Wilhelm von Humboldt, Forgotten Titan of Political Theory

Wilhelm von Humboldt was a Berlin Prussian-German who lived from 1767 to 1835.  He is remembered for a few reasons.  The first university in Berlin, which now bears his name the Humboldt University (the name also refers to his brother Alexander) was founded by Humboldt in 1810, though it did not bear his name until 1949.  He led the reorganisation of school education in Prussia at the time he founded the university.  He wrote a book on language which made a major contribution towards the emergence of linguistics as a discipline, and which is mentioned favourably by figures as diverse as Martin Heidegger and Noam Chomsky.  

What else did he do?  A lot, including diplomacy, translation and constitutional projects.  And he wrote a great classic of political theory, one of the most deeply thought, passionate and stylish books ever written of that kind.  A book known as The Limits of State Action.  Its importance was noted by John Stuart Mill, and its inspirational role for him, in On Liberty (for many, the definitive book of liberal political thought).  The book is also referred to more indirectly later in the 19th century by Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy, with regard to the tension between the position in that book and Humboldt’s activity as Prussian education minister.  Culture and Anarchy was one of the main expressions of Victorian consciousness with regard to culture, education and social principles  It is is one of the books which leads the way to cultural studies and related work across disciplines.  It is a major point of reference for James Joyce in Ulysses.  

What was the tension mention by Arnold in Humboldt’s thought?  The tension between the minarchism (minimum state theory) of Humboldt’s book and his rıole in expanding state activity in the sphere of education. In the book, Humboldt is a strict minarchist, or nightwatchman state theorist.  He argues that the state can only properly provide protection against crime and protection against invasion by proper enemies.  All other activities encroach on the capacities for humans to grown and interact which create much more than the state machine.  Humboldt’s arguments for minarchism are the best until Robert Nozick’s 1974 book, Anarchy, State and Utopia.  The most important intervening expressions are in Herbert Spencer during the 19th century and Ayn Rand in the 20th century.  Spencer is not greatly read any more, fairly or not.  His contributions to the definition of sociology to the best of my knowledge are not influential on any current practitioners.  Rand’s works (particularly her novels)  have a huge audience but are not a great intellectual achievement except in the eyes of enthusiasts, very few of whom are to be found among the ranks of writers and academics.  

Humboldt’s arguments are rooted in a  deep appreciation of antique culture and history, combined with a strong awareness of the social and political developments of his time.  His ideas of negative and positive welfare are very important for debates about positive and negative liberty, which largely react to Isaiah Berlin’s treatment of that distinction in the 1950s, a distinction which is still widely discussed.  Berlin largely refers to Benjamin Constant’s discussion of the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns.  Constant and Humboldt were friends, and Humboldt even exceeds the richness of his friends discussion by looking at the differences between positive and negative welfare as they worked in antiquity and in the modern world.

Humboldt provides a link between Constant’s position and Kant’s discussion of negative and positive freedom in ethics.  Humbolt was deeply interested in the German Idealist tradition and was a friend of Hegel’s.  In another direction, Humboldt links with Scottish Enlightenment writing in Hume, Smith and Ferguson, on relatively savage and relatively civilised stages in human history, the role of natural freedom and of law in the stages of European history.  There is an elitist element to his liberalism, in which monarchy is preferred to democracy.  This connects Humbodt with what is often known as aristocratic liberalism in Tocqueville, Mill, Hyppolite Taine and Jacob Burckhardt.  From this it should be clear that Humboldt is vital to any discussion of the relation between Nietzsche and aristocratic liberalism.  Nietzsche was a reader of Tocqueville, and was friendly with Taine and Burckhardt.  The extremism of Humboldt in the direction of admiration for ancient virtues, of martial spirit, the natural capacity to command, the preference for customary law over state law, make him closer to Nietzsche than those figure.  It also has to be said that an interest in the spirit of war, and restriction of political participation to an elite, is much more part of classical liberalism, which is mostly at least tinged with aristocratic liberalism, than is often realised.  

The Limits of State Action is in print, but only with one publisher in English, specialising in classical liberal texts, the Liberty Fund in Indiana.  It is not very well known in German either and has not attracted much commentary.  It deserves more attention, I’m trying to bring it some, but it needs others to illuminate it  beyond the tiny amount of attention I can draw to it.  Soon I hope, soon.  


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