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

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We find even among the most savage nations (as my own travels enable me to attest) a certain vague, terror-stricken sense of the all-powerful unity of natural forces, and of the existence of an invisible, spiritual essence manifested in these forces, whether in unfolding the flower and maturing the fruit of the nutrient tree, in upheaving the soil of the forest, or in rending the clouds with the might of the storm. We may here trace the revelation of a bond of union, linking together the visible world and that higher spiritual world which escapes the grasp of the senses. The two become unconsciously blended together, developing in the mind of man, as a simple product of ideal conception, and independently of the aid of observation, the first germ of a Philosophy of Nature.

Among nations least advanced in civilization, the imagination revels in strange and fantastic creations, and, by its predilection for symbols, alike influences ideas and language. Instead of examining, men are led to conjecture, dogmatize, and interpret supposed facts that have never been observed. The inner world of thought and of feeling does not reflect the image of the external world in its primitive purity. That which in some regions of the earth manifested itself as the rudiments of natural philosophy, only to a small number of persons endowed with superior intelligence, appears in other regions, and among entire races of men, to be the result of mystic tendencies and instinctive intuitions. An intimate communion with nature, and the vivid and deep emotions thus awakened, are likewise the source from which have sprung the first impulses toward the worship and deification of the destroying and preserving forces of the universe. But by degrees, as man, after having passed through the different gradations of intellectual development, arrives at the free enjoyment of the regulating power of reflection, and learns by gradual progress, as it were, to separate the world of ideas from that of sensations, he no longer rests satisfied merely with a vague presentiment of the harmonious unity of natural forces; thought begins to fulfill its noble mission; and observation, aided by reason, endeavors to trace phenomena to the causes from which they spring.

The history of science teaches us the difficulties that have opposed the progress of this active spirit of inquiry. Inaccurate and imperfect observations have led, by false inductions, to the great number of physical views that have been perpetuated as popular prejudices among all classes of society. Thus by the side of a solid and scientific knowledge of natural phenomena there has been preserved a system of the pretended results of observation, which is so much the more difficult to shake, as it denies the validity of the facts by which it may be refuted. This empiricism, the melancholy heritage transmitted to us from former times, invariably contends for the truth of its axioms with the arrogance of a narrow-minded spirit. Physical philosophy, on the other hand, when based upon science, doubts because it seeks to investigate, distinguishes between that which is certain and that which is merely probable, and strives incessantly to perfect theory by extending the circle of observation.

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