Alexander von Humboldt, synthesist

I’ve recently been reading a very interesting book, ‘The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, The Lost Hero of Science’ by Andrea Wulf, which has made me much more aware of the profound scientific legacy of Humboldt (a figure who seems to be largely forgotten in Anglophone countries). Humboldt (1769-1859) was a towering figure of science, not because he created a massive new theory like Newton or Einstein, but because of the way he linked different spheres of discussion together to recognise new conditions. He can be a new source of inspiration today precisely because science, and indeed the academic world in general, suffers so much from over-specialisation and the narrowing of assumptions that this brings with it.

Humboldt was born into an aristocratic family in Prussia at the time of Prussia’s increasing ascendancy in Germany, but before its unification. Influenced by Goethe and Kant, he treated human understanding as an interconnected whole, developing a concept of nature that recognised all these interconnections at a time when few of them were understood. He was the first to recognise the relationship between animals, plants, geology and climate across the world, and the first to warn of the destructive effects of human activity on the environment, including climate change. He spoke and read four languages fluently and was as equally at home in Paris, London, Washington, or Bogota as he was in Berlin. He travelled to South America and Russia, combining meticulous observation, intrepid exploration, and broad awareness of the relationships between all the phenomena he observed. Back in Paris and Berlin, he wrote books that interwove geology, astronomy, botany, zoology, human geography and politics, describing his experiences with sensitivity and power and illustrating them visually, as well as providing all the data. He spoke to the public and became massively popular, as well as being an inspiration for such varied figures as Thomas Jefferson, Simon Bolivar, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, Ernst Haeckel and John Muir. The great strength of Wulf’s book is that she unites an engrossing account of Humboldt’s own life and achievements with one of his influence on all of these figures.humboldt-bonpland_chimborazoHumboldt’s way of doing science united analysis with synthesis in a way that seems to be largely lost today. His general conclusions could be backed up with detailed evidence from observation that was often first-hand, but at the same time he could pan out and make links between diverse fields of study. For example, he noted the effects of the Spanish colonial system on the environment of South America, and the impoverishment of plant and animal life it was already creating in some areas, even whilst abundant life thrived in those less affected by human interference. He also linked human-created deforestation to a feedback loop of climate change, as the lack of trees desiccated a local environment. To make links in this way, across the boundaries of politics, botany, meteorology and geography, is to synthesise, creating new understanding, rather than just to analyse causes and justifications within an accepted field of discourse.

Some of the thinkers I most admire today are synthesisers who have likewise linked together fields that are often falsely separated: Carl Jung, Iain McGilchrist, or Nassim Nicholas Taleb, for instance. But synthetic thinkers today have the odds massively stacked against them, and are typically forced by the academic system to plough a narrow furrow for many years before they can be allowed to synthesise and be taken seriously. ‘The academic system’ here means peer-reviewed journals that take the limited assumptions of a particular specialisation as their sole basis, and expect highly-evidenced work covering a small area that can be fitted into an existing accepted framework of knowledge. Anything in the least synthetic is almost automatically rejected by such journals, and even if they are supposedly inter-disciplinary they are often highly limited in the starting assumptions they will accept. No academic career is possible without the support of these journals, and thus the triumph of analysis over synthesis maintains a stranglehold over the academic world.

But if you read about Humboldt’s scientific world of the early nineteenth century, you find quite a different world. Here a scientist was still largely thought of as an individual thinker and observer rather than someone who had to conform to a massive socially-regulated project. Here synthetic abilities could still be recognised, appreciated and cultivated alongside those of analysis and observation. The scientists were much fewer in number and had much more limited facilities at their disposal, but they still made great breakthroughs, because they were free to reflect on their experience from a variety of perspectives and thus come up with new theories. Humboldt’s recognition of what we now call ecological relationships was a discovery that could hardly be of greater practical importance to us today – probably much greater importance than the relative breakthroughs made today by specialised teams who persist in ploughing a well-ploughed furrow a little bit further.

Of course, it would be easy to idealise that earlier scientific world, and the current one has many other advantages. What seems important to me is not to in any way belittle the efforts of scientists in the current specialised system, but to encourage awareness of the overall limitations of that system and urge it to incorporate more synthesis. It is like a tree that has grown strongly in one direction when the light was available there, but now lacks the flexibility to grow in a new direction when the source of light moves. The scientific system depends on the education system, which gives far too little grounding in philosophical, psychological and emotional awareness which would help people more readily see the limitations of a specialised position. In turn philosophy itself needs root and branch reform, because it has been warped in mistaken imitation of over-specialised science, rather than fulfilling its practical function of a general critical consideration of our widest beliefs and assumptions. Without a recognition of the perspective from which synthesis is so important, we are unlikely to be motivated in changing our institutions to encourage it. Looking back at the strengths of what was done in the past can at least provide a vein of inspiration for that, even if it doesn’t tell us exactly how to act today.


Picture: Humboldt and Bonpland by Mount Chimborazo by Friedrich Georg Weitsch (public domain)

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

One thought on “Alexander von Humboldt, synthesist

  1. Thanks for this, I’ve just reserved Wulf’s book via the library. Previously only heard of Humboldt in the context of the Humboldt Penguin.

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