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Alexander von Humboldt: Excerpts from Cosmos (1845-58)

Toward the end of his life, the geographer, naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) authored Cosmos (1845-58), an ambitious multi-volume work. Cosmos was one of the last manifestations of the classicistic/idealistic quest to articulate the unity of all scholarly and scientific knowledge. Humbodlt’s study was subsequently superseded by works that took a more pluralistic approach to epistemology.

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In considering the study of physical phenomena, not merely in its bearings on the material wants of life, but in its general influence on the intellectual advancement of mankind, we find its noblest and most important result to be a knowledge of the chain of connection, by which all natural forces are linked together, and made mutually dependent upon each other; and it is the perception of these relations that exalts our views and ennobles our enjoyments. Such a result can, however, only be reaped as the fruit of observation and intellect, combined with the spirit of the age, in which are reflected all the varied phases of thought. He who can trace, through by-gone times, the stream of our knowledge to its primitive source, will learn from history how, for thousands of years, man has labored, amid the ever-recurring changes of form, to recognize the invariability of natural laws, and has thus, by the force of mind, gradually subdued a great portion of the physical world to his dominion. In interrogating the history of the past, we trace the mysterious course of ideas yielding the first glimmering perception of the same image of a Cosmos, or harmoniously ordered whole, which, dimly shadowed forth to the human mind in the primitive ages of the world, is now fully revealed to the maturer intellect of man kind as the result of long and laborious observation.

Each of these epochs of the contemplation of the external world—the earliest dawn of thought and the advanced stage of civilization—has its own source of enjoyment. In the former, this enjoyment, in accordance with the simplicity of the primitive ages, flowed from an intuitive feeling of the order that was proclaimed by the invariable and successive reappearance of the heavenly bodies, and by the progressive development of organized beings; while in the latter, this sense of enjoyment springs from a definite knowledge of the phenomena of nature. When man began to interrogate nature, and, not content with observing, learned to evoke phenomena under definite conditions; when once he sought to collect and record facts, in order that the fruit of his labors might aid investigation after his own brief existence had passed away, the philosophy of Nature cast aside the vague and poetic garb in which she had been enveloped from her origin, and, having assumed a severer aspect, she now weighs the value of observations, and substitutes induction and reasoning for conjecture and assumption. The dogmas of former ages survive now only in the superstitions of the people and the prejudices of the ignorant, or are perpetuated in a few systems, which, conscious of their weakness, shroud themselves in a vail of mystery. We may also trace the same primitive intuitions in languages exuberant in figurative expressions; and a few of the best chosen symbols engendered by the happy inspiration of the earliest ages, having by degrees lost their vagueness through a better mode of interpretation, are still preserved among our scientific terms.

Nature considered rationally, that is to say, submitted to the process of thought, is a unity in diversity of phenomena; a harmony, blending together all created things, however dissimilar in form and attributes; one great whole animated by the breath of life. The most important result of a rational inquiry into nature is, therefore, to establish the unity and harmony of this stupendous mass of force and matter, to determine with impartial justice what is due to the discoveries of the past and to those of the present, and to analyze the individual parts of natural phenomena without succumbing beneath the weight of the whole. Thus, and thus alone, is it permitted to man, while mindful of the high destiny of his race, to comprehend nature, to lift the vail that shrouds her phenomena, and, as it were, submit the results of observation to the test of reason and of intellect.

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