Alexander von Humboldt - A Man for the 21st Century

May 04, 2009

Roundtable discussion at the GHI | Speakers: Ottmar Ette (University of Potsdam), Andreas Daum (University at Buffalo), Kirsten Belgum (University of Texas at Austin), and moderator Frank Holl (Munich). This roundtable discussion is part of the event series Alexander von Humboldt - Remapping Global Perspectives, in cooperation with Dr. Frank Holl and the German Embassy, the Goethe-Institut Washington DC, the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Associates.

The main topic of this roundtable discussion was the modernity and relevance of Humboldt, as a personality as well as a thinker. At the outset, Kirsten Belgum gave a short PowerPoint-introduction to her perspective on Humboldt, titled "Alexander von Humboldt - The Astonished Traveler. Der betroffene Wanderer or: How to write about the world." Through examples of texts from Humboldt's Views of Nature and his Cosmos she explored his approach to nature. She focused on his skill of never losing the capacity to be astonished as one of his most important qualities.

For Andreas Daum, Humboldt's most important qualities were persistence, curiosity and irony. Ottmar Ette pointed out that in his development of gigantic scientific projects Humboldt had the courage to fail. Humboldt also had, said Ette, an admirable ability to spread knowledge. All participants agreed that one of Humboldt's most important characteristics was movement: the scientist as a nomad, moving constantly between borders, cultures, nations and scientific disciplines. This is one factor that makes Humboldt a modern, future-leading thinker. Another factor is the political responsibility that is noticeable in all of Humboldt's scientific work. One striking example is the phrase with which Humboldt ended the first volume of his Cosmos: "While we maintain the unity of the human species, we at the same time repel the depressing assumption of superior and inferior races of men. There are nations more susceptible of cultivation, more highly civilized, more ennobled by mental cultivation than others, but none in themselves nobler than others. Everyone is equally destined for freedom."

Ottmar Ette also discussed the bestseller Die Vermessung der Welt with which the German writer Daniel Kehlmann contributed to the current Humboldt boom. Kehlmann satirically sketched a humorless, cold scientist, measuring the world without finding any relevant results. Ottmar Ette argued that this image of Humboldt is unfair because it gives an absolutely wrong impression of the transdisciplinary thinker, who developed a multilayered and mobile conception of Weltbewusstsein (world consciousness), as Humboldt called it. According to Ette, this view of the world opened up a new understanding of a global perspective very close to what is called today "TransArea Studies". Disagreeing with some audience members who argued that "Humboldt is absolutely useless" and that he is "romanticized and heroiziced", all panelists agreed that Humboldt's scientific and literary cosmos was forward-thinking and continues to speak to present concerns today.

Frank Holl