GHDI logo

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

page 9 of 9    print version    return to list previous document      next document

The object of this introductory notice is not, however, solely to draw attention to the importance and greatness of the physical history of the universe, for in the present day these are too well understood to be contested, but likewise to prove how, without detriment to the stability of special studies, we may be enabled to generalize our ideas by concentrating them in one common focus, and thus arrive at a point of view from which all the organisms and forces of nature may be seen as one living, active whole, animated by one sole impulse. "Nature," as Schelling remarks in his poetic discourse on art, "is not an inert mass; and to him who can comprehend her vast sublimity, she reveals herself as the creative force of the universe—before all time, eternal, ever active, she calls to life all things, whether perishable or imperishable."

By uniting, under one point of view, both the phenomena of our own globe and those presented in the regions of space, we embrace the limits of the science of the Cosmos, and convert the physical history of the globe into the physical history of the universe, the one term being modeled upon that of the other. This science of the Cosmos is not, however, to be regarded as a mere encyclopedic aggregation of the most important and general results that have been collected together from special branches of knowledge. These results are nothing more than the materials for a vast edifice, and their combination can not constitute the physical history of the world, whose exalted part it is to show the simultaneous action and the connecting links of the forces which pervade the universe. The distribution of organic types in different climates and at different elevations—that is to say, the geography of plants and animals—differs as widely from botany and descriptive zoology as geology does from mineralogy, properly so called. The physical history of the universe must not, therefore, be confounded with the Encyclopedias of the Natural Sciences, as they have hitherto been compiled, and whose title is as vague as their limits are ill defined. In the work before us, partial facts will be considered only in relation to the whole. The higher the point of view, the greater is the necessity for a systematic mode of treating the subject in language at once animated and picturesque.

But thought and language have ever been most intimately allied. If language, by its originality of structure and its native richness, can, in its delineations, interpret thought with grace and clearness, and if, by its happy flexibility, it can paint with vivid truthfulness the objects of the external world, it reacts at the same time upon thought, and animates it, as it were, with the breath of life. It is this mutual reaction which makes words more than mere signs and forms of thought; and the beneficent influence of a language is most strikingly manifested on its native soil, where it has sprung spontaneously from the minds of the people, whose character it embodies. Proud of a country that seeks to concentrate her strength in intellectual unity, the writer recalls with delight the advantages he has enjoyed in being permitted to express his thoughts in his native language; and truly happy is he who, in attempting to give a lucid exposition of the great phenomena of the universe, is able to draw from the depths of a language, which, through the free exercise of thought, and by the effusions of creative fancy, has for centuries past exercised so powerful an influence over the destinies of man.

Source of English translation: Alexander von Humboldt, Cosmos: a Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe, translated by E. C. Otté, introduction by Michael Dettelbach. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997, pp. 23-25, 36-41, 53-56.

© 1997 [The Johns Hopkins University Press]. Reproduced with permission of The Johns Hopkins University Press.

first page < previous   |   next > last page