This article is part of the feature „Great guys. Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt

Between idealization and criticism

6 min read

Towards the end of his long life, Alexander von Humboldt wrote to his publisher Johann Georg von Cotta in October 1854, outlining what he felt was his most important scientific work: “The Geography of Plants and the related Tableau of the tropics, the theory of isothermal lines and the observations of the Earth’s magnetism.”

From a present-day perspective this was certainly a modest position to take, given the worldwide attention this Prussian travelling researcher continues to garner. The question remains, however, as to Humboldt’s significance for us today and what his most important contributions were to the science, social development and intellectual advancement of his era. As we celebrate his 250th birthday this year, one of the most critical issues is not only to achieve a better historical understanding of Humboldt, but also to define his relevance in the context of today’s challenges.


The multifaceted life of this cosmopolitan scholar, his complex interests and profound commentary on the realities of his time provide the basis for very different perspectives on his character and his work. In Germany we focus on different aspects of our renowned countryman than our colleagues in France or Spain, and the view of Humboldt in Latin America is certainly different from the one in the United States. Furthermore, the various interpretations have changed over the course of time and adapted to the zeitgeist.

Whereas in Germany today Humboldt is seen as a spearhead of the environmental movement, a pioneer of internationally networked scientific research or as an inspiration for impartial intercultural exchange, a study focusing on his work in Latin America conducted for the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (ifa) has uncovered another perspective. What is most remembered in these countries is his criticism of the colonial system, how he laid the groundwork for the scientific, political and economic modernization of the continent and his transdisciplinary approach combining the humanities and the natural sciences with social engagement.

There is also enormous appreciation for his enthusiasm for American nature, his positive and optimistic view of the “New World” and his appreciation of pre-Columbian cultures. In the United States, it is Humboldt’s connection to President Jefferson and other Founding Fathers that is most fondly remembered, and he is often associated with the ideals of the founding years – an association that Humboldt himself liked to promote. His vehement opposition to slavery and his enthusiasm for implementing Enlightenment values in the young democracy are also viewed positively in the country.


But there are also critical voices to be found throughout the Americas. It is primarily Humboldt’s work in the interest of the Spanish Empire that is viewed negatively. His expertise in the area of mining in particular places him within the context of the colonial programme of exploitation. Furthermore, Humboldt is also accused of not having properly considered the political ramifications of the information he passed on, especially the geographical and statistical knowledge he gave to the government of the United States.
There is also the occasional complaint that in evaluating Humboldt’s legacy, his cooperation with local scientists as well as the assistance and knowledge he received from indigenous cultures has not been acknowledged sufficiently. In the United States, it is mainly the fact that Humboldt drew upon the structures of Spain’s colonial empire during his expeditions that has attracted criticism.


What leads to such different perspectives? To some extent this is surely accountable to the fact that, unlike other natural scientists or famous explorers, Humboldt does not stand for a specific theory or concrete discoveries. His most important contributions were all-encompassing: he established connections that crossed all boundaries not only between fields of knowledge, but also between geographical regions and historical epochs. As his brother Wilhelm noted in 1793, his strength was in connecting ideas and “recognizing chains of things” with his “tremendous depth of thinking”, his “impossibly sharp eye” and his “rapid associations”, combined with an “iron diligence, effuse eruditeness and inexhaustibly inquiring mind”. These special abilities underpinned him in his roles not only as natural scientist, expeditionary and author, but also as historian, diplomat, science manager, artist and even patron.

Given the wide spectrum of reference points, the importance we assign to Humboldt largely depends of course on what we are looking to find in him. Both today and in the past there have been a variety of issues that are inspiring to people, and all of these have noticeably influenced the importance we ascribe to him. Furthermore, all of these different perspectives influence one another: everything is connected – not only in Humboldt’s work, but also in the way he as a person is perceived around the world. The more he was stylized an intellectual leader of the independence movement by the newly created American nations in the nineteenth century, the more his liberal political stance in Madrid began to overshadow his scientific achievements.


The more we describe Humboldt today as the first networker, as globalism’s first visionary, as the first climate activist while simultaneously disregarding his contemporaries who were focusing on the same issues, the louder the voices of dissent become, particularly in the Americas. Such voices point out that the myth of Humboldt as a “lone genius” is merely a postcolonial construct with no basis in reality. For example, a symposium called “The Invention of Humboldt”, held in Quito in August 2019, is dedicated to a more balanced perspective that takes into account Humboldt’s continuous referencing of Hispano-American bodies of knowledge of the time.

Other academic conferences on both sides of the Atlantic aim to help reevaluate this idealized image of Humboldt while alluding to his embeddedness in contemporary structures of knowledge and the ongoing transatlantic exchange of information. These are certainly positive developments, as focusing on Humboldt in this way promotes both intercultural communication and constructive exchanges between differing perspectives. It is a promising approach – especially because the abovementioned criticisms say more about the different ways Humboldt is perceived rather than just taking aim at Humboldt’s character.

Sandra Rebok

Sandra Rebok is a science historian. She worked for several years for the Spanish National Research Council in Madrid and has written numerous books and essays on Alexander von Humboldt.