Think Pro-Actively: What Alexander von Humboldt’s Extraordinary Life and Times Can Teach Us Today

Purdue School of Languages and Cultures Professor (in German Comparative Literature and Film) Beate Allert spoke with Purdue University Press about Alexander von Humboldt: Perceiving the World, a book that began with an Individual Study course. Several graduate students eventually became co-editors and contributors, sharing insights and explorations of languages, cultures, science, and environmentalism as approached by Alexander von Humboldt.

Q: Could you give a brief description of your book?

This book is a study of Alexander von Humboldt’s innovative contributions to science, environmental studies, geography, botany, tropical and indigenous cultures, painting, media studies, and the visual. Alexander von Humboldt was inspired to travel by a painting of the tropics, and he became one of the most exciting art theorists by trying to understand and to portray other cultures, plants, animals, and people while trying not to invade, or not to impose one’s own mind frame. He was truly open-minded and taught respect for the Indigenous; he was a great communicator and team member both as a scientist and as an artist interacting internationally with others, and he became founder of environmentalism. He studied life forms and growth, created new communication systems and scientific ways to record landscapes and climates, electromagnetic fields, riverways, volcanoes and he experimented with a new approach to measuring and communicating complex data as cogently as possible. He was fluent in multiple languages including German, French, Spanish, English, among others. He was outspokenly against slavery and racism.

Q: What is the goal of your book? What motivated you to write it?

This book contributes to Comparative Literature, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Studies, and to Environmentalism. Alexander von Humboldt makes us “think proactively about how to treasure our shared Kosmos, to pay more attention to Stimmung (timing, mood, atmospheric changes) to protect it from fragmentation and decay, and to promote justice” (Allert 246).

Q: What are a few things that are being studied for the first time in this book?

Each of the ten essays by various scholars is an original contribution to scholarship and presents new things that have never been published before. The book is divided into three parts. The first addresses Alexander von Humboldt’s cultural impact. It explains, for example, his importance for Indiana. The founder of Purdue University, John Purdue, was already interested in this author and his work and owned a set of his work in English which is even now in the special collection in the Purdue University Libraries. Part two of the book elaborates on Alexander von Humboldt’ s fascinating work on nature and the environment, for example by sharing his poem on a lonely parrot, the only speaker left of a language that has meanwhile become extinct. Part three on Humboldt titled “From Art to Science and Science as Art” gives insights into his data-driven paradigm segues, his explorations of the cosmos, his imaging techniques, and his thoughts on the subterranean.

Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt

Q: Is there anything that shocked or surprised you while working on this project?

The project was a wonderful learning process all around, it took years of studying with great pleasure. I found it amazing how relevant Alexander von Humboldt’s discoveries and writings are even today, so many years later, how avantgarde his insights were!

Q: Could you tell us a little bit about the relationship between von Humboldt and Purdue, both the University and its founder?

You will have to read Dr. Ricardo Quintana-Vallejo’s chapter in this book (pp. 19-34) to get an answer for that. It is just wonderful that Purdue University’s founder already had an interest in Alexander von Humboldt, a foreign traveler and scientist at the time. We are lucky to have a great library here and such a special collection in the archives demonstrating that interest and the legacy of his work.

Q: The interdisciplinary nature of this volume seems fitting, given the interdisciplinary nature of von Humboldt’s own work and interests. Is this similar to, or different from interdisciplinary studies (like yours) in the modern world? How do you think interdisciplinary studies and their outcomes are the same in science and the humanities? How are they different?

The eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries did not have the rigid divisions between the distinct academic disciplines which we now are faced with both in the Sciences and in the Humanities. In some ways, Humboldt anticipated modes of research from which we can now learn, even today. It was vital for him to work in educated and knowledgeable teams of scholars connected and corresponding, despite the distances between the continents. Such collaborations have become much easier nowadays with our mobility and all the wonderful electronic media. However, it still helps to know various foreign languages and to take great effort in communicating clearly not only using words, writing lengthy travelogues and long letters and reports on the research, but also by using visuals, charts, symbols, codes, and concrete ways to communicate complex things, ideally in the most understandable ways possible. There is always art in communicating well, although the modes of communication now differ widely.

Alexander von Humboldt and Mother

Q: von Humbolt spoke several languages. Do you think that influenced his perceptions of the world in an important way?

Yes, I think that each language we learn offers new ways of thinking and that Alexander von Humboldt saw the world from so many distinct perspectives because he was able to communicate with people from various cultures.

Q: How does the multilingual nature of von Humboldt’s body of work influence how it is researched by scholars in the modern world?

It requires that scholars study his complex work in various languages to do his work as a whole adequate justice.

Q: Do you think there is an argument for modern science education to promote studies of foreign languages as part of the scientific discipline?

Yes, of course! Learning foreign languages is a vital tool not only in the context of the Humanities but the Sciences at large. It should indeed be integral to modern science education.

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