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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/13531/wilhelm-von-humboldt/

Wilhelm von Humboldt

August 11, 2010 by

Humboldt’s primary contribution to libertarian thought was the value he placed on the free, self-sustaining activity of the individual and on the unhindered collaboration of the members of society. FULL ARTICLE by Ralph Raico


curious August 11, 2010 at 6:53 pm

The picture showing Wilhelm von Humboldt in this article is the picture used for his brother Alexander von Humboldt in the wikipedia article. Which one is correct? I dont know. Maybe mises.org can check it out. Thank you for a great article anyway.



AntiCapitalism August 12, 2010 at 2:04 am

Willhelm von Humboldt was not a capitalist, nor is there any connection between him and Misean philosophy. He detested the idea that workers had to sell their labor to someone else. It is in these sense that he is a precursor to Mill, who also despised the worker manager relationship.

To conclude these historical remarks, I would like to turn, as I have elsewhere, [8] to
Wilhelm von Humboldt, one of the most stimulating and intriguing thinkers of the
period. Humboldt was, on the one hand, one of the most profound theorists of general
linguistics, and on the other, an early and forceful advocate of libertarian values. The
basic concept of his philosophy is Bildung, by which, as J.W. Burrow expresses it, “he
meant the fullest, richest, and most harmonious development of the potentialities of the
individual, the community or the human race.” [9] His own thought might serve as an
exemplary case. Though he does not, to my knowledge, explicitly relate his ideas about
language to his libertarian social thought, there is quite clearly a common ground from
which they develop, a concept of human nature that inspires each. Mill’s essay On Liberty
takes as its epigraph Humboldt’s formulation of the “leading principle” of his thought:
“the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity.”
Humboldt concludes his critique of the authoritarian state by saying: “I have felt myself
animated throughout with a sense of the deepest respect for the inherent dignity of human
nature, and for freedom, which alone befits that dignity.” Briefly put, his concept of
human nature is this:
The true end of Man, or that which is prescribed by the eternal and immutable
dictates of reason, and not suggested by vague and transient desires, is the highest
and most harmonious development of his powers to a complete and consistent
whole. Freedom is the first and indispensable condition which the possibility of
such a development presupposes; but there is besides another essential – intimately
connected with freedom, it is true – a variety of situations. [10]
Like Rousseau and Kant, he holds that
nothing promotes this ripeness for freedom so much as freedom itself. This truth,
perhaps, may not be acknowledged by those who have so often used this unripeness
as an excuse for continuing repression. But it seems to me to follow unquestionably
from the very nature of man. The incapacity for freedom can only arise from a want
of moral and intellectual power; to heighten this power is the only way to supply
this want; but to do this presupposes the exercise of the power, and this exercise
presupposes the freedom which awakens spontaneous activity. Only it is clear we
cannot call it giving freedom, when bonds are relaxed which are not felt as such by
him who wears them. But of no man on earth – however neglected by nature, and
however degraded by circumstances – is this true of all the bonds which oppress
him. Let us undo them one by one, as the feeling of freedom awakens in men’s
hearts, and we shall hasten progress at every step.

Those who do not comprehend this “may justly be suspected of misunderstanding human
nature, and of wishing to make men into machines.”
Man is fundamentally a creative, searching, self-perfecting being: “To inquire and to
create – these are the centres around which all human pursuits more or less directly
revolve.” But freedom of thought and enlightenment are not only for the elite. Once again
echoing Rousseau, Humboldt states, “There is something degrading to human nature in
the idea of refusing to any man the right to be a man.” He is, then, optimistic about the
effects on all of “the diffusion of scientific knowledge by freedom and enlightenment.”
But “all moral culture springs solely and immediately from the inner life of the soul, and
can only be stimulated in human nature, and never produced by external and artificial
contrivances.” “The cultivation of the understanding, as of any of man’s other faculties,
is generally achieved by his own activity, his own ingenuity, or his own methods of using
the discoveries of others. . . .” Education, then, must provide the opportunities for selffulfillment;
it can at best provide a rich and challenging environment for the individual
to explore, in his own way. Even a language cannot, strictly speaking, be taught, but only
“awakened in the mind: one can only provide the thread along which it will develop of
itself.” I think that Humboldt would have found congenial much of Dewey’s thinking
about education. And he might also have appreciated the recent revolutionary extension
of such ideas, for example, by the radical Catholics of Latin America who are concerned
with the “awakening of consciousness,” referring to “the transformation of the passive
exploited lower classes into conscious and critical masters of their own destinies” [11]
much in the manner of Third World revolutionaries elsewhere. He would, I am sure, have
approved of their criticism of schools that are
more preoccupied with the transmission of knowledge than with the creation,
among other values, of a critical spirit. From the social point of view, the
educational systems are oriented to maintaining the existing social and economic
structures instead of transforming them.[12]
But Humboldt’s concern for spontaneity goes well beyond educational practice in the
narrow sense. It touches also the question of labour and exploitation. The remarks, just
quoted, about the cultivation of understanding through spontaneous action continue as
. . . man never regards what he possesses as so much his own, as what he does; and

the labourer who tends a garden is perhaps in a true sense its owner, than the listless
voluptuary who enjoys its fruits. . . . In view of this consideration, [13] it seems as
if all peasants and craftsmen might be elevated into artists; that is, men who love
their labour for its own sake, improve it by their own plastic genius and inventive
skill, and thereby cultivate their intellect, ennoble their character, and exalt and
refine their pleasures. And so humanity would be ennobled by the very things
which now, thought beautiful in themselves, so often serve to degrade it. . . But,
still, freedom is undoubtedly the indispensable condition, without which even the
pursuits most congenial to individual human nature, can never succeed in producing
such salutary influences. Whatever does not spring from a man’s free choice, or is
only the result of instruction and guidance, does not enter into his very being, but
remains alien to his true nature; he does not perform it with truly human energies,
but merely with mechanical exactness.
If a man acts in a purely mechanical way, reacting to external demands or instruction
rather than in ways determined by his own interests and energies and power, “we may
admire what he does, but we despise what he is.” [14]
On such conceptions Humboldt grounds his ideas concerning the role of the state, which
tends to “make man an instrument to serve its arbitrary ends, overlooking his individual
purposes.” His doctrine is classical liberal, strongly opposed to all but the most minimal
forms of state intervention in personal or social life.
Writing in the 1790s, Humboldt had no conception of the forms that industrial capitalism
would take. Hence he is not overly concerned with the dangers of private power.
But when we reflect (still keeping theory distinct from practice) that the influence
of a private person is liable to diminution and decay, from competition, dissipation
of fortune, even death; and that clearly none of these contingencies can be applied
to the State; we are still left with the principle that the latter is not to meddle in
anything which does not refer exclusively to security. . . .
He speaks of the essential equality of the condition of private citizens, and of course has
no idea of the ways in which the notion “private person” would come to be reinterpreted
in the era of corporate capitalism. He did not foresee that “Democracy with its motto of
equality of all citizens before the law and Liberalism with its right of man over his own person

both [would be] wrecked on realities of capitalist economy.”15 He did not foresee that, in
a predatory capitalist economy, state intervention would be an absolute necessity to
preserve human existence and to prevent the destruction of the physical environment—
I speak optimistically. As Karl Polanyi, for one, has pointed out, the self-adjusting market
“could not exist for any length of time without annihilating the human and natural
substance of society; it would have physically destroyed man and transformed his
surroundings into a wilderness.” Humboldt did not foresee the consequences of the
commodity character of labour, the doctrine (in Polanyi’s words) that “it is not for the
commodity to decide where is should be offered for sale, to what purpose it should be used,
at what price it should be allowed to change hands, and in what manner it should be
consumed or destroyed.” But the commodity, in the case, is a human life, and social
protection was therefore a minimal necessity to constrain the irrational and destructive
workings of the classical free market. Nor did Humboldt understand that capitalist
economic relations perpetuated a form of bondage which, as early as 1767, Simon Linguet
had declared to be even worse than slavery.
It is the impossibility of living by any other means that compels our farm labourers
to till the soil whose fruits they will not eat, and our masons to construct buildings
in which they will not live. It is want that drags them to those markets where they
await masters who will do them the kindness of buying them. It is want that compels
them to go down on their knees to the rich man in order to get from him permission
to enrich him. . . . What effective gain has the suppression of slavery brought him?.
. . . He is free, you say. Ah! That is his misfortune. The slave was precious to his
master because of the money he had cost him. But the handicraftsmen cost nothing
to the rich voluptuary who employs him. . . . These men, it is said, have no master–
they have one, and the most terrible, the most imperious of masters, that is need. It
is this that reduces them to the most cruel dependence. [17]
If there is something degrading to human nature in the idea of bondage, then a new
emancipation must be awaited, Fourier’s “third and last emancipatory phase of history,”
which will transform the proletariat to free men by eliminating the commodity character
of labor, ending wage slavery, and bringing the commercial, industrial, and financial
institutions under democratic control. [18]
Perhaps Humboldt might have accepted these conclusions. He does agree that state
intervention in social life is legitimate if “freedom would destroy the very conditions

without which not only freedom but even existence itself would be inconceivable” –
precisely the circumstances that arise in an unconstrained capitalist economy. In any
event, his criticism of bureaucracy and the autocratic state stands as an eloquent forewarning
of some of the most dismal aspects of modern history, and the basis of his critique is
applicable to a broader range of coercive institutions than he imagined.
Though expressing a classical liberal doctrine, Humboldt is no primitive individualist in
the style of Rousseau. Rousseau extols the savage who “lives within himself”; he has little
use for “the sociable man, always outside of himself, [who] knows how to live only in the
opinion of others . . . from [whose] judgement alone . . . he draws the sentiment of his own
existence.”19 Humboldt’s vision is quite different:
. . . the whole tenor of the ideas and arguments unfolded in this essay might fairly
be reduced to this, that while they would break all fetters in human society, they
would attempt to find as many new social bonds as possible. The isolated man is no
more able to develop than the one who is fettered.
Thus he looks forward to a community of free association without coercion by the state or
other authoritarian institutions, in which free men can create and inquire, and achieve the
highest development of their powers – far ahead of his time, he presents an anarchist
vision that is appropriate, perhaps, to the next stage of industrial society. We can perhaps
look forward to a day when these various strands will be brought together within the
framework of libertarian socialism, a social form that barely exists today though its
elements can be perceived: in the guarantee of individual rights that has achieved its
highest form – though still tragically flawed – in the Western democracies; in the Israeli
kibbutzim; in the experiments with workers’ councils in Yugoslavia; in the effort to
awaken popular consciousness and create a new involvement in the social process which
is a fundamental element in the Third World revolutions, coexisting uneasily with
indefensible authoritarian practice.

Mark D Hughes August 13, 2010 at 5:56 pm

AntiCapitalism wrtes: “Willhelm von Humboldt was not a capitalist, nor is there any connection between him and Misean philosophy.”

This is simply foolishness! It displays a profound ignorance of how earlier ideas influence later thinkers.

You could probably say the same of Spooner and BR Tucker (re industrial capitalism) but one of the major contributions of Rothbard was his brilliant way of folding their ideas into that of Mises (and other Austrians) and developing the modern libertarian or anarcho-capitalist body of thought.

AntiCapitalism August 12, 2010 at 2:06 am

The picture above indeed is that of his brother, not of Wilhelm von Humboldt, whose picture as an adult is of an old man.

The Mises institute can’t even tell the younger von Humboldt from the older one. What joke scholarship is practiced here.

Vanmind August 12, 2010 at 9:54 am

Burn. Still, anti-capitalism is the cruelest joke of all time.

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