Humboldt’s Anthropology: Diversity, Development, and Individuality
Several years ago, I came across a brilliant talk by a Humboldt scholar, Roberta Pasquare, about a key concept of the Weimar classical period: the role of connection between individuals. Because this talk was only made available in German, I took the liberty to translate the relevant section and reproduce it here. Full credit goes to Ms. Pasquare.
Here is the link to the transcript of the original talk, given in Berlin on Feb 18, 2009.
What follows is my translation (created on Jun 15, 2016 in Boston) of the excerpt from Ms. Pasquare’s talk:
Humboldt’s Anthropology: Diversity, Development, and Individuality
It is […] virtually impossible to introduce the analysis of [Wilhelm von] Humboldt’s anthropology without its most emblematic and most widely quoted synthesis, which is the one that describes the final purpose of man:
“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 grand 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. Even the most free and self-reliant of men is thwarted and hindered in his development by uniformity of position.”
So the final purpose of a human consists of the formation of their powers i.e. in the exercise of their numerous abilities and potentialities. The means of such unfolding [Entfaltung] is freedom, in the sense of the unhindered realization of talents and energies, and the fundamental condition for freedom is the diversity of boundary conditions under which a human being acts and wrestles toward the formation of their powers.
Nevertheless, even as the final purpose of a human requires diversity as a premise and achieves it as a goal at the same time, every individual per se is still destined for uniformity:
“Every human being, then, can act with but one force at the same time: or rather, our whole nature disposes us at any given time to some single form of spontaneous activity. It would therefore seem to follow from this, that man is inevitably destined to a partial cultivation, since he only enfeebles his energies by directing them to a multiplicity of objects.”
In fact, three attributes characterize the Humboldtian individual, which are: an unlimited richness of abilities and potentialities, the permanent striving for their formation [Bildung] and development, but also the determination for one-sidedness.
One-sidedness, or uniformity, is the formation of just one or only few energies towards one or only few subjects. That the human being is destined for uniformity, comes from the fact that Bildung (the harmonic unfolding of his total energies) and Kraft (the intensity of the application of the former) are inversely related: the more numerous the activities that a human pursues (Bildung), the less energetic or effective is their action (Kraft). But it is life itself and its finiteness that forces humans to pay homage to some things, to be or experience some things, and not others. One cannot simultaneously be man and woman, young and old, farmer and nobleman, German and Englishman; one cannot live at the same time in classical Athens and at the Spree brightened up by the rays of enlightenment, etc.
And yet there exists a remedy that allows a human to escape the destiny of uniformity and fulfill their final purpose. It consists of, what Humboldt calls Verbindung [connection/bond]. The Verbindung is the epitome of material and intellectual relationships which the individual holds to humans, nature as well as cultures of other nations and epochs. It is therefore no wonder that Humboldt defines the Verbindung as formative to the character [charakterbildend], because through it, the individual can draw from others what she herself lacks. Additionally, it is based on this concept of man that Humboldt synthesizes in a letter to Forster his theory of humans with the following slogan: “Develop yourself, and act with what you are upon others.”
What the Verbindung requires in order to come into existence, and then to actually become activated as formative to the character, are humans who are different enough from each other that they find interest in one another and at the same time similar enough in order to understand each other. What’s more, they must be strong-willed enough not to merge into one another (because this would result in a loss of diversity) but flexible enough that they would consider the intellectual exchange with other humans as a possibility for their own inner enrichment.
The central relevance that Humboldt accords to the Verbindung can be traced back both to humans’ indigenous attributes mentioned above and to their constructive effects. Because firstly, it corresponds to the unquenchable thirst for exercising one’s own powers [Kräfte] that is peculiar to all individuals, and secondly, it creates originality, and therefore brings into being the indispensable boundary condition for the formation of human powers into a whole.
It becomes explicitly clear in the following passage how Humboldt emphasizes the Verbindung of humans to each other as a decisive momentum of individual existence and the ensuing originality as the pinnacle of communal life:
“This individual vigour, then, and manifold diversity, combine themselves in originality; and hence, that on which the consummate grandeur of our nature ultimately depends — that towards which every human being must ceaselessly direct his efforts, and on which especially those who design to influence their fellow men must ever keep their eyes, is the Individuality of Power and Development [Eigenthümlichkeit der Kraft und der Bildung]. “
Just as clearly Humboldt expresses himself at another location:
“Wherefore it appears to me that the principle of the true art of social intercourse [that] consists in a ceaseless endeavour to grasp the innermost individuality of another, to avail oneself of it, and, penetrated with the deepest respect for it as the individuality of another, to act upon it […] has been hitherto singularly neglected.”
So Humboldt solves the conflict between a final purpose of humans formulated as diversity and the designation to uniformity in recourse on such a notion of inter-human relationships and societal circumstances that put the individual in the center, yet without thereby neglecting his social, his gregarious component.
The individual that partakes in society, is from an ethical and ontological perspective an autonomous and complete [vollkommenes] subject (she is equipped with an inborn value which she does not owe to an outer authority such as god, reason, rank, origin or kinship) but she only achieves her own perfection [Vervollkommnung] in association, yes through association, with other individuals. In order to become a perfected (and free and happy) individuality, the Humboldtian individual needs other individuals that are as equally free as herself, or that are at least carried by the same longing [Sehnsucht], by the same striving for freedom and diversity.