Friedrich Wilhelm von Humboldt

Portrait of Wilhelm von Humboldt

Friedrich Wilhelm Christian Karl Ferdinand von Humboldt was a Prussian philosopher, linguist, diplomat and government official and founder of the Humboldt University of Berlin. He was born on 22nd June 1767 in Potsdam in Germany and died on 8th April 1835 in Tegel, Berlin, Germany aged 67.

Major Works

“Ideen zu einem Versuch die Grenzen der Wirksamkeit des Staats zu Bestimmen” (The Spheres and Duties of Government) (1792)“The Aesthetische Versuche” (Essays on Aesthetics) (1799)
“Prüfung der Untersuchungen über die Urbewohner Hispaniens” (On the Early Inhabitants of Spain) (1821)
The Heterogeneity of Language and its Influence on the Intellectual Development of Mankind” (1836)
“The Limits of State Action” (1850)

Biography Timeline

Friedrich Wilhelm Christian Karl Ferdinand von Humboldt was born on 22nd June 1767 in Potsdam, Germany. His father was Alexander Georg von Humboldt a Major in the Prussian army from a noble family in Pomerania. After service in the Seven Years War he became Royal Chamberlain. Friedrich was educated at home with his brother Alexander. He later studied at the University of Jena where he met many of the German Romantics and became a lifelong friend of Friedrich von Schiller. (His correspondence with the poet was published in 1830).

1779: His father dies.

1791: In June he marries Caroline von Dacheröden and they go on to have eight children of which five survive into adulthood. He begins writing “The Limits of State Action” which he finishes in the following year but which is not published until 1850 after his death. In it he defends the liberties of the enlightenment.

1792: The section of “The Limits of State Action” dealing with education is published in December in the “Berlinische Monatsschrift” journal under the title “On Public State Education”. He becomes a major figure in the philosophical debate about the direction that national education should take which is at its height in Germany at the time. He publishes “Ideen zu einem Versuch die Grenzen der Wirksamkeit des Staats zu Bestimmen” (The Spheres and Duties of Government).

1799: He publishes “The Aesthetische Versuche” (Essays on Aesthetics).

1801: He is sent to Rome as Plenipotentiary Minister (one with full powers to sign contracts) on behalf of the Prussian Government where he becomes a patron of the arts and sciences and Caroline his wife holds many dinners and gatherings for local intellectuals.  

1809: The Prussian King asks him to leave Rome to lead the Directorate of Education under Friedrich Ferdinand Alexander zu Dohna-Schlobitten. He does not reply for weeks as he wanted to become Minister of Education himself but eventually accedes. His wife does not return to Prussia with him. He is responsible for religious affairs and public education and founds the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin (later renamed Humboldt University).

1810: He offers his resignation in April as he feels disappointed in not becoming the main Minister and is appointed to the Embassy in Vienna where he meets up with his wife once more.

1812: He becomes Ambassador to Austria. 

1813: He is present at the Congress of Prague where he helps in getting Austria to ally with Prussia and Russia against Napoleon Bonaparte. 

1815: He is one of the signatories at the Treaty of Paris at the end of the Napoleonic wars.

1817: He studies the Basque language and makes corrections and additions to “Mithradates” by Johann Christoph Adelung.

1818: He is present at the Congress of Aachen.

1819: He gives up working for the Prussian government, which he feels is becoming too reactionary, and dedicates himself to literature and study. He translates poems by the ancient Greek poets Pindar and Aeschylus into German.

1820: He is elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society.

1821: His two previous visits to the Basque region of Spain culminate in his work “Prüfung der Untersuchungen über die Urbewohner Hispaniens” (Researches into the Early Inhabitants of Spain by the help of the Basque language). He maintains that the Basques once inhabited all of Spain and some of France and that they were allies of the Berbers in north Africa.

1822: He is made a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

1828: He publishes “Über den Dualis” (On the Dual) and becomes one of the precursors of the study of the metaphysics of language.

Friedrich Wilhelm Christian Karl Ferdinand von Humboldt died on 8th April 1835 in Tegel, Berlin, Germany and was buried in the family plot at Schloss Tegel (Also known as Humboldtschloss) Tegel, Reinickendorfin Berlin. 
His life’s work, a study of the ancient Kawi language of Java, remained unfinished and was published by his brother Alexander in 1836 as “The Heterogeneity of Language and its Influence on the Intellectual Development of Mankind”. The introduction entitled Über die Verschiedenheit des Menschlichen Sprachbaues: und ihren Einfluss auf die Geistige Entwickelung des Menschengeschlechts” (On Language: The Diversity of Human Language-Structure and Its Influence on the Mental Development of Mankind) discusses language in the formation of human development. His poems and essays were published in 1852 and his correspondence with Goethe in 1876.

Further Information

List of works by Humboldt.