Wilhelm von Humboldt and the Historian’s Task

Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History

Nick Nielsen
13 min readJun 23, 2024

It is the 257th anniversary of the birth of Wilhelm von Humboldt (22 June 1767–08 April 1835), who was born in Potsdam, then part of the Margraviate of Brandenburg, on this day in 1767. Wilhelm von Humboldt is not to be confused with his younger brother, the explorer Alexander von Humboldt. Wilhelm von Humboldt was a philosopher, a linguist, and an educational reformer rather than an explorer, but both brothers were honored in the naming of the Humboldt University in Berlin.

We don’t typically think of Humboldt when we draw up the short list of Enlightenment thinkers, which would include Kant, Hume, Gibbon, Voltaire, Diderot, D’alembert, etc. etc., but we could well include Humboldt among them. Humboldt wrote The Limits of State Action, which was published posthumously on 1852, and which was translated into English a couple of years later, and in this form it exercised its influence on the Anglophone world indirectly by being a significant influence on John Stuart Mill’s book On Liberty, which we have since come to recognize as a locus classicus of the Enlightenment political paradigm. Mill took the epigraph for his book On Liberty from this work of Humboldt, quoting this much:

“The grand, leading principle, towards which every argument hitherto unfolded in these pages directly converges, is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity.”

Here is a longer extract that gives more of the context of the point Humboldt was making:

“…national education — or that which is organized or enforced by the State — is at least in many respects very questionable. The grand, leading principle, towards which every argument hitherto unfolded in these pages directly converges, is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity; but national education, since at least it presupposes the selection and appointment of some particular instructor, must always promote a definite form of development, however careful to avoid such an error.”

This shows us that the human development to which Mill appealed was set in the context of a discussion of education, which Humboldt understood to be the condition under which individual development takes place. In a recent newsletter I argued that education was at the heart of civilization, since education is the vehicle by which the traditions of a civilization are passed from one generation to the next. The continuity of any civilization is a function of its educational institutions. I’m not aware whether Humboldt explicitly formulated this connection between education and civilization, but we know that he was an influential educational reformer, and we know that wrote about civilization.

Humboldt wrote a three volume work On the Kawi Language on the Island of Java (Uber die Kavi-Sprache auf der Inseljava), the introduction to which was published separately as On Language: The Diversity of Human Language-Structure and Its Influence on the Mental Development of Mankind (published separately in 1836 as Uber die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaues und ihren Einfluss auf die geistige Entwickelung des Menschengeschlechts). This introduction to his book on language is a remarkable meditation on culture, civilization, and cognitive development, inter alia.

“…where man appears, he acts in a human way, combines gregariously, creates organizations, gives himself laws; and where this has occurred in a more imperfect fashion, supervening individuals or dynasties transplant thither what has succeeded better in other places. With the rise of man, therefore, the seed of civilization is also planted, and grows as his existence evolves. This humanization we can perceive in advancing stages, indeed it lies partly in its own nature, partly in the extent to which it has already prospered, that its further perfecting can hardly, in essence, be disturbed.”

Here again we see a developmental conception, here applied to civilization, which is at the same time a selective conception, as Humboldt is arguing that social institutions that have succeeded better elsewhere can be brought to region where these institutions are more imperfect, and the more successful institutions will out-compete the native institutions. This was a generation before Darwin and the explicit formulation of natural selection as a mechanism of speciation. This developmental and selective understanding of social institutions explains what Humboldt writes in the following section:

Civilization can come forth from within a people, and testifies, in that case, to that uplifting of the spirit which cannot always be explained. If, on the other hand, it is implanted in a nation from without, it spreads more quickly, and also, perhaps, penetrates more into every branch of the social order, but does not react so energetically upon mind and character. It is a splendid privilege of our own day, to carry civilization into the remotest corners of the earth, to couple this endeavour with every undertaking, and to utilize power and means for the purpose, even apart from other ends. The operative principle here, of universal humanity, is an advance to which only our own age has truly ascended; and all the great discoveries of recent centuries are working together to bring it to reality.”

If we were to take this out of context, it would sound like a defense of imperialism, and I can imagine that many would read it this way even with full context supplied. As an Enlightenment thinker, Humboldt was a true believer in universalism. It follows from this universalism that what works better elsewhere should eventually spread until everyone has the benefit of this optimal institution.

We can find all kinds of problems with Humboldt’s account of civilization if we want to. For example, Humboldt wrote that civilization spreads more quickly when it is “implanted from without” in contradistinction from developing indigenously. From one point of view, the superficial spread of civilization can be more rapid than the long, slow development curve of a people creating these institutions from scratch, so Humboldt’s claim sounds counter-intuitive to me, but the argument can be made. However, the rapid spread of civilization comes at a cost, as Humboldt acknowledges at the end of this paragraph, since he notes that the original individuality of a people who have had civilization implanted from without is nipped in the bud. We could also add that this kind of superficial development is shallow and doesn’t run deep. As a consequence, it isn’t resilient.

These and many other objections might be made, but what is of most interest here is that Humboldt’s account of the origins of language, culture, and civilization is naturalistic to a degree not often seen at this time in history. In studying the languages of Java Humboldt affirmed that:

“Java manifestly received higher civilization and culture from India, and both in a significant degree, but the indigenous language did not for that reason alter a form that was more imperfect and less adapted to the needs of thought; on the contrary, it robbed the incomparably nobler Sanscrit of its own form, to force it into the local one. And India itself, however early it was civilized, and not through foreign mediation, did not obtain its language from this; the principle thereof, profoundly created from the truest linguistic sense, flowed rather, like that civilization itself, from the gifted mentality of the people.”

It was rare at the time to recognize the independent origins of Indian civilization. Even today, with all the archaeological evidence, there are still those who argue for a hyper-diffusionism in which civilization originated only once, and was subsequently dispersed to every inhabited geographical region. Humboldt’s writings on language, culture, and civilization are relevant to philosophy of history, but, like his influent on John Stuart Mill, the influence of these writings is mostly indirect.

Humboldt made at least one explicit contribution to historiography in an 1821 paper 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, these pro forma disavowal 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, at least in an inchoate form. Perhaps a better comparison than Burckhardt would be Geoffrey Elton’s criticism of what he called thesis-driven history, or what Georg Simmel called extra-theoretical interests in history.

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’.”

Yesterday in my episode on Reinhold Niebuhr I also mentioned another saying of Ranke, and since I haven’t yet recorded an episode on Ranke, I’m going to explain a little more about this. If you haven’t read much historiography or philosophy of history it’s possible that you’ve never heard of Leopold con Ranke, but as soon as you open a book on historiography, you’ll find that Ranke is a dominating presence. Ranke wrote a lot of works of history, and only a few reflections on his work as an historian, but these few reflections have proved to be disproportionately influential.

Most influential of all was Ranke’s phrase “wie es eigentlich gewesen.” The full sentence in which this phrase is contained is this:

“People have given History the function of judging the past, to serve the world for the instruction of years to come; but nothing beyond the present investigation will be attempted here — it will simply explain the event exactly as it happened.”

The last four words of the German text — wie es eigentlich gewesen — became an unlikely slogan among historians. It has been translated many different ways, such as, “the way it really was” and “how it really was” and “as it actually was,” and so on. Insofar as Humboldt was understood to be anticipating Ranke’s dictum, his contribution is deemed as significant, simply because of Ranke’s influence.

The passage from Humboldt referenced by Morison was quoted in Benedetto 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 defined 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.”

Humboldt ends “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 wrote:

“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.”

This doesn’t sound at all like Ranke’s “wie es eigentlich gewesen.” Humboldt starts out in a way that sounds like Ranke, but he develops the idea in a different direction. He presents the sorting out of what actually happened, which we could call the way that it actually was, is a mere prelude to the true task of the historian. 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.