Wilhelm von Humboldt

Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History

Nick Nielsen
7 min readJun 23, 2022
Wilhelm von Humboldt (22 June 1767–08 April 1835)

Today is the 255th anniversary of the birth of Wilhelm von Humboldt (22 June 1767–08 April 1835), who was born on this day in 1767.

Wilhelm von Humboldt (not to be confused with his younger brother, the naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt) was a linguist with wide interests, including the advocacy of educational reforms and found the Humboldt University of Berlin.

Humboldt’s influence on the philosophy of history has come in a somewhat roundabout way, since Humboldt wrote no treatise on the subject, but only occasionally touched on it. In his 1950 presidential address to the American Historical Society, Samuel Eliot Morison noted Humboldt’s anticipation of Ranke’s “wie es eigentlich gewesen” dictum:

“I stand firm on the oft-quoted sentence of Leopold von Ranke, which we American historians remember when we have forgotten all the rest of our German. ‘The present investigation,’ said Ranke in the preface to his first volume, published in 1824, ‘will simply explain the event exactly as it happened.’ Ranke was far from being the first to say that. He picked up the phrase, I imagine, from Wilhelm von Humboldt, who, in an address to the Prussian Academy three years earlier, declared the proper function of history to be ‘the exposition of what has happened’.”

The passage from Humboldt referenced by Morison was quoted in Croce’s History as the Story of Liberty, in which Croce goes to some length to credit Humboldt with the origin of several ideas about history that Croce himself would further develop and call “historicism.” Here is some of Croce’s exposition of Humboldt:

“In 1821 Wilhelm von Humboldt read a paper at the Prussian Academy upon the office of the historian, in the course of which he rejected the ‘philosophy of history,’ and insisted on the point that ‘ideas in history must come from the very plenitude of events’ (which is just as true as the inverse is), and declared that ‘the history of the world is unintelligible without a government of the world’ (which is vague thinking); yet, survivor as he was of the great age which was just then closing, he aspired towards the fusion of ideas with events, as the artist does in the poetic image, and he was aware and fully conscious of the many difficulties which had to be overcome here. Those who followed on him made of these provisional and groping propositions a definite doctrine, and of his perplexed and cautious start a halting place.

“Ranke was of this number. Humboldt had said that the proper function of historiography is ‘the exposition of what has happened’ and ‘fulfils its task the more perfectly as the exposition is more complete and satisfying.’ And Ranke echoed that history has no other aim than ‘simply to explain the event exactly as it happened,’ without taking the trouble to demonstrate the origin or the nature of this affirmation of the historical event. Humboldt had raised the problem of ideas in history, though he had not defmed it nor incorporated it into a system of philosophy of the spirit and of ideas. Ranke always spoke of these ideas or tendencies of various epochs, but he did not allow himself or anyone else ever to go so far as to define them or elaborate them as concepts: he insisted that they could only be intuited by seeing them in an event.”

The 1821 paper mentioned by Croce has been translated in History and Theory as “On the Historian’s Task” (Über die Aufgabe des Geschichtschreibers). Here is Humboldt’s opening paragraph:

“The historian’s task is to present what actually happened. The more purely and completely he achieves this, the more perfectly has he solved his problem. A simple presentation is at the same time the primary, indispensable condition of his work and the highest achievement he will be able to attain. Regarded in this way, he seems to be merely receptive and reproductive, not himself active and creative.”

Even while asserting that the historian must be guided by ideas, Humboldt warns his audience against an overly philosophical approach to history:

“…the understanding of events must be guided by ideas. It is, of course, self-evident that these ideas emerge from the mass of events themselves, or, to be more precise, originate in the mind through contemplation of these events undertaken in a truly historical spirit: the ideas are not borrowed by history like an alien addition, a mistake so easily made by so-called philosophical history. Historical truth is, generally speaking, much more threatened by philosophical than by artistic handling, since the latter is at least accustomed to granting freedom to its subject matter. Philosophy dictates a goal to events. This search for final causes, even though it may be deduced from the essence of man and nature itself, distorts and falsifies every independent judgment of the characteristic working of forces.”

I am here reminded of Jacob Burckhardt’s repudiation of philosophy of history:

“Above all, we have nothing to do with the philosophy of history. The philosophy of history is a centaur, a contradiction in terms, for history co-ordinates, and hence is unphilosophical, while philosophy subordinates, and hence is unhistorical.”

Perhaps in Humboldt, and definitely in Burckhardt, I believe that these pro forma denunciations of philosophy of history are intended to distance the authors from speculative or substantive philosophy of history, which is treated as the only philosophy of history. But Humboldt and Burckhardt both have much to say that constitutes analytical or formal philosophy of history.

Humboldt ends his “On the Historian’s Task” with this reflection:

“There are two things which the course of this inquiry has attempted to keep firmly in mind: that there is an idea, not itself directly perceptible, in everything that happens, but that this idea can be recognized only in the events themselves. The historian must, therefore, not exclude the power of the idea from his presentation by seeking everything exclusively in his material sources; he must at least leave room for the activity of the idea. Going beyond that, moreover, he must be spiritually receptive to the idea and actively open to perceiving and appropriating it. Above all, he must take great care not to attribute to reality arbitrarily created ideas of his own, and not to sacrifice any of the living richness of the parts in his search for the coherent pattern of the whole. This freedom and subtlety of approach must become so much a part of his nature that he will bring them to bear on the investigation of every event. For no event is separated completely from the general nexus of things, and part of every occurrence lies beyond the pale of direct perception, as we have shown above. If the historian lacks this freedom of approach, he cannot perceive events in their scope and depth; if he lacks subtlety and tact, he will destroy their simple and living truth.”

In an essay on Schiller, “On Schiller and the Course of His Spiritual Development” — and Schiller himself was a philosopher of history — Humboldt

“Schiller used to say of the writer of history that, after he had taken up into himself all the factual material by means of exact and thorough study of the sources, he must still build, out of himself, the collected material into a history, and Schiller was completely right in that, although his assertion could also be fundamentally misunderstood. A fact can be merely transcribed into a history, as little as a facial expression of a human being into a portrait. As in organic structure and the expression of the soul in external form, there is a living unity within the interconnections of even a simple event, and it can be comprehended and represented only from this center outward. Also, whether intentionally or not, the conception of the historian steps between the event and its representation, and the true connection of events will be recognized with most certainty by those who have exercised their vision on philosophical and poetic necessity. For, here, too, reality stands in a mysterious bond with the mind.”

Humboldt had made a similar point in his 1821 paper

“One has, however, scarcely arrived at the skeleton of an event by a crude sorting out of what actually happened. What is so achieved is the necessary basis of history, its raw material, but not history itself. To stop here would be to sacrifice the actual inner truth, well-founded within the causal nexus, for an outward, literal, and seeming truth; it would mean choosing actual error in order to escape the potential danger of error. The truth of any event is predicated on the addition — mentioned above — of that invisible part of every fact, and it is this part, therefore, which the historian has to add. Regarded in this way, he does become active, even creative — not by bringing forth what does not have existence, but in giving shape by his own powers to that which by mere intuition he could not have perceived as it really was. Differently from the poet, but in a way similar to him, he must work the collected fragments into a whole.”

In drawing a distinction between a seeming truth of history and an actual inner truth of history, Humboldt is close to making a distinction between historical appearance and historical reality, in other words, he is close to a metaphysics of history.