theory of consciousness, thinking and sensing (epistemology), theory of language, theory of reality (ontology). Both epistemology and ontology are possible only when combined with language. Consequently, tying this to an earlier point, only humans have a world, whereas animals have an environment. This reminds me a lot of Deleuze and Guattari (62, 172) in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’, stating that humans have worlds, followed by landscapes, whereas animals only have their milieus; welt vs. umwelt. In the very final bit it is added that world is the correlate of the language system.

In the ninth segment, it is expressed that language cannot be thought to be instrumental. This goes back to earlier bits on how language is not separate from thinking. Again, it’s expressed that language is not just something used to express thought as thought itself is nested in language. In other words, language is rather a state, a world, that is a condition for understanding oneself, that is to say consciousness, thinking, sensing and encountering others, as well as, anything really. It’s further clarified that this does not mean that language is not a medium. In fact, it is. What it is not is a mere instrument, something you select for certain tasks, as noted earlier on already. In the final bit it’s expressed that humans live in culture that is actually a sign system.

In the tenth segment, the focus turn on to what language is in its original form very close to sensing. It’s emphasized that originally meaning pertains little to abstract concepts, as opposed to the sensible. In this sense, metaphor, myth and poetry are closer to such than science which relies on abstract concepts. I’m not exactly sure if the words sensing and sensible are apt here, but at least in the translation by Heath, it is used at times. For example, von Humboldt (148-149) states that:

“Language is formed by speaking, and speaking is the expression of thought or feeling. The mode of thinking or sensing in a people, by which – as I was just saying – its language acquires colour and character, is already at work upon it from the very outset.”

In this passage it’s indicated that speaking is indeed an expression of thought or feeling. However, at the same time, it cannot be understood as a mere instrument, means to an end to express something. Language gains “colour and character” through thinking and sensing. Now, to be clear here, one should now also add that as language is a social activity rather than a static entity, that is to say you only acquire language through others, as expressed already, one thus never really thinks or senses by themselves. It’s worth noting that also the word feeling is used, but I think sensing is more apt here. Feeling either comes across as too touchy feely, that is to say emotional, or too limited to touching. Anyway, back to the summary provided during the lectures, it’s stated that conceptual language, say that of the science, is based on sensible language, which then entails that reason itself is based on myth. That in turn entails that what is fundamental in organizing the world is language as tied to sensing. In practice this is done via stories.

In the eleventh segment, a further point is made about mythical language, it being what organizes the world. Here it is added that this is because language is repeated in central social rites. This is indicated as having to do with the deep meaning of words. It’s also indicated in passing that if and when the mythical language has been watered down, poets must come up with new mythology through art. The likes of Friedrich Hölderlin, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling get mentioned. Steven Cassedy (36) comments on this in ‘Flight from Eden: The Origins of Modern Literary Criticism and Theory’, stating that:

“Harmony of inner and outer form is lost when a language stagnates. At that moment metaphors that had previously had a ‘youthful sense’ become, through daily use, ‘worn out’ so that they are ‘barely perceived anymore.’”

I think it’s worth noting here that when one uses the word myth, it easily comes across as someone trying to uncover some true foundation or origin. This may well seem contradictory here, considering that for von Humboldt language is never finished. Cassedy (36) comments this:

“Humboldt has taken the romantic myth of origin, by which language is a creature fallen from the grace it had ‘in the beginning,’ and replaced it with a myth of origin where that origin is always now.”

So, as Cassedy (36) comments, for von Humboldt language mustn’t stagnate. It must keep up with the times, or so to speak. It must remain relevant not to itself but to what’s out there, “to mediate between objective reality and subjective inwardness[.]” So, simply put, it’s worth emphasizing that the way this ought to be understood is not what we typically think of as myth or mythical, even though that can be a bit confusing. Therefore, in Cassedy’s (37) words:

“[For Humboldt] language does not spring into existence ready-made to serve poets as a vehicle for the expression of their feelings; on the contrary, we ceaselessly create language for the purpose of meaningfully organizing our own experience.”

Why is this? Well, if you’ve read Immanuel Kant, this will come as a no surprise, as explained by Cassedy (37):

“Humboldt was a good Kantian, believing that conscious beings can never ‘know’ things in and for themselves, to him, language, like any activity that generates meaning, cannot deal directly with objects.”

So, right, the key thing here, following Kant, is that we cannot really know how a thing-in-itself is. Instead we can only understand how things come to appear to us, as a matter of apparition, which is not the same thing as the thing-in-itself. Therefore, as explained by Cassedy (37), it only makes sense that language cannot actually “deal directly with objects.” In other words, we are relegated to speaking of how things appear to us, not as how they are. What’s interesting about this then is that we constantly need language for this very purpose, coming up with something that pertains to our sensory experiences in order to organize the world around us. Just imagine if language was actually stuck as a certain fixed entity, meaning that, say, you’d have to explain all this stuff in my room, this computer in particular, based on a template of a language decades ago, centuries ago, millennia ago. I’m now getting sidetracked here, but this is something that bothers me in, say Plato. To me, it just doesn’t make any sense that there’d be an idea of computer, or to put it in other words, more relevantly here, a ready-made expression for it. We have to make words up in order to keep up with the times, to make sense of it all, otherwise most of these things in my room wouldn’t even make any sense. Oddly enough, this added a day later, Underhill (70-71) actually makes note of this, stating that “[i]t’s easy to imagine a language which would find our distinction between a cello and a violin difficult to grasp” and adding that indeed many people do confuse them, even in English. That might be a bit nipitcky, so he (71) discusses how a table is something very basic and clearly defined, to the extent that we take it as existing “independent of our understanding”, yet there’s nothing to it, nothing essential in itself about a table for it to be table outside language. So, in summary, Underhill (71) states that “the signification that table has for us is nonetheless constructed by the mind of man and applied to all tables by him to aid him to communicate.” If you struggle with this, well, think of how animals, say, cats or dogs, behave around furniture. It’s worth emphasizing here that, as stressed by Underhill (72-73), this does not mean that we are stuck in language to the extent that all there is is language. In other words, as clarified by Underhill (72):

“The [real external world] exists independent of ourselves, the [conception of that world] is the formulation which our understanding through language has negotiated with the world.”

So, as made clear by Underhill (73):

“Humboldt does not argue that the world only exists because we can speak about it. If we surround ourselves in a conceptual world of objects it is, he argues, because we seek to act in the world by acting upon the world of things as we have learned to understand them.”

In other words, as expressed by Underhill (73), this does not result in “a denial of reality or truth in the world around us: it simply affirms that our attempts to understand that world are language-bound.” Returning to an earlier bit on language and languages, as noted by Underhill (73), how things have panned out, of course, affects how we view the world. So, it’s sort of obvious, really, that my worldview, based largely on Finnish, as well as English, as situated in Finland, as of 2018, is different from someone else who conceptualizes the world in another language or languages, somewhere else, possibly at another point in time. We could say the same just of me, in contrast to someone else also living in Finland, but, say, a hundred years ago. I reckon that could also be said of just me, now vs. then, say, ten or twenty years ago. I think it’s worth conceding that this is, of course, in part a question of vision of the world, Weltanschauung. For example, my vision of the world has also changed, due to this and/or that reasons not in itself nested in language. That said, I think it can be said that it’s also about the Weltansicht, how language itself, in my case, for example, Finnish has changed during my lifetime, as well as before it, affecting our view of the world. This, despite all the efforts in school to iron out all kinds of wrinkles introduced by me and others in interaction with one another.

The twelfth, and last, segment is on how nation, i.e., human society, is defined by a common language, mythology, worldview, religion and morality. This is indicated as the common or shared, which is the basis for the nation. I didn’t have much to add here, except the skepticism of my own translation, but, a day later, I ran into Underhill (74) commenting on this, noting that nation is not to be understood as having to do with nationalism, but rather as what I’d call a collective, as made up of me and others in interaction with one another. This ties into the earlier bit on how language is social, how you can’t have me without you. Underhill (74) defines it as “quite simply as a body of people marked off by common descent, language, culture or historical tradition.” So, as I put it already, it’s the people who come to interact in another frequently enough to the extent that influence one another. To be very clear here, Underhill (75) states that von Humboldt was, in fact, opposed to seeking what is the origin of language or society, because language and society are always in the making and what once was, way before our time, is, as I’d put it, not the past but our reconstruction of the past, “a sort of rear-view mirror for time”, as Philomena Cunk puts it in a mockumentary series titled ‘Cunk on Britain’.

I’m going to end here. I could add this and that, here and there, from this and/or that book, but this essay is meant more as a glimpse into something long forgotten, rather than as an attempt to elaborate it in great detail. Anyway, as I may have mentioned already, I believe in an earlier essay on the lectures, I was surprised by what I was reading at the time, how similar it seemed to what I had read, for example, in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’. Of course, they are not one and the same, I mean hardly, but there’s certain areas of overlap that made me want to investigate more and write this essay. Perhaps in the future I have time to read more on this, albeit it’s a bit out of, not only my comfort zone, but also outside the confines of my own research. The book by Underhill seems to be rather good reading. At least I was able to make sense of it quite okay. I found the selected points of contrast, Franz Boas, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, very useful and I reckon they might make it easier to understand von Humboldt’s theory of language.


  • Brooker C., and A. Jones (Ex. Pr.) (2018). Cunk on Britain (L. Powles, Dir., C. Brooker, Cr.). London, United Kingdom: British Broadcasting Corporation.
  • Cassedy. S. (1990). Flight from Eden: The Origins of Modern Literary Criticism and Theory. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Deleuze, G., and F. Guattari ([1980] 1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Forster, M. N. (2011). German Philosophy of Language: From Schlegel to Hegel and Beyond. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
  • Herder, J. G. ([1772] 2012). The Treatise on the Origin of Language. In J. G. Herder, Philosophical Writings (M. N. Forster, Ed., Trans.) (pp. 65–164). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
  • von Humboldt, W. ([1836] 1999). On Language: On the Diversity of Human Language Construction and its Influence on the Mental Development of the Human Species (M. Losonsky, Ed., P. Heath, Trans.). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
  • Rotenstreich, N. (1974). Humboldt’s Prolegomena To Philosophy of Language. Cultural Hermeutics, 2 (3), 211–227.
  • Underhill, J. W. (2009). Humboldt, Worldview and Language. Edinburgh, United Kingdom: Edinburgh University Press.