return to religion-online

Essays in the History of Religions by Joachim Wach


Joachim Wach was born in 1898 in Chemnitz, Saxony and died in 1955. Wach insisted there was a definite distinction between the history of religion and the philosophy of religion. He felt an inquiry into the difference must be carried out by employing the religo-scientific method (Religionswissenschaft). Published by Macmillan Publishing Company, 866 third Avenue, New York, NY 10022, in 1988. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Wilhelm Von Humboldt


(NOTE: As noted in the introduction, this article was not printed in Wach’s lifetime but was found in his desk after his death. The article is not, perhaps, in the final form Wach would have given it. We print it here, however, because much of Wach’s work on nineteenth-century hermeneutics and historiography is unavailable to English readers and because Humboldt’s ideas have influenced Wach himself, as those familiar with Wach’s other writings will clearly recognize.)

Tribute has been paid to a Frenchman and an Englishman as the "two essential liberals" of the nineteenth century. Alexis de Tocqueville and Lord Acton, it was said, "could not be tories or reactionaries or nationalists or rest any authority on mere prescription. . . . They could not, on the other hand, be progressives, doctrinaire equalitarians, or revolutionary socialists," and "they measured all political institutions by the facilities they afforded men to fulfill their moral destinies."

There is a third figure, a German thinker and scholar, philosopher, and statesman, to whom every one of these statements applies: Wilhelm von Humboldt. Of the nobility, as were also de Tocqueville and Lord Acton, he showed himself a true liberal in thought, word, and deed, one deeply

concerned with the search for a philosophical or metaphysical basis for the concept of freedom, which is the core of his creed. Like de Tocqueville, the Prussian liberal had an opportunity to serve his country as a minister of state. In the lives of both, however, thought loomed larger than action. There are further parallels: political power which neither de Tocqueville nor Acton sought, was not a temptation to Humboldt, who was a true Hellenist in his belief in the matchless value of genuine theoria. In the lives of all three we find something of dash and glamor in the years of youth and the withdrawal to a not uncomfortable inheritance in later life. All three were men of esprit, all were passionate correspondents. Just as the admirer of de Tocqueville will cherish his correspondence with Gobineau, so the admirer of Humboldt will value his letters to a friend (Briefe an eine Freundin). Again, traveling played an important role in the life of each one of these three grandseigneurs, yielding lasting fruits in literary works and contributing to the knowledge and understanding of the similarities and differences in human nature. It made all three men true cosmopolitans, though each was proud of and devoted to his country and its culture.

None of the three thinkers was a professional philosopher but each articulated principles that were to govern thought and action. The two Catholics found these principles in their religion, intelligently interpreted, but Humboldt, a Protestant, in whose worldview Hellenism strongly colored Christianity, looked to metaphysics or philosophy for justification. Each of the three scholars was vitally interested in history which each understood as the unfolding of these principles and which each tried to interpret as such. What political life was to de Tocqueville, language was to Humboldt: it was the medium in which he followed the growth and articulation of human freedom. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that no one had ever devoted more profound and more penetrating thought to the nature of speech, to the structure of language, to its psychological and sociological problems, to its typology and its function in the development of human civilization than the sage of Tegel. As the Mezzofanti of his age (Mezzofanti was a polyglot scholar of the eighteenth century, one of the greatest linguists of all times), Humboldt has continued to live in the consciousness of the German people. There was a time when he and his brother Alexander were regarded as the giant "dioscuri" of knowledge, the one holding the keys to the realm of the mind, the other to the realm of nature, yet that period was followed surprisingly soon by an age that "knew not Joseph." The deaths of Goethe, Hegel, Schleiermacher, and Humboldt mark the end of an era. Its heroes were denounced by the generation of the Young Germany of the 1830s and 1840s as aesthetes, cosmopolitans, and quietists. The forces of reaction to which Humboldt had to yield, resigning the hopeless task of liberalizing the Prussian constitution, had been in the ascendancy since the Prussian ruler had begun to prefer Metternich’s advice to that of his own liberal advisers. Activism was the answer of the younger liberals. The turbulent period preceding the revolution of 1848 seemed indeed far removed from the "halcyonic quiet between the storms" that prevailed during Humboldt’s declining years. The peace which reigned after the revolution had failed was imposed by a reaction to which Humboldt’s ideas were as repugnant as those of the revolutionaries. The analogy to the situation in which de Tocqueville found himself after the establishment of the Second Empire is hard to overlook. Later generations remembered the squire of Tegel as the great scholar he had been, eulogized him as the cofounder of the University of Berlin and the father of the humanistic Gymnasium but were forgetful or critical of the philosophy for which he had stood. (A biography of Humboldt by Rudolf Haym appeared in 1856.) Neither those imbued with the romantic spirit, a Weltanschauung which Humboldt had always regarded with distrust, nor the radical democrats felt that they could learn from him about freedom based on principles. Those in our age who refuse to believe in an alternative between unbridled individualism and egalitarian collectivism will understand him.

There can be no doubt that Humboldt, a friend of Goethe and of Schiller, belongs more to the eighteenth than to the nineteenth century. His philosophy reminds us more of Leibniz than of Herder. His concept of humanitas, his belief in the power of reason and in the significance of forms, his view of history and his cosmopolitan outlook separate him from the emerging romantic school. Kant’s influence upon his epistemological and moral philosophy is strong. In his aesthetics this influence is balanced by that of the neo-classicists (Winckelmann). Humboldt was a "good European," a designation to which not too many of his compatriots could lay claim. Ernst Troeltsch has shown that it was the romantic movement in Germany and the historicism which it engendered that caused the divergent development in the nineteenth century in Humboldt’s country and in England. One cannot but regret that later generations in his homeland did not avail themselves of the precious heritage which Humboldt bequeathed to his nation and did not use the bridges which this philosopher of freedom had constructed over the gulfs that separate the peoples of the civilized world.

Wilhelm von Humboldt, born June 22, 1767, into a Prussian noble family (his father had served as a chamberlain to Frederic the Great), was two years older than his famous brother, Alexander. Predestined to enter the civil service at the earliest opportunity, Wilhelm was given a careful education by liberal-minded teachers. As an attractive and promising young man of means and talent, he was received into the brilliant company of intellectual Berlin. He found himself welcomed into the circle of the aged leaders of the era of Enlightenment (Teller, Moses Mendelssohn) as well as into the intellectual salons in which the budding romantic spirit was cultivated. Two focal points of interest can be discerned at an early date in the young Humboldt’s extensive studies. Both subjects, the study of philosophy and the study of antiquity, were to retain their fascination for him until the end of his life. At the age of twenty he entered the University of Frankfurt an-der-Oder but he was soon attracted by the fame of Göttingen, where the natural sciences and humanities were brilliantly represented. Among his teachers were the great physiologist Blumenbach and the father of modern philology, Heyne, whose successor, F. A. Wolff, the Homeric critic, was to be one of Humboldt’s (and incidentally Goethe’s) friends and confidants. At this time he pursued his study of Kant, in whose thought he had become interested. Travels around Germany and into Switzerland brought him into contact with the philosophers J. H. Jacobs and Lavater. He married Caroline von Dacheröden, a woman of intelligence and charm, in 1789. A brief period of activity in the civil service did not prove satisfactory to Humboldt. At twenty-four he retired to a family estate in Thuringia to devote himself exclusively to study: "egotist though of the noblest variety, Epicurean if of the finest grain, he took over from destiny which had spoiled him so far, the task of further spoiling," as the historian A. Dove has put it. But the idyll was disturbed by the grave events that shook Europe. The French Revolution made a profound impression upon the mind of the young humanist. Stimulated by a question as to the limits of the jurisdiction of the state, put by Dalberg, the great liberal prince-elector of Mayence, Humboldt wrote down his thoughts on this subject (1791). They were not published until 1851 (translated into English under the title "The Sphere and Duties of Government," 1854) but ever since then they have been regarded as a classical document of liberal German thought. In the following years Humboldt continued to live the life of the gentleman scholar. His philosophical and philological interests centered on studies in the fields of language, criticism, and aesthetics. These studies were stimulated by a close friendship with Schiller, Goethe, and Wolf. The problems of a true education in a humanistic spirit began to loom large in Humboldt’s mind (Gedanken einer Theorie der Menschenbildung). Between 1797 and 1808 he traveled extensively in southern Europe. A sojourn in Paris proved as fruitful to his philosophical inclinations as a visit to Spain (the Basque country) for his linguistic aspirations. Meanwhile Humboldt had yielded to the request of his government to lend his services and accepted the post as Prussian envoy to the Vatican (1802-1808). Great changes had occurred when he returned to his homeland, which had been ravished by Napoleon and was more than ever in need of her best sons for the work of reconstruction. Under Schleiermacher’s pupil Dohna, Humboldt took over the Department of Education in the Ministry of the Interior. In the short period of his administration he was able to carry through epoch-making reforms in high school and university curricula. To his initiative and planning was due the foundation of the University of Berlin to which Fichte, Hegel, Schleiermacher, Marheineke, Gaus, and others were drawn, as well as the reorganization of the Academy and of the Berlin Museum. The liberal prime minister Count Hardenberg meant to make Humboldt his minister of education but the king vetoed the suggestion on account of the latter’s alleged unorthodoxy (Unkirchlichkeit). In 1810 the scholarly diplomat, now recognized as one of the leading liberal statesmen of the New Prussia, accompanied Hardenberg to Vienna. For seven years he took part in the work of the Congress, not without seeking relief from his diplomatic duties in extensive studies in the philosophy of language, which moved more and more to the center of his interests. After a brief period during which he served as envoy to London, Humboldt was appointed minister of the interior to work with Baron von Stein on Prussia’s new constitution. But his ideas were for the second time unfavorably received. Difficulties with Hardenberg complicated the situation. On the last day of the year 1819 Humboldt resigned without being granted a pension. This was his final resignation from active service. Once more, withdrawing to the small but beautiful estate of Tegel near Berlin, he turned scholar and hermit and devoted the remaining years of his life almost exclusively to the comparative study of languages. The ancient tongues were but a small though important province in the realm which he explored tirelessly, testing his general theory of linguistic expression by an investigation not only of Indo-European and Semitic idioms but also of Basque and Hungarian, of American Indian languages, of Chinese and South Sea dialects.1 Visitors found the aged sage "pure and perfect like an ancient work of art." Widowed in 1829, he followed his great contemporaries Goethe (1832), Hegel (1831) and Schleiermacher (1834) into eternity on March 8, 1835, mourned by his brother Alexander (who was to survive him for nearly a quarter-century), by his nation and by his friends and admirers throughout the civilized world.

The work of Humboldt has been gathered by A. Leitzmann in the fifteen-volume edition of the Prussian Academy (1903ff.). The first of these comprises his essays on religion, on political theory, on the study of antiquity, on education (Bildung), and on anthropology; the second his studies of the eighteenth century and his critical analysis of Goethe’s epic Hermann und Dorothea. The third includes sketches on Greek civilization, philosophy of history, and travel reports. His epoch-making work on language and languages is found in Volumes 4-5. Early papers are reprinted in Volume 7, while Volume 8 is dedicated to translations, mainly from Greek poetry. Humboldt’s poems are gathered in Volume 9, his political writings in Volumes 10-13. The diaries fill the last two tomes of this monumental edition. His correspondence, particularly with his wife, his brother, his friends, and some of the greatest scholars and poets of his age has been separately edited.2 It is surprising how little has actually been written on Wilhelm von Humboldt and his work. No monograph exists in English. The best German study has been written by a student of the philosopher W. Dilthey, who owes so much to Humboldt: Ed. Spranger’s Wilhelm von Humboldt und die Humanitätsidee (1909). S. Kaehler’s book, Wilhelm von Humboldt und der Staat (1929), is an overcritical psychological study and in parts certainly unfair. Most treatises on language and comparative grammar refer to his linguistic work, especially H. Steinthal, and, more recently, E. Cassirer. Humboldt’s theory of interpretation (hermeneutics) has been analyzed by this author.

In his critical study of Goethe’s poem Hermann und Dorothea, Humboldt spoke of the edifice which he planned. Its foundation he found in the education (Bildung) of man; the edifice itself was to be the characterization of the human mind (Gemut), its possibilities (mögliche Anlagen) in the differences which experience shows us. This formulation expresses Humboldt’s double interest in the appearance and the idea of man, a distinction which the philosophy of Kant and Fichte had suggested. If man as he is the great topic of anthropology and "characterology," disciplines in which Humboldt was passionately interested, then "man as he should be" is the topic of ethics and the philosophy of history. Both ideas converge in the concept of education (Bildung) which Humboldt defines as "the highest proportional cultivation of the powers of man." This idea is as removed from the ideal of limitless and unqualified self-expression as it is from that of pure intellectual perfection. Humboldt follows Kant, especially his third critique, when he attributes to human imagination the function of establishing unity and harmony between nature and spirit, necessity and contingency, appearance and idea. Such balance he regards as a criterion of true Bildung. It is the realization of the purpose for which the individual exists. Humboldt as an empiricist, psychologist, and historian was ever attracted by the riddle of individuality, while his philosophical interest forced him to seek the idea or norm in which reality appears idealized. In art he finds a reconciliation of nature and freedom which reveals itself in the organic character of the work of art. His philosophy of history is focused upon the description of the "endeavor of an idea to incorporate itself in reality." The poet and the historian, he feels, have corresponding tasks. Neither can be satisfied clinging to empirical reality. To both Humboldt assigns the task of strengthening and deepening our sense of "reality" in its ideal aspect, to recognize the true and to conform to it ("das Wahre zu erkennen und sich anzuschliessen"). Ideas indicate two things: direction and productivity. Individuals and collectives (nations), ages and cultures represent ideas. The task of the philosophical historian is to "portray the highest life" of a people, interpreting the expression of this life symbolically as revealing ideas. Greek civilization is a case in point. "The Greeks," Humboldt states, "are not only a people useful for us to know historically but an ideal." And again: "we manifestly regard antiquity more ideally than it actually was, and we ought to because, by its form and attitude, we are driven to seek therein ideas and effects which transcend life as it surrounds us." The same principle has to guide the critic. In his study of Goethe’s epic Hermann und Dorothea Humboldt discusses the function of art as idealization by means of the imagination, the concept of artistic objectivity and artistic truth, the difference between classical and modern poetry, and finally, the epic as the genre of humanitas (Humanität). The study of history as well as that of literature broadens our understanding of mankind (Menschheit) in enabling us to transcend the limitations of our own empirical individuality. To understand man means to know his various abilities (Kräfte), their modifications, their relation to each other and to external circumstances. In other words, it means to find the rules of the transformation which is effected with necessity from within and according to possibilities from without. The more vital notions of human experiences we have acquired by this study, the more transformations the soul is enabled to achieve.

How does one acquire this knowledge? How do we learn to understand men and nations, the destinies of individuals or of culture? Humboldt answers that we have to react with our total being ("mit vereinten Kräften") and that we have to assimilate ourselves to what we desire to comprehend ("ähnlich machen"). He is aware of the unending character of this task. Not all manifestations of human activity and thought, however, are equally valuable and important. We are confronted with a circle in Humboldt’s reasoning: the truly representative, the truly "human" expressions should be valued most highly. These truly "human" expressions the great student of antiquity considers to be those of the Greeks. (See especially his essay on Latinum und Hellas, containing his philosophy, as it were, in nuce.) There are typical peoples and individuals, as there are unique ones. The "typical" may be negatively explained as a lack of individuality or as elementary simplicity. There may be variety and unity in one character while in another multiplicity prevails. Humboldt can be regarded as one of the founders of the modern theory of types which plays such an important part in contemporary psychology and sociology (Dilthey, Spranger, Max Weber).

In his essay on the eighteenth century, originally conceived as part of a comprehensive anthropological and psychological work which he never completed, Humboldt articulated methodological principles for studying that era as any other. All single features are to be compressed under a few separate, salient points, into a figure; each degree and modification of the contributing forces is to be viewed as part of an infinite quantity. While it would be unnecessary to aspire to completeness, it would be insufficient merely to indicate the outlines of the phenomenon. Its spirit, its character, must be caught; if it is captured, no stroke of the brush needs to be added. The gathering of the data is the function of the observing intellect, while imagination organizes them into a balanced whole. Neither agreement with "reality" nor inner consistency is, in this theory, the test of the truth and the adequacy of the resulting picture; the criterion is its efficacy in stimulating and directing the power of our imagination. This is possible only if the image is true and "alive." If it proves such it will produce the widening, determining, and orienting effect which we call education (Bildung). Humboldt felt that the study of human character types had been neglected: neither the deductive reasoning of the philosophers nor practical moral treatises had done them justice. The poets were the only exception. (Dilthey, who refers to Humboldt frequently in his writings, says as much in his Contributions to the Study of Individuality.) "Character" can be defined as the permanent form of unity in changeable matter. To grasp it, the peculiar or unique, that which distinguishes one person from another, has to be found. It is here designated as the degree of inner power. The relation and the movements of these inner forces determine, according to him, the differences of character. The characterologist must ascertain the dominating power, a concept that reminds us of Leibniz’s vinculum substantiale. A dynamic concept of the relation of the inner forces permits the understanding of the development of a character. The result will not be abstract notions but an appeal to the imagination to help it reproduce the integrated picture of a character. As other masters of hermeneutics have done, Humboldt postulates a circle -- though not of the vicious variety: only through the empirical observation of manifestations and expressions can we arrive at an understanding of the inner forces that determine a character, but we need to understand these inner forces to interpret the manifestation correctly. The close interrelationship of body and mind cannot be overlooked. It is necessary to distinguish between accidental and essential elements in the structure of a character, relative as such distinctions will be.

Rarely will a character express itself in full purity. Certain features may appear exaggerated. Summary characterizations are based on exaggerated features, such as the statement that women are weak or Frenchmen are witty. Humboldt devoted two essays to the characterology of the sexes, a problem that greatly intrigued his romantic contemporaries. He holds that not all forces in nature can work simultaneously but that the secret of nature consists in reciprocal interaction. Form and matter affect each other: nothing is purely active or passive. Differentiation according to sexes should be seen in this light. The productive force is meant more for action (the male principle), while the receptive force is destined for reaction. All acting is bound to matter upon which it acts. The most independent spirit is also the most irritable; the most receptive heart reciprocates with the liveliest energy. The initial direction is determinative. Virility is life force maximally deprived of matter. Femininity is longing for the awakening of the fullness of matter. Masculinity is directed outward; femininity, inward. To the male form corresponds intellect, to the female, feeling. However, these potentials are nowhere found pure: individuality limits and transforms them. A "pure" human being does not exist. But in ideal beauty the regularity of form is manifested as the free play of matter. The origin of the two less perfect sexes means a disturbance of the balance though not an ending of the connection of the two forces. According to Humboldt the sexes approximate each other: each is a general expression of humankind. Sex is a limitation. The characteristically human must ennoble the character of sex. Sex is to be interpreted as the road to the perfection of humankind, that is, the balancing of the natural by the moral element. The philosopher sees a new beauty arising out of this union of humanity and sex, an intermediate beauty in which the balance of the male and the female is achieved. Man appears more energetic, woman softer than the sexless being would be. Upon his metaphysics of sex Humboldt develops his theory of genius, a theme to which the philosophers and artists of the eighteenth century had given so much thought and which looms large in the aesthetics of idealist and romantic thinkers alike. Genius can be defined as spiritual productivity. Each work of genius kindles the enthusiasm for a new one, thus effecting procreation. It actually consists in the union and interaction of activity and receptivity. The genius goes beyond the empirical and delves into the self that is "necessary," thus transforming his subjective existence into one of the highest objectivity. The creative mood can be described as a gathering of force, a feeling of strength, but also of longing for what, once a union is consummated, will make for wholeness and completion. Just as the most intense energy of the male and the most enduring persistence of the female principle form the unlimited power of nature, as love and life consist in separating and uniting, in restlessness and steadiness, in energy and being, so the creative and the receptive forces work to produce the perfect creation of genius: the more matter is formed by the creative force, the more intense the struggle, the greater the effect. Everything limited, according to Humboldt, is liable to destruction, "heavenly peace dwells alone in the realm of that which is sufficient in itself."

None of the categories that can be devised to help us understand the individual will ultimately do justice to it. That is Humboldt’s conviction, and he never tires of reiterating it. In the "secret of individuality" we find the essence and destiny of human nature. "Within the boundaries of earthly existence we cannot expect a true revelation of the secret of individuality." It goes without saying that all attempts to explain it by studying the circumstances under which the true ego, the individual personality, emerges would have been rejected by this defender of freedom.

Because he viewed the odyssey of humanity as the endless attempt to achieve its idea in the individual, Humboldt could define the task of its interpreter, the philosopher-historian, as "the delineation of the striving of an idea to come into existence." This program is formulated in a classical lecture on "The Task of the Historian." Its execution is found in Humboldt’s greatest single enterprise, Linguistic Variability and Intellectual Development. This essay remains, according to Daniel Brinton, the most suggestive work written on the philosophy of language. Conceived as the introduction to an analysis of the Kawi language of Java, this book actually is the ripest fruit of the great linguist’s interest in human speech and its products, an interest that lasted throughout his life. Humboldt devoted at least three major treatises to the comparative study of language and languages, not counting his numerous studies of ancient dialects and literatures. The close relationship between empirical inquiry and generalizing theory characteristic of Wilhelm von Humboldt’s methodology prevails throughout his linguistic studies. With all the fascination that detail could exert upon his scholarly mind, the author never appears overwhelmed by it. "The foundation of all linguistic study remains the philosophical view, and at every point, however concrete, one has to be ever conscious of its relation to the general and necessary features." Humboldt states in his monograph on the dual that, though the study of language should be pursued for its own sake, it "resembles other branches of learning in not having its ultimate purpose in itself but that it conforms to the general purpose of interest in the human mind to help humanity to realize its true nature and its relation to everything visible and invisible around and above itself."

The most important task of the study of language is formulated by Humboldt in a treatise on the languages of the South Seas, as "the endeavor to investigate the differences in the structure of human speech, to describe them in their essential conditions, to lucidly organize the apparently infinite variety from well chosen points of view, to examine the sources of their structural diversity and their influence upon the thought, perception, and feeling of the speakers, finally to follow through all transformations of history the mental development of humanity, guided by that profoundly revealing expression: language."

In harmony with his general philosophical principles Humboldt regards language, the single word as well as connected speech, as an act, "a truly creative act of the mind." Speech can be defined as the forming organ of thought by which the activity of the intellect becomes externalized and perceptible and the process of thinking is completed. The great linguist stresses the creative nature of speech. Language is the ever-recurring effort of the mind to express thought. Language, however, he insists, does not manifest itself in an abstract form; it appears always broken by the media of nationality and individuality. Thus it undergoes deep modifications, or better, it takes on its character by the process of articulation to which the spirit of the nation or the individual subjects it. Thus Humboldt can regard language as the outward manifestation of the mind of the peoples who create it; their language "is" their mind and their mind "is" their language. The character of a language he sees hinging on the smallest details.

A language consists of two constituents: it sounds and its capacity for articulation. To the former element Humboldt attributes the differences in human speech, the latter he is inclined to regard as universal. In the nature of sound he finds the true individuality of a language, each people showing, in its system of sounds, its unique preferences. The distinguishing character of a language is produced by the use of a system of sounds and by their articulation through the faculty that Humboldt calls Sprachsinn. This distinguishing character he designated in a famous phrase as Innere Sprachform (interior form). As form and matter are balanced in a perfect work of art, so both elements of linguistic expression are in perfect proportion in a fully developed language, none prevailing over the other. Hence language can be defined as "the ever repeated activity of the mind, fashioning the articulated sound as a vehicle for thoughts." By giving expression to thought through the lips, the product, according to Humboldt’s theory, returns to the ear. In this way language divides and fosters the inner nature of thought. In the world of appearance, language is always social; man can only understand himself in trying out his words tentatively on others. However, Humboldt is of the opinion that speech is a necessary condition of the thinking even of the isolated individual in his solitude. This master of linguistic analysis is the first to lay the foundation of a sociology of language, an achievement not commonly recognized. He holds that speaking and understanding are to be regarded as effects of the capacity of expression. Mental communication always presupposes that something exists in common between the two who exchange it: one understands what one hears, only because one could have said it (potentially). Language is actually mine because I produce it, says Humboldt, but he adds that the power of the individual is small. All linguistic change is gradual: its extent, rapidity, and the nature of its transformations depend upon the liveliness of exchange and the degree of depth with which the language is grasped. No language remains the same, according to Humboldt, even through a decade or in any extensive territory. An interesting sociological problem which he was the first to raise is that of the specialized languages of women in some civilizations, of certain professions and classes, the poetic and court idioms, etcetera. The difference, he suggests, may either be lexical or pertain to the grammatical structure.

In his analysis of the methods by which words in different languages are connected to make sentences Humboldt arrives at his famous typology of isolation, agglutination, incorporation, and inflection, illustrated in Chinese, Turkish, the Mexican language, and Sanskrit. These differences point to a different degree of formative power, that is, of the capacity to utilize sounds for the expression of thought. Not what can be expressed in a language but its capacity to quicken and stimulate mental action determines its superiority or deficiency, the criterion being the clarity, definiteness, and mobility of the ideas that the language evokes in the nation whose spirit has created it and upon which it in turn reacts. The ideal is the accurate correspondence between structure and sound and the topical procedure of thought.

Peoples and nations differ as to the energy of thought they bring to bear upon the vocal material at their disposal for the expression of ideas. They differ also in the degree of understanding of which they are capable. The more they are able to sense and to be moved by what Humboldt calls das Menschliche, the greater will be their capacity to comprehend and to interpret human existence, past and present. All the variety which a comparative study of language as the organ of the inner life of a people reveals to us must be understood as the variegated manifestation of the human mind, the highest of all possible ideas. We will grasp this idea if we know how to blend the understanding of the individual and the manifold with that of the eternally human. In order to understand man and his creation in artistic and linguistic expression, our organs of comprehension must be activated. They are perfected in and by the exercise of this power of comprehension.

 

Notes:

1. The famous linguist and psychologist Heymann Steinthal published the first treatise on Humboldt’s linguistic theory (Die Sprachphilosophie, 1885). D. H. Brinton, the American anthropologist, followed with Philosophic Grammar of American Languages, 1884.

2. Briefwechsel, ed. A. Leitzmann (1908).

Viewed 83234 times.