Wilhelm von Humoldt was born to a noble Prussian family on 22 June 1767 in Potsdam. Wilhelm, who was also the brother of famous Alexander von Humboldt, was raised in the centre of the German Enlightenment. Growing up, the environment in the life of the Prussian upper class, which Humboldt was a part of, was a complete display of Frederick the Great’s rationalism and enlightened absolutism. But apart from the dominant Frederickan culture, the effects of contemporary German philosophers and writers, such as Goethe and Schiller, were also widespread among the environment in Berlin. Especially after Frederick’s death and with the influence of French Revolution, Humboldt’s views strayed further from rationalism.
He started studying law at the University of Göttingen in 1788. With the eruption of the French Revolution a year later, he found the opportunity to closely observe a very delicate social and political turning point in the history of Europe. He visited Paris in 1789 and he wrote the “Ideas on the Constitutions of States” inspired by his trip to France and French Revolution. The main point of this essay was that men cannot and should not be forced to adopt thoughts and take action from outside but should constitute their own ideas by themselves.
Humboldt later returned to Berlin and was appointed to a position at the law court. The atmosphere in Berlin, however, had changed drastically after Frederick’s death. The intellectual and religious freedom provided by Frederick’s enlightened absolutism was vanished and replaced with a rise of religious intolerance. He couldn’t bear the oppressive environment for long and resigned from his position in 1791.
In 1792, Humboldt produced what is considered his magnum opus and one of the classics of philosophy of politics; The Limits of State Action. In his work, Humboldt makes clear points about to what end should the state’s activities expand and encourages freedom and individual rights in every aspect. This book later had a huge impact in the political studies and influenced prominent liberal theorists such as John Stuart Mill. It is still considered a must-read for any student of political science or liberal thought.
From 1792 to 1802, Humboldt’s focus of study changed drastically from political theory and law to studies of linguistics, classics, aesthetics and anthropology. He studied Ancient Greek and mythology and also made quite important discoveries on the field of linguistics. Some of his works were groundbreaking at the time and he also shaped the development of linguistics as a science greatly. He is one of the forefathers of the comparative method in linguistics as well. During this time he developed close relationships with many great German minds such as Goethe and Schiller. His ideas were influenced by the romanticist and classicist approach carried by them.
In 1802, he was offered to represent Prussia in Rome as an ambassador. He accepted the position only because he wanted to stay away from the chaotic political environment in Europe and also had a great interest and love for the city of Rome since his childhood. He stayed there until 1808, when he was offered to become the Director of Education in the Prussian Ministry of Interior. From that point, he used this opportunity to implement some much needed reforms and created a unique educational system. But most importantly, he took the initiative to found the University of Berlin, which was called Friedrich Wilhelm University until its closure in 1945 and was renamed after him after its reopening in 1945. Humboldt University of Berlin is still considered one of the best universities in Europe even today.
Humboldt carried out many diplomatic duties during the Napoleonic Wars and was present in the Congress of Vienna. He briefly became the Minister of Interior in 1818, and was present as a member of the Council of State. He heavily opposed the Metternich’s dominant diplomacy that was accepted by all European state. He quickly became an outcast for his striving against the censorship that was widespread among German states as well as Prussia. When Prussia officially agreed to the Karlsbad Decrees proposed by Metternich, which Humboldt deemed as “shameful, unnational and provoking to a great people”, Humboldt finally decided to step out of politics and resigned. He refused the pension offered to him by the King.
From 1819 to his death in 1835, Humboldt focused on his studies on the field of Linguistics. His studies in his final years later brought him fame as one of the most prominent linguists in history. He finally died on 8 April 1835 at his family home in Tegel. Humboldt’s legacy includes his works in philosophy, politics, linguistics, anthropology and many other fields. He is also a precursor of the German liberalism that later became a political stronghold in Prussia and German Empire.