Humboldtian Studies: A Special Column

To commemorate the 250th birthday of Alexandar von Humboldt, a special column was devoted to Humboldtian studies in Foreign Languages and Cultures in the Sept. 2019.

On September 14, 1769, Alexander von Humboldt was born in Berlin. As we launch this column, the world is celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birth of one of the most celebrated scholars and scientists of the 18th and 19th centuries, with not only the Humboldt Forum, but countless conferences, workshops, lectures and, of course, commemorative columns.

Humboldt was a scientist, writer, traveler, and probably the first theorist of globalization. He lived in Prussia and France, wrote in German and French, and traveled throughout the Americas and Central Asia. He traveled across the Russian empire to the Chinese border, and much of China is described in his three-volume, French-language book, "Central Asia."

Humboldt's life was divided into three thirty years. For the first three decades of 1769 to 1799, he lived in Berlin with his brother, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and received the best education, studying botany, history, chemistry, geography, philology and philosophy. After his mother's death, he was determined to see the world beyond Europe, and when he left Europe for the first time, he was already a well-known scholar and scientist in Germany and France. The second phase, which began in 1799, took Humboldt five years to traverse the Spanish colonies in the Americas, including present-day Venezuela, Cuba, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Mexico. At the end of the trip, he made a brief stop in the United States, during which he met several times concurrently as President, Thomas Jefferson. For the next twenty years he wrote in Paris. During this time, he not only created disciplines such as botanical geography and native American cultural history, but also created the interdisciplinary concept that came to be known as "Humboldt science" and the writing style that came to be known as "Humboldt writing". At the end of this period, he returned to Berlin to speak to the public so that women could study science. Humboldt's last thirty years began in 1829, when he accepted the invitation of the Russian Tsar to travel to Russia to begin his studies of Central Asia.

Humboldt's books included more than a dozen monographs, 30 volumes of treatises on Latin America, and numerous scientific papers. There are also more than 50,000 letters and thousands of pages of manuscripts yet to be published and studied.

Both articles in this column are the result of a research project called "Humboldt on The Move: The Science of Mobility." The project, funded by the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and the University of Potsdam in conjunction with the National Library of Berlin, the Technical University of Berlin and the Yakelon Library in Krakow, Poland, began in 2015 and is expected to take 18 years. It focuses on editing Humboldt's manuscript travel diaries for the Americas and Asia, published in paper and electronic form.

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