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T h e UCLA De p a r tm e n t o f Ge o g r a p h y

A lexa n d er
v on Hu m b old t
Lectu re

Ale x ande r v o n Hum bo ldt


and His Bro the r:
Po rtrait o f An Ide al Ge o graphe r
in Our Tim e

Giv e n
Fr id a y , Fe b r u a r y 7 , 1 9 9 7
UCLA Fa cu lty Ce n te r

by

Y i-Fu T u a n
P R E F A C E

After his return from an epic 5-year field trip in the Americas
in the first decade of the 19th century, Alexander von Humboldt
was considered the second most famous man in Europe,
immediately following Napoleon. The reason for this eminence
was his opening up of the natural realm of Spanish America to
the scientific perusal of the rest of mankind. Charles Darwin in
the 1830s, on the H.M.S. Beagle, studied some of Humboldt's
publications and comments about them enthusiastically. Widely
recognized during his lifetime as a great scientist, Humboldt had
dozens of geographic features around the earache named in his
honor.
After World War II the West German Governmentestablished the
Alexander von Humboldt Foundation to support young scientists
with needed funds to pursue their researches, as well as to
recognize senior scientists with prizes and other honors; the East
German Government put his picture on the 5-Mark bill of East
Germany. Because of Humboldt's recognition of the time factor
in geography, his relevance to modern conditions is increasing
steadily. At a time when many of the earth's mature forests are
being destroyed for private gain, his view that the earth is a
unified whole, that whenever a part of the earth is damaged,
the whole earth is affected, must be kept in mind. The burning
of the tropical forests for conversion into temporary pasture
lands, even before the biological diversity of the forests has been
studied is in part a destruction of actual and potential resources
that belong to all mankind.
Henry J. Bruman
Professor of Geography
The UCLA De partm e nt o

reputation which h
Wherever Humbol
creativity. He was
what it takes to
department must

1. L. Kellner, Alex
A le t t e r f r o m t h e Ch a ir All quotations on
also, Helmut de Te
1769-1859 (New Y
A generous gift by Professor Henry Bruman, an undergraduate at Cosmos (New Yo
UCLA and a long time faculty member of the Department of Geography Humboldt is to re
at UCLA, has made possible an endowed chair honoring Alexander published in seve
von Humboldt. Professor Bruman has had a long research interest including his con
in Alexander von Humboldt, and during his graduate student days culminating work
did research in South America as Humboldt had done a century and modesty) of “A
a half previously. Professor Bruman was honored by the German
government in 1971 with the Alexander von Humboldt Gold Medal 2. James Hamilto
in recognition of his research and interest in the work of von Humboldt. York: Random Ho

As part of the celebration of Alexander von Humboldt's work, the 3. G. W. F. Hege


Department of Geography at UCLA is pleased to establish an annual Philosophy of His
lecture. The lecture, to be given by a distinguished visiting speaker, Publishing Compa
is to honor von Humboldt and his work and conception of the
underlying ecological cohesiveness of nature and, consequently, of 4. Wilhelm von H
the importance of managing the earth's limited resources. The University Press, 1
Department’s committment to the continued contributions of both 5. Hans Aarsleff,
human and physical geography, match well Humboldt’s celebration French Ideologue
of the wholeness of the "cosmos", and his concern with both the Minnesota Press, 1
physical and human realms of our world.
6. James Fernand
The Department is pleased to present the first in the von Humboldt
Anthropology, vo
lectures by Professor Yi-Fu Tuan, the holder of a Vilas Professorship
and the John K. Wright Professor of Geography at the University of 7. Hans Jonas, Th
Wisconsin at Madison. The lecture in February of this year, was a York: Harper & Ro
fitting occasion in which the department could celebrate the gift of
the endowed Professorship and Alexander von Humboldt. Painting of Ale

William A.V. Clark Artist of Wilhelm


Professor of Geography

Published by the
UCLA Departmen
Los Angeles, CA 9
310-825-1071
www.geog.ucla.ed
The UCLA De partm e nt o

an isolated group
Ale x ande r v o n Hum bo ldt rich metaphors th
does it mean to sa
and His Bro the r: important? In what
and enlargement
Po rtrait o f An Ide al Ge o graphe r be shared only am
press the point fu
in Our Tim e themselves beyond
with few speakers
the larger world k
members of huma
prison as a home
especially those w
be catalogued and
each one of whom

The questions an
interested Gottfri
examine, even def
rationalist/univer
Alexander did not
Alexander von Humboldt Wilhelm von Humboldt elsewhere–to natu
and the visual arts
however, whether
Yi-Fu Tuan concerning langua
Professor of Geography descriptive, and n
University of Wisconsin, Madison pondered not onl
on its shared and
speech to bind no
In 1959 I was in Panama doing coastal research. While there I attended a public environment; and
lecture given by a Panamanian professor of geography to mark the centenary metaphors. Human
of the death of Alexander von Humboldt. That was my first Humboldt occasion. themselves on suc
Today’s festivity, thirty eight years later, is my second. The UCLA department a pig; he or she is
is most fortunate to have a Humboldt chair. Whoever occupies it will be aware people also becom
of the high honor. Who was Humboldt?1 “A universal man,” says Ralph Waldo processes are inse
Emerson; “the last one,” says our contemporary the historian Hugh Trevor- things in the miner
Roper. Humboldt was the last individual who could encompass a broad swath the spine of a ridg
of human knowledge–from the mosses to the stars–in one eloquent and magisterial familiar and perso
work. No geographer can do that today. However extensive our writ, it no longer and hollows, wind
pretends to span the world of nature, or even the world of terrestrial nature. because human b
Still, with Humboldt’s accomplishments in mind, I am inspired to speculate, when speech did
What would a modern Humboldt be like? What does it take to be the ideal animates: that an
geographer in our time? What qualities of mind and body are called for? Can effects. Historical
we say that Alexander himself had them all? To an astonishing degree, I believe has emerged in a l
Yi-Fu Tuan The UCLA De partm e nt o f Ge o graphy , Ale x ande r Vo n Hum bo ldt Le cture , 1 9 9 7 Yi-Fu Tuan

ieve that in earlier he had. He had almost all the qualities. But not quite all. That’s why to complete
t past when every my portrait of the ideal geographer, I will need to bring in Alexander’s older
y guarded against brother, Wilhelm von Humboldt, whose talents and intellectual personality
th another group complemented Alexander’s.
ople to survive in
rhaps in the past V ita lity
g of oneness and
Physical vigor is a characteristic of many outstanding achievers, including Albert
beyond which lay
Einstein, whom C. P. Snow recalled seeing one summer day emerging out of the
sea like a bronzed pagan god. But in geographers the quality of physical toughness
dying, movements and endurance is not just desirable but necessary if sustained fieldwork is to
n various corners be done in challenging parts of the world. Even in our time, there are still such
ist consciousness. parts, and in our discipline there is still a certain cachet to having trekked
e in an increasingly through dense, swampy forests in the Amazon, “Wrestling With Mud,” as
into surprisingly biogeographer Sally Horn entitled her talk to Madison’s geography department
dely and explicitly a few months ago. My own colleagues Bill Denevan and Karl Zimmerer regularly
ecognized–indeed wrestle with mud in their South American fieldwork and have rightly won the
ovement, namely, admiration of students, some of whom take a nervous stomach or some other
ds alone, charged token of tropical affliction as a badge of honor. Two years ago when I announced
anguage, in which that I had received a Canadian grant to do research in Disneyland, no one was
e speaks, knowing terribly impressed–although some did wonder how I managed to swing the deal.
ks he participates As a matter of fact, I, then sixty-four years old, found fieldwork in Disneyland
his. Although the not quite the cinch I had thought and was grateful to have had the help of a
hin the group an young assistant who could take on the challenge of the wilder rides. And where
developing, say, a was Alexander von Humboldt when he was sixty years old? In Siberia and Central
orld so reassuring Asia on an arduous tour of 12,000 miles. A major purpose of that tour was to
becomes isolating examine the mines of the Ural Mountains for the Russian government. He spent
ack into the warm a month there, travelling on foot the whole day, as sure of step over boulders
and scree as he was in the Andes decades earlier.

ted or resurrected Vitality is not just physical elan and kinetic prowess, it is also intellectual
mmunal bath but enthusiasm, a capacity for wonder, qualities in the young that Humboldt had
eing and knowing in abundance throughout his long life. Even well into his eighties, Humboldt’s
given the benefit contemporaries looked at his scientific fervor–his eyes sparkling like those of
and irreplaceable a young man whenever a new discovery was announced–as somewhat lacking
d against excessive in decorum, reprehensible in a world-famous figure and a Privy Councilor to
e whose speech is the Prussian King. How did the young Humboldt feel as he and his fellow traveler
ance–is unlikely. Aimé Bonpland encountered tropical nature for the first time? They were beside
eakers of foreign themselves. Humboldt couldn’t resist sounding declamatory when he recalled
of affairs. A well- the experience. “We are here in a divine country... Wonderful plants; electric
e many figures of eels, tigers, armadillos, monkeys, parrots... What trees! Coconut trees, 50 to 60
probably become feet high... And what colors in birds, fish, even crayfish (sky blue and yellow)!
member that when We rush around like the demented; in the first three days we were quite unable
club, meet to talk to classify anything; we pick up one object to throw it away for the next. Bonpland
e. They are more keeps telling me that he will go mad if the wonders do not cease soon.”
“so-and-so didn’t
Reading such accounts of virgin experience naturally makes us feel a tinge of
tes the mind and
envy: so much of the world is already known that the shock of encountering
e we discover, say,
something for the first time, never described before, is seldom ours. Yet,
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surprisingly, we may actually know less about the topography of the earth than scholarship. An e
about the topography of Mars, which satellites have mapped in some detail. removal of trees l
This is because so much of the earth’s solid surface is inaccessible to observation, dire consequence
being covered by water. Neither landforms nor organic life at the ocean bottom scholarship–is hi
are well known at the present time. And, as one writer puts it, “it is pleasing to geomorphological
think that most of the ocean bed will never be seen directly by the mortal eye. for the humanitie
In comparison to that vast area, the ground which might be covered (at such
Yet Wilhelm’s crit
prodigious expense) by manned submersibles is virtually nil. One might compare
inwardness–a kna
it to traveling across Asia by oil-lit hansom cab with the condition of a Dickensian
humanist and per
fog outside, and then claiming to have seen the world.”2 Old-time cartographers
day, Alexander vo
used to put monsters at the edges of the then known world. It is pleasing to
have exhausted h
know that our imagination is still inclined to do so at that unimaginably cold,
himself too little
pitch black frontier of the abyss.
meanings and imp
attempt to unders
Sta m in a
and how, given th
Alexander von Humboldt flourished in the first half of the nineteenth century. one another and w
His empirical research in a variety of scientific specialties, like that of his is at the heart of h
contemporaries, prepared the ground for the more glamorous, more concentrated,
theoretical flights of the subsequent decades as exhibited in the works of Darwin
in natural selection, Kirchoff in spectral analysis, Maxwell in electromagnetism,
Consider languag
and Mendeleyev in chemistry. In the earlier period in which Humboldt lived, the
devoted, among
systematic accumulation of facts and the careful marshaling of evidence to test
language reflects t
particular notions called for a temperament quite different from that inclined
with the more em
to dream up and work with overarching concepts: it demanded patience, a
Native American l
tolerance for repetition and monotony. Humboldt had not only boyish enthusiasm,
after so much hard
but also patience. He needed patience and social skills to persuade others–and
himself command
this meant not only fellow scientists but governments and scientific institutions–to
used his knowled
establish observational stations in their respective countries. But he didn’t just
nature and societ
set others to work. He himself showed extraordinary observational stamina. For
exhibits a pair of
instance, to measure variations in the geomagnetic field in the sustained and
what he calls “an i
systematic way he wished, he rented a small cottage in the garden of a brandy
practical reasons a
distiller on the outskirts of Berlin. There he set up his instruments and carried
In addition, a par
out more than six thousand observations from May 1806 to June 1807. To obtain
he or she is. Speec
a sequence of unbroken, half-hourly readings, he at one time spent seven days
contradiction to w
and seven nights glued to his post. That same patience and dedication, that
quick and easy m
capacity for taking pain, was exhibited in his historical research. For instance,
a larger and more
in his book on the indigenous monuments of the New Continent (published in
1810), he had consulted all the sources available to him, the Italian archives or Let me explore, b
manuscripts, and the Spanish writings to which he obtained access in Mexico. oneness. To the q
In another impressive work of humanist scholarship–a history of geographical one people from a
discoveries from the time of the ancient Egyptians to the great Age of Exploration housing, kinfolk n
beginning in the fifteenth century–Humboldt demonstrated his ability to use a languages in the w
variety of modern-language texts as well as familiarity with Greek and Latin living in the same
sources. It puts humanist geographers of our day to shame that all this was each have a parti
done by a man whose major contributions were in physical and botanical human way to br
geography. languages in the

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f background and Elo q u e n ce


of geography, one
ow failed to reach The ideal geographer should be able to write and speak well. Did Humboldt
ble to him at the qualify? The answer has to be yes and no. His two qualities of enthusiasm and
scholarship rather stood in the way of writing well. Enthusiasm meant that he
was prone to prolixity, to including a miscellany of facts and ideas set forth
? without clear order. In his historical writings, the text tends to be swamped by
footnotes, a recurrent temptation of the omnivore-scholar. Humboldt was,
ot have wished to however, aware of his faults. Of the last of the South American books, the Critical
raphy, for to him Examination (1836), Humboldt noted that it contained much new material and
in the observable showed considerable erudition, but that it was also (in his words) “coldly boring...
to be understood. one of the most ill-composed German works.” Knowing his weakness, Humboldt
o say, he included strove hard to correct it in his last major production, fifty years in the making,
anist scholarship called Cosmos. In this opus of universal scope, where the temptation to prolixity
eries, the histories and miscellaneity must have been great, Humboldt managed to curtail subjugate
love of nature, he clauses so natural to the German language and write in a style that was flowing
and represented and elegant, which ensures it a place in German literature even when the scientific
ist, moved him as contributions have been superseded. It may be that one can’t really peddle
Humboldt as a literary stylist. However, he did have a way with words. I mean
ntial contributions, he was good at coining them and was successful in making the scientific world
cholars, including accept his inventions. Outstanding successes include, “geomagnetic storm,”
language, culture, “Jurassic formation,” “isotherms” and “isoclines.” He reminds me here of the
hronistic and also American geographer John Kirtland Wright, who made up words like “geosophy”
I do not speak as and “geopiety” that have vindicated themselves by directing attention to fresh
pose of sketching lines of inquiry.
all of Alexander’s So much for writing. As to speaking, it came to Alexander von Humboldt
lse? In Humboldt’s naturally. This is one more surprising fact about him. He was an explorer who
iller), but his own loved society. Most explorers were rather taciturn types who shunned the
n 1817, in a letter hothouse atmosphere of the intellectual salons. Not our man. Indeed, he had
te with Alexander the reputation of being a formidable gossip. After a long day’s work in the lab
together. I always or library, he would go parlor hopping late into the night, and at each place he
ng when the first diffused not only scientific information but news as to who were the up-and-
que learning and coming young scientists, as well as the usual sort of chitchat, and this could be
er: warmhearted, so riveting that guests were reluctant to leave for fear of becoming the subject
lem? Just exactly of his anecdotes. On formal occasions, Humboldt could give clear, well-ordered
to say, “is a quiet and indeed eloquent lectures. His Russian tour required him to stop by St.
, that’s a serious Petersburg and address its Academy. He pretended to be nervous. But, of course,
ds everything and he needn’t have been. Pushkin is supposed to have said of him that he resembled
“though everyday the marble lions of a fountain: he spouted brilliant talk as they spouted water.
knew that he had Let it be said that Humboldt used his verbal skills and personal charm not just
cribed his opinion to showcase himself but to persuade powerful people and governments to
not in the extreme support geographical research. Humboldt was chamberlain to a succession of
s to physical and Prussian kings; his real function, however, was more like that of a scientific
part of our current adviser and advocate. My ideal geographer, modeled after Humboldt, is thus
m to their source. not a recluse. On the contrary, he or she should enjoy society, even the political
n his time but are arena, for how else is one to champion a noble cause?
nd to innovative

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Ch a r ita b le n e ss puzzled and distre


in all the suppose
Alexander von Humboldt possessed a charitable disposition. Such a disposition its manifestation i
may well be another necessary trait in the ideal geographer. How so? Well, I inequality in the d
think charitableness promotes intellectual creativity. It does so in at least two and of the populat
ways. One is that it disposes a researcher to consider positions not his own; in institutions comp
consequence, he may learn something unexpected and promising. Even if this private buildings,
should not happen, a charitable attitude, when genuine, creates a milieu of free luxury of the dres
inquiry that can infect an entire field of knowledge. Humboldt had charity to in the greatest con
a remarkable degree. For example, he exerted himself to help the young and lower classes.”
impecunious geologist, Louis Agassiz, even though he did not care for Agassiz’s
theory of glaciation; Humboldt did not care for it because his own partiality for Soci
a Goethean picture of harmonious nature made him reluctant to accept violent
change. Another evidence of his freedom from egotism is to be found in his Humboldt’s heart
advice to a favorite pupil, Jean Bousingault. He said: “The more you move one the grosser injusti
day from my present ideas, the more I shall conclude, my dear Bousingault, that Marx, who got his
you have sought information from nature herself and observed with your own were still in the
eyes. Do not be influenced by my stratification; call ‘above’ what I call ‘below’. socioeconomic ge
That is the true way of discovering truth.” it was primarily a c
principle behind
The word “charity” is tainted in modern times by its implicit claim to operating accepted one of g
from a superior position. However, I think another understanding is possible, on the Kingdom o
one that yokes charity to justice rather than to pride or largesse. A charitable climate and confi
person is a just person, giving credit and respect where they are due, irrespective agriculture, the p
of the status of the scholar or of the institution at which he or she works. defense.” Great ge
Humboldt was such a man. He loved talented company, though he be young statesman charged
and unknown; on the other hand, he could make the most transparent excuses At this point, the m
to avoid glittering but empty social/academic occasions. Again, this was not so his Political Essay,
much a matter of being kind as of recognizing the good and true wherever they motivated by sch
emanated. It seems to me plausible that an impartial bent of mind, which came benefit investors.
to him naturally and which he exercised in all arenas of life, made it easy for on how the French
Humboldt to give proper weight to the ancient civilizations in America, studying for all his sensiti
their monumental architecture, their hieroglyphs, their religious rites and colonization, did n
astronomical-astrological practices with the same respect that he would have subservience to an
bestowed on the works of his own civilization. His attitude was in striking greed more easily
contrast to that of his contemporaries, outstandingly, G.W.F. Hegel, who dismissed poor.
the ancient cultures of Mexico and Peru as “immersed in Nature” and so they
had to go under at the approach of European Spirit.3 In our own time of Even if Humboldt’
heightened sensitivity, Humboldt’s respect for other cultures may seem nothing heights, it was still
special. But in his time, Humboldt risked anger and contempt. He had his critics. and manufactures
One reviewer of his book, Views of the Cordilleras and Monuments (1810), time or, indeed, a
described Humboldt’s research as showing that “perverse ingenuity which would the flow of comm
mould and twist [the rude achievements of an unenlightened people] to its own in the three hund
purposes and give them a meaning which they were never intended to bear.” achievement of Co
completed in the
Humboldt was a liberal democrat and even a sort of “New Historian” of his day, English, revised an
offended by the arrogance of the West. He admired Christopher Columbus of thought–what g
hugely, yet found his racist attitude intolerable. Humboldt seemed genuinely written if he had

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Yi-Fu Tuan The UCLA De partm e nt o f Ge o graphy , Ale x ande r Vo n Hum bo ldt Le cture , 1 9 9 7 Yi-Fu Tuan
puzzled and distressed by the geographical extent and degree of social inequality
in all the supposedly civilized parts of the world. He was particularly struck by
uch a disposition its manifestation in Mexico. He wrote: “Nowhere perhaps exists a more frightful
. How so? Well, I inequality in the distribution of wealth, of civilization, of cultivation of the soil,
o in at least two and of the population... The capital of the country and other towns have academic
s not his own; in institutions comparable with those in Europe. The architecture of public and
sing. Even if this private buildings, the elegance of the interior decorations, the carriages, the
s a milieu of free luxury of the dresses, the whole tone of society, everything has a refinement
t had charity to in the greatest contrast to the nakedness, the ignorance and coarseness of the
p the young and lower classes.”
are for Agassiz’s
wn partiality for Socioe con om ic Ge og r a p h e r Ma n q u é ?
to accept violent
be found in his Humboldt’s heart was in the right place. It inclined him to observe and regret
re you move one the grosser injustices. But his intellect could not grapple with the problem: Karl
Bousingault, that Marx, who got his Ph.D. in 1841, and the revolutionary thesis of class struggle
d with your own were still in the future and beyond Humboldt’s mental ken. Humboldt’s
hat I call ‘below’. socioeconomic geography lacked the originality of his physical geography, for
it was primarily a combination of description and statistics. If there was a general
principle behind the richly descriptive accounts it was the well known and
laim to operating accepted one of geographical influence. So, for example, in his Political Essay
ding is possible, on the Kingdom of New Spain (1808), Humboldt urged the study of a country’s
sse. A charitable climate and configuration on the grounds that they influenced “the state of
due, irrespective agriculture, the possibility of internal trade, communications, and military
e or she works. defense.” Great geographical surveys, he said, must become of interest to the
gh he be young statesman charged to compute “the forces and the territorial riches of nations.”
sparent excuses At this point, the modern reader is pulled up short. So the great man, in writing
, this was not so his Political Essay, had the European statesman in mind. The work was not just
ue wherever they motivated by scholarship; it evinced another layer of purpose, which was to
ind, which came benefit investors. And indeed, the Political Essay did have a notable influence
made it easy for on how the French and English invested their capital in New Spain. Humboldt,
merica, studying for all his sensitivity to the cruelties and exploitativeness of conquest and
igious rites and colonization, did not seem fully aware that these might be the consequence of
t he would have subservience to an European economy, and that indeed his own work, by making
was in striking greed more easily rewarded, had helped to widen the chasm between rich and
el, who dismissed poor.
ure” and so they
ur own time of Even if Humboldt’s achievement in socioeconomic geography failed to reach the
ay seem nothing heights, it was still impressive by comparison with the fatuous listing of resources
e had his critics. and manufactures that passed for economic or commercial geography in his
numents (1810), time or, indeed, a century later. Humboldt, for example, aspired to map not just
uity which would the flow of commodities but of silver and gold that backed Europe’s currencies
eople] to its own in the three hundred years since the Conquest. Ironically, while his crowning
tended to bear.” achievement of Cosmos went quickly out-of-date, his work on the flow of gold,
completed in the 1830s, continued to find readers and was translated into
orian” of his day, English, revised and annotated, as late as 1900. I would like to continue this line
pher Columbus of thought–what great works in socioeconomic geography Humboldt might have
emed genuinely written if he had read or hobnobbed with, say, Adam Smith, David Riccardo,
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and Karl Marx. But I refrain, the reason being my own lack of background and
competence in that area. I shall turn, instead, to another area of geography, one
in which Humboldt did make major contributions yet somehow failed to reach The ideal geograp
greatness, and this despite the intellectual resources available to him at the qualify? The answ
time: I have in mind humanist geography. scholarship rather
was prone to pro
H u m a n ist Ge o g r a p h e r Ma n q u e ? without clear orde
footnotes, a recu
First, a reminder. Alexander von Humboldt himself would not have wished to however, aware of
draw a line between physical geography and humanist geography, for to him Examination (1836
human intelligence, human emotions, and their manifestations in the observable showed considerab
world are themselves products of nature–facts in the cosmos to be understood. one of the most ill
And so, reasonably, he included them in his Cosmos; that is to say, he included strove hard to cor
in that magnificent work themes that are traditional to humanist scholarship called Cosmos. In
such as the history of geographical and other scientific discoveries, the histories and miscellaneity
of landscape painting and of nature poetry. Humboldt’s own love of nature, he clauses so natural
said, was inspired not by nature alone but by nature as seen and represented and elegant, which
in great works of art: the artist, almost as much as the scientist, moved him as contributions hav
a young man to explore the splendors of the earth. Humboldt as a lite
In humanist scholarship, Alexander von Humboldt made substantial contributions, he was good at co
yet somehow failed to break new paths that would have led scholars, including accept his inventi
geographers, to confront sooner the key humanist issues of language, culture, “Jurassic formatio
identity, emotional ties to place and nature. I know it is anachronistic and also American geograp
crass ingratitude to put it this way. And if I do, it is because I do not speak as and “geopiety” tha
a Humboldt scholar. Rather I am using him for my own purpose of sketching lines of inquiry.
an ideal geographer in our time. Such a geographer should have all of Alexander’s So much for writ
qualities and gifts plus something else. What is this something else? In Humboldt’s naturally. This is o
own time, not only hostile critics (outstandingly, the poet Schiller), but his own loved society. Mo
fond brother Wilhelm thought there was something lacking. In 1817, in a letter hothouse atmosp
to his wife, Wilhelm wrote that he couldn’t really communicate with Alexander the reputation of
at a serious level. “It is downright funny when he and I are together. I always or library, he wou
let him talk and have his way, for what’s the use of contending when the first diffused not only
principles are totally different? Alexander has not only unique learning and coming young scie
truly comprehensive views, but an unusually lovely character: warmhearted, so riveting that gu
helpful, self-sacrificing, unselfish.” What then was the problem? Just exactly of his anecdotes. O
what did Alexander lack? “What he lacks,” Wilhelm went on to say, “is a quiet and indeed eloqu
contentedness in himself and in thinking.” And to Wilhelm, that’s a serious Petersburg and ad
deficiency, the result of which is that Alexander comprehends everything and he needn’t have be
knows, at the deepest reflective level, nothing–not even nature, “though everyday the marble lions o
he makes important discoveries in natural science.”4 Wilhelm knew that he had Let it be said that
said something outrageous about his brother; he himself described his opinion to showcase hims
as “bold and frightening.” Was it–is it–justified? No, certainly not in the extreme support geograph
way he had put it. Alexander von Humboldt’s contributions to physical and Prussian kings; h
biogeography are foundational: they have become so much a part of our current adviser and advoc
store of knowledge that we no longer bother to trace them to their source. not a recluse. On t
Moreover, Humboldt introduced ideas that seemed marginal in his time but are arena, for how els
now considered central to the well-being of the planet and to innovative

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of the earth than scholarship. An example of the former is his observation that the heedless
d in some detail. removal of trees led to rapid runoff, floods, and the denudation of soil, with
ble to observation, dire consequences for human society. An example of the latter–of innovative
the ocean bottom scholarship–is his use of archival and archaeological research in resolving
, “it is pleasing to geomorphological puzzles, thus demonstrating the existence of a common front
by the mortal eye. for the humanities and physical science.
covered (at such
Yet Wilhelm’s criticism was not wholly off target. Alexander did lack a certain
ne might compare
inwardness–a knack of seeing things from the inside–that is the mark of a great
on of a Dickensian
humanist and perhaps even of a great scientist. To a critical geographer of our
me cartographers
day, Alexander von Humboldt can seem to have covered too much ground, to
d. It is pleasing to
have exhausted himself recording and mapping and, thereby, to have allowed
nimaginably cold,
himself too little time reflecting on the data he has collected, their deeper
meanings and implications. The deficiency is, naturally, most acute in Humboldt’s
attempt to understand human feelings and emotions, artworks and language,
and how, given these feelings and capabilities, human individuals bond with
neteenth century. one another and with plants, animals, rock and stars. The nature of this bonding
s, like that of his is at the heart of humanist geography.
more concentrated,
e works of Darwin La n g u a g e a n d H u m a n Bon d
electromagnetism,
Consider language. I take it up because Wilhelm von Humboldt was a linguist
umboldt lived, the
devoted, among other things, to uncovering ways the “inner structure” of
of evidence to test
language reflects the “spirit” of the speaker. Wilhelm saw Alexander’s engagement
rom that inclined
with the more empirical and technical aspects of nature and culture, including
nded patience, a
Native American languages, as an almost incomprehensible willingness to stop,
boyish enthusiasm,
after so much hard work, at the very portal of true insight and wisdom. Wilhelm
suade others–and
himself commanded detailed knowledge of a variety of esoteric languages. He
ific institutions–to
used his knowledge, however, for the larger purpose of understanding human
But he didn’t just
nature and society. To Wilhelm, language provides the key to both because it
ional stamina. For
exhibits a pair of interlocking principles: one is subjectivity and the other is
he sustained and
what he calls “an irresistible desire for sociability.”5 People speak for immediate
arden of a brandy
practical reasons and to make the world around them seem more comprehensible.
ments and carried
In addition, a particular person may speak to establish a firmer sense of who
ne 1807. To obtain
he or she is. Speech makes for individuality. More importantly, and in apparent
spent seven days
contradiction to what I have just said, speech, to the degree that it brings about
d dedication, that
quick and easy mutual understanding, enables an individual to lose the self in
rch. For instance,
a larger and more powerful whole–a tribe or nation.
nent (published in
talian archives or Let me explore, briefly, the second principle–that of sociability or communal
access in Mexico. oneness. To the question, What aspect of culture most sharply differentiates
y of geographical one people from another? The answer is not food, agricultural methods, dress,
Age of Exploration housing, kinfolk network, and such like, but language. The number of distinct
his ability to use a languages in the world far exceeds the number of distinct lifeways. Two tribes
h Greek and Latin living in the same geographical region and sharing many cultural traits may
that all this was each have a particular language, making verbal communication–the uniquely
cal and botanical human way to bridge isolation–nearly impossible. Although the number of
languages in the world is diminishing rapidly, even in mid-twentieth century

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some three to five thousand were still in use, and linguists believe that in earlier he had. He had alm
periods many more were spoken. I am led to fantasize a distant past when every my portrait of the
knot of people had its own special way of speaking, jealously guarded against brother, Wilhelm
contamination from outside. Being able to communicate with another group complemented Al
enlarges the scope of experience and so better prepares a people to survive in
its own periodically threatening natural environment, but perhaps in the past
an even greater benefit lay in internal cohesion–in a feeling of oneness and
Physical vigor is a
sameness that depended on the existence of a closed world beyond which lay
Einstein, whom C.
an incomprehensible Other.
sea like a bronzed
I have said “in the past,” but even as small local languages are dying, movements and endurance is
to revive them have occurred vigorously in recent decades in various corners be done in challen
of the world, together with a resurgence in regional and nationalist consciousness. parts, and in our
The desire to retain or resuscitate one’s unique cultural signature in an increasingly through dense, s
undifferentiated global (cosmopolitan) society has translated into surprisingly biogeographer Sal
effective political programs. Localism or particularism is now widely and explicitly a few months ago.
recognized as a good–an attainable political goal. Not so well recognized–indeed wrestle with mud
repressed in the process–is an important side benefit of the movement, namely, admiration of stu
escape from the openness of the world in which a person stands alone, charged token of tropical a
with the bewildering task of defining himself, to the haven of language, in which that I had received
a person’s sense of self is confirmed and stabilized each time he speaks, knowing terribly impressed
as he does so, if only in a subliminal way, that when he speaks he participates As a matter of fac
in the power to include and exclude. A further benefit is this. Although the not quite the cinc
identity thus welded is group rather than individual, within the group an young assistant w
individual can always build up a particular sense of self by developing, say, a was Alexander von
mannerism or a special skill. What makes living in such a world so reassuring Asia on an arduou
is that whenever that specialness–never in any case egregious–becomes isolating examine the mines
and uncomfortable he or she can quietly lay it aside and slip back into the warm a month there, tra
bath of common speech. and scree as he w

Native-tongue patriots may say that a language is to be protected or resurrected Vitality is not jus
not so much because it provides a social glue or a warm communal bath but enthusiasm, a cap
because it is poetry–a unique and untranslatable way of seeing and knowing in abundance thro
the universe. Maybe it is. Any threatened language should be given the benefit contemporaries lo
of a doubt–that is, treated as though it might be an inspired and irreplaceable a young man whe
product of mind and emotion. Still, I am inclined to be on guard against excessive in decorum, repre
romanticism, for, on the face of it, a nation of poets–a people whose speech is the Prussian King.
regularly punctuated by words of freshly minted significance–is unlikely. Aimé Bonpland en
Ethnographic evidence and our own experience among speakers of foreign themselves. Humb
tongue hardly confirm linguistic creativity as a common state of affairs. A well- the experience. “W
meaning outsider may think a foreign tongue poetry because many figures of eels, tigers, armad
speech in it are new to him. But they are not new–they have probably become feet high... And w
verbal ticks–to natives. It is both humbling and healthy to remember that when We rush around li
people anywhere, including erudite academics at the campus club, meet to talk to classify anything
socially, they are seldom poetic whatever language they use. They are more keeps telling me
likely to say, “pass the salt,” “how’s the wife and kids?” and “so-and-so didn’t
Reading such acco
get tenure,” than anything that deepens the emotions, elevates the mind and
envy: so much of
the spirit. There is another problem to be confronted. Suppose we discover, say,
something for th
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an isolated group in the Arctic or in the Amazon whose members do speak in


rich metaphors that cannot be translated readily into any other tongue. What
does it mean to say that that language must be preserved because it is humanly
important? In what sense can its existence be said to enrich humanity–a deepening
and enlargement of human awareness–if the life experience it articulates can
he r be shared only among a small group of native speakers and no one else? I would
press the point further and ask, just how does it benefit the native speakers
themselves beyond the glow of bonding mentioned earlier? An islanded language
with few speakers cannot be expected to accommodate the infinite variety of
the larger world known increasingly to the more affluent and adventuresome
members of humankind. Isn’t such a language, for its native users, as much a
prison as a home? How easy it is for us Westerners to treat other people,
especially those with little power, as exotica, museum-pieces in glass cages to
be catalogued and preserved, rather than as made up of living human beings,
each one of whom is a potential Humboldt.

La n g u a g e a n d Bon d in g w ith
th e N on h u m a n En v ir on m e n t
The questions and problems I have just raised are of a kind that would have
interested Gottfried von Herder and Wilhelm von Humboldt. Both sought to
examine, even defend, the claims of national culture against the more sweeping
rationalist/universalist programs of an older generation of French thinkers.
Alexander did not address such questions in any depth. He directed his energy
umboldt elsewhere–to nature; more specifically, to how not only science but language
and the visual arts are paths to understanding its variety and beauty. I wonder,
however, whether the paths taken by Alexander can lead to fundamental insights
concerning language’s powers and effects. It seems a little too straightforwardly
descriptive, and not sufficiently philosophical or questioning. If Humboldt had
pondered not only on the variety and distribution of human speech, but also
on its shared and fundamental traits, he might see that it is in the nature of
speech to bind not only people to one another but people with their nonhuman
attended a public environment; and that it does so most effortlessly and effectively through
ark the centenary metaphors. Human beings, apparently, can only know who they are by predicating
umboldt occasion. themselves on such natural objects as animals and plants. “I am a fox; you are
UCLA department a pig; he or she is a prickly cactus.” In the process of learning who they are,
es it will be aware people also become aware of their intimate ties to other living things: the two
says Ralph Waldo processes are inseparable, melded into one by the character of speech.6 As for
ian Hugh Trevor- things in the mineral realm, anatomical metaphors such as foothills and headlands,
ass a broad swath the spine of a ridge, the mouth of a river, the face of a cliff make them all seem
ent and magisterial familiar and personal. Indeed, language tricks people into believing that rises
r writ, it no longer and hollows, wind and rivers, are all in some sense alive. And remember that
terrestrial nature. because human beings and human speech are coeval, there never was a time
ired to speculate, when speech did not promote this useful and reassuring illusion. Language
ke to be the ideal animates: that and human bonding are two of its most primitive and potent
re called for? Can effects. Historically, the problem that confronts human beings is not how life
g degree, I believe has emerged in a lifeless universe, but rather (as Hans Jonas puts it) how a warm

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body can turn into a corpse.7 Ordinary speech lacks neutral ways of referring
to that which is not alive. The inanimate is a sophisticated idea that depends
on the prior conception of the animate. Interestingly enough, in the twentieth
century, one of Western world’s most formidable thinkers–Alfred North
Whitehead–has reopened the idea that the inanimate is not totally inert and the
opposite of animate but rather it is the animate in which the element of feeling
or prehension approaches asymptotically zero. So perhaps our natural way of
speaking is not as misleading as a severe positivist may think. I wonder what
the Humboldt brothers will make of Whitehead’s organic philosophy. No doubt,
their great friend, Goethe, would have approved.
P
A N u r tu r in g En v ir on m e n t
a n d th e Id e a l Ge o g r a p h e r After his
in the firs
I now approach the end of my sketch of an ideal geographer. He already has a was cons
name. It is Alexander-Wilhelm von Humboldt, the two brothers–their distinctive immediat
talents and temperaments, the one more masculine, the other more feminine–fused was his op
into one. Alexander was the brother who rushed about collecting information the scient
from remote parts of the world and who lived the most productive years of his the 1830
life in a foreign capital, Paris. Wilhelm, except for six years in Rome and diplomatic publicatio
forays on behalf of his king, stayed pretty much at home in Berlin, where he recognize
examined and reflected in depth on a more limited set of problems. My ideal dozens of
geographer is neither masculine nor feminine: he or, if you like, she is both. honor.
The greatness of Alexander von Humboldt lies in that he was both. The sheer
After Wor
physical energy, the “rushing about,” suggests perhaps an excess of testosterone
Alexander
over estrogen. Yet Alexander undoubtedly also possessed a strong feminine
with need
streak in his personality. He was not the sort who loved only humankind. He
recognize
also loved particular individuals; he was nurturing to his family–to Wilhelm’s
German G
children following their father’s death–to his colleagues and young scientists.
Germany
Alexander’s friendships, first as a teenager with the theology student Wilhelm
in geogra
Wegener, and later in life, with the young army officer Reinhard von Haeften
steadily.
and the scientist François Arago, were tender in the extreme, and in each case
being des
he seemed to have given far more than he had received. So, for all his physical
unified w
vitality and extroverted temperament, there was in his life an inner core of
the whole
unfulfilled yearning and sadness. He lived to be ninety. He was acclaimed all
of the tro
over the world. Yet he did not have one thing that ought to be every human
lands, eve
being’s birthright–namely, a beloved person to share cookies with before turning
studied is
in to bed.
that belon
What sort of human being was Alexander von Humboldt? Well, of course he had Henry J. B
different sides, like all of us, some of which were contradictory. Nevertheless, Professor
almost everyone–his contemporaries and the scholars who wrote about him–agreed
that he was truly magnanimous. At the time of the publication of Cosmos, a
reviewer in an English journal says of Humboldt that “No human being breathes
who is more free from personal jealousy and literary enmity... It may well be
believed that he has not an enemy, and many are the warm friends whom his
urbanity and warm generosity have attached to him....” The reviewer goes on
to say that Humboldt “seems to feel more pleasure in claiming for others the

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reputation which he thinks they deserve than in demanding honour for himself.”
Wherever Humboldt worked, his spirit promoted cooperation, enthusiasm, and
creativity. He was both a great geographer and a fine person. I don’t really know
what it takes to be a great geographer, but I do know what an academic
department must have to flourish–people who are both talented and decent.

1. L. Kellner, Alexander von Humboldt (London: Oxford University Press, 1963).


r All quotations on Humboldt are from this book, unless otherwise stated. See
also, Helmut de Terra, Humboldt: The Life and Times of Alexander von Humboldt
1769-1859 (New York: Knopf, 1955) and Douglas Botting, Humboldt and the
graduate at Cosmos (New York: Harper & Row, 1973). Of course the best way to know
f Geography Humboldt is to read–at least, browse through–his major works which have been
g Alexander published in several languages, including English. The scope of his learning,
rch interest including his contributions to humanist geography, is best captured by his
tudent days culminating work Cosmos, which bears the subtitle (grand yet touched by
century and modesty) of “A Sketch of A Physical Description of the Universe.”
he German
Gold Medal 2. James Hamilton-Paterson, The Great Deep: The Sea and Its Thresholds (New
n Humboldt. York: Random House, 1992), p. 34.

's work, the 3. G. W. F. Hegel, “Geographical Basis of History,” in Introduction to The


h an annual Philosophy of History, transl. Leo Rauch (Indianapolis & Cambridge: Hacket
ng speaker, Publishing Company, 1988), p. 85.
ption of the
equently, of 4. Wilhelm von Humboldt, Humanist Without Portfolio (Detroit: Wayne State
ources. The University Press, 1963), p. 407.
ons of both 5. Hans Aarsleff, “Wilhelm von Humboldt and the Linguistic Thought of the
celebration French Ideologues,” in From Locke to Saussure (Minneapolis: University of
th both the Minnesota Press, 1982), pp. 335-355.

6. James Fernandez, “The Mission of Metaphor in Expressive Culture,” Current


n Humboldt
Anthropology, vol. 15, 1974, pp. 119-145.
rofessorship
University of 7. Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (New
year, was a York: Harper & Row, 1966), pp. 11-12.
e the gift of
Humboldt. Painting of Alexander von Humboldt in Venezula by F.G. Weitsch.

Artist of Wilhelm von Humboldt painting is unknown.

Published by the
UCLA Department of Geography
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1524
310-825-1071
www.geog.ucla.edu

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