Friedrich Wilhelm Christian Karl Ferdinand Freiherr von Humboldt (June 22, 1767 – April 8, 1835), government functionary, diplomat, philosopher, founder of Humboldt Universität in Berlin, friend of Goethe and especially of Schiller, is especially remembered as a German linguist who introduced a knowledge of the Basque language to European intellectuals.
His younger brother Alexander von Humboldt was an equally famous naturalist and scientist.
Wilhelm von Humboldt was a philosopher of note and published On the Limits of State Action in 1810, the boldest defence of the liberties of the Enlightenment. It anticipated John Stuart Mill's essay On Liberty by which von Humboldt's ideas became known in the English-speaking world. He describes the development of liberalism and the role of liberty in individual development and in pursuit of excellence. He also describes the necessary conditions without which the state must not be allowed to limit the action of individuals. Friedrich Hayek considers Humboldt the greatest German philosopher of liberty.
As Prussian minister of education, he oversaw the system of Technische Hochschulen and gymnasien that made Prussia, and subsequently the German Empire, the strongest European power and the scientific and intellectual leader of the world.
As a successful diplomat between 1802 and 1819, Humboldt was plenipotentiary Prussian minister at Rome from 1802, ambassador at Vienna from 1812 during the closing struggles of the Napoleonic Wars, at the congress of Prague (1813) where he was instrumental in drawing Austria to ally with Prussia and Russia against France, a signer of the peace treaty at Paris and the treaty between Prussia and defeated Saxony (1815), at Frankfurt settling post-Napoleonic Germany, and at the congress at Aachen in 1818. However, the increasingly reactionary policy of the Prussian government made him give up political life in 1819; and from that time forward he devoted himself solely to literature and study.
Wilhelm von Humboldt was an adept linguist who translated Pindar and Aeschylus and studied the Basque language.
Von Humboldt's work as a philologist in the Basque language has had the most extended life of all his other work. The result of his visit to the Basque country was Researches into the Early Inhabitants of Spain by the help of the Basque language (1821). In this work von Humboldt endeavored to show, by an examination of geographical placenames, that a race or races speaking dialects allied to modern Basque once extended throughout Spain, southern France and the Balearic Islands; he identified these people with the Iberians of classical writers, and he further surmised that they had been allied with the Berbers of northern Africa. Von Humboldt's pioneering work has been superseded in its details by modern linguistics and archaeology, but is sometimes still uncritically followed even today.
Von Humboldt died while still preparing on his greatest work, on the ancient Kawi language of Java, but its introduction was published in 1836 as The Heterogeneity of Language and its Influence on the Intellectual Development of Mankind. This essay on the philosophy of speech:
He is credited with being the first European linguist to identify human language as a rule-governed system, rather than just a collection of words and phrases paired with meanings. This idea is one of the foundations of Noam Chomsky's theory of language. Chomsky frequently quotes Humboldt's description of language as a system which "makes infinite use of finite means", meaning that an infinite number of sentences can be created using a finite number of grammatical rules. In recent times, Humboldt has also been credited as an originator of the linguistic relativity hypothesis (more commonly known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), approximately a century before either Edward Sapir or Benjamin Whorf.
The first subsection below is a list of works written by von Humboldt himself, the second section lists works written about him or in reaction to his writing.