The theme of this book was suddenly focused for me when I recently read an anthology of memoirs by citizens of Sarajevo who lived through the siege of that city in 1992. The contributors – people of multiple ethnicities and the victims of bitter racial and religious conflict – consistently emphasize one theme: the reality that communication between individuals is the only way to recognize and understand cultural difference. That reality is the theme of this book. It is also the central theme in the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), the founder of modern linguistics and the modern university and passionate defender of educational and political freedom. Both were under threat in Humboldt’s time and continue to be so in our own. In this book I want to show how the linguistic, educational, and political strands in Humboldt’s thought are interdependent and that all three are directly relevant to twenty-first century debates about the nature of language, identity, and intercultural and interfaith dialogue.
Making Humboldt relevant means bringing him down to earth. In the first century after his death, Humboldt was revered as the founder of the first modern German teaching and research university in Berlin and philosophical spokesman for the cultural and educational ideal of German idealism. However, his educational and philosophical vision was severely undermined in the last century, both by the actual inhumanity tolerated by some of his supposed disciples when the German universities fell under Nazi control, and the widespread perception of the irrelevance of his thinking to the educational needs of the present. Humboldt’s vision has been both uncritically adulated and mercilessly deconstructed. Against this reception, I argue that Humboldt can and should be read as a philosopher of pluralism, difference, and a contested public sphere.
Wilhelm von Humboldt’s work has a truly global relevance because it sees language as the universal paradigm of the human. His understanding of the primacy of speech over writing and his rejection of the idea of language as a system of signs representing a reality external to itself anticipates many of the insights of modern linguistics. For Humboldt, language and truth are both irrevocably personal and universally human. Our consciousness of belonging to one or more linguistic communities does not detract from – indeed, it enables – our capacity for universal communication in a multicultural world. For Humboldt, the two foundational principles of language learning are translation and dialogue. Whether we speak our own languages or those of others, we can never understand what we mean without the act of creative empathy which is the acknowledgement of an autonomous interlocutor other than ourselves. Our membership of one or more speech communities enables rather than inhibits our unique capacity for both individual expression and universal communication.
I hope to provoke a similar act of creative empathy from the readers of this book. In the second part of my book, I link Humboldt’s linguistic and political thought to current debates about free speech, inclusive language, and the demand for cultural and religious neutrality in the modern university. For Humboldt, the purpose of the university is to develop individual personality through encounter with a multitude of people from different cultural traditions, who may embody radically different ideas of what being a “person” means. Humboldt’s idea of the university, rooted in his philosophy of dialogue as the practice of truth, is a forum for what Martha Nussbaum calls The Cosmopolitan Tradition (2019) and Kwame Anthony Appiah Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006). I conclude by taking up the work of Jurgen Habermas and Alasdair Macintyre and arguing that discourse without domination can never be defined by any one tradition, whatever its intellectual, cultural, theological, or secular provenance, but only by the clash of several different ones. Humboldt’s vision continues to illuminate the practice of both public debate and higher education in the contemporary world. The point of this book to show that Humboldt is anything but an outdated product of his time and place, but remains a critical, communicative, and profoundly relevant voice in our own. Like Humboldt’s work itself, it aims to provoke and encourage creative dissent and continuing dialogue amongst its readers.
This guest post was written by JOHN WALKER who is Emeritus Reader in German Intellectual History at Birkbeck College, University of London, and teaches at the University of Cambridge.