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Reviewed by:
  • Wilhelm von Humboldt: Universalität und Individualität by Ute Tintemann und Jürgen Trabant
  • Ernest A. Menze
Wilhelm von Humboldt: Universalität und Individualität. Herausgegeben von Ute Tintemann und Jürgen Trabant. München: Fink, 2012. 238 Seiten. €29,90.

The volume under review here is based on the contributions made at a 2010 conference commemorating the 175th anniversary of Wilhelm von Humboldt’s death. Held at the Berlin-Brandenburg Akademie der Wissenschaften, the interdisciplinary meeting was intended to throw light on the contradiction, captured by the key terms “universality” and “individuality,” that shaped Humboldt’s thinking regardless of which of the various fields of human endeavors he examined. In an effort to bring thematic unity to the diversity of Humboldt’s concerns reflected in the individual contributions, the volume is organized in three parts, on “Wilhelm von Humboldt, the Individual,” “Individuality and Language,” and “Political Life and Language.” Jürgen Trabant’s magisterial introductory essay entitled “Arbeit des Geistes” (13–29), dealing with the joint labours of human language and human thought, effectively sets the stage for the [End Page 491] essays. Trabant leaves no doubt that linguistics with respect to language and thought is the volume’s common denominator.

The volume nevertheless in many ways addresses a much broader readership and issues going beyond language. By stressing Humboldt’s apprehension of language as an activity, Trabant systematically puts to rest any remnants of the “language-as-means-of-transport” theories. By referring back to Herder in elucidating Humboldt’s remark about language as the essential requisite of thought even in the state of complete isolation, Trabant musters up a supporter whose presence in these pages is palpable even if his influence is acknowledged only intermittently. For those who expect the remaining contributions to throw more light on the Herder/Humboldt puzzle there is no resolution offered here. Rather, the contributors confine themselves to the overall objectives set for the conference, the discussion of Humboldt’s role in the celebration of the riches of language “by illuminating the anthropological space between individuality and universality unfolding within them” (29). In order to spell out the principles underlying the volume, Trabant highlights the kinship between Henri Meschonnic (1932–2009) and Humboldt. Both stressed the “performative and energetic elements of language.” For Trabant, what mattered to Meschonnic and, implicitly, to Humboldt, was “language not as sign, but as thought incarnated as sound, as rhythm, as synthesis of thought and sound.” Opening the conference, Trabant repeated Meschonnic’s famous appeal: “Penser Humboldt aujourd’hui!” (29).

Conrad Wiedemann turns to the early travel journals as reflections of Humboldt’s search for his own identity (“‘raffinirte kunst des umgangs.’ Ich-Findung in den frühen Reisetagebüchern Wilhelm von Humboldts” 33–54). For this reader, the intimate accounts of Humboldt’s “work on the self,” during his travels and at the various way stations, serve well as substitutes for a more extensive biography. Wiedemann’s insightful vignettes will enlighten experts as well as casual visitors to a multi-faceted life.

Manfred Geier’s contribution “Über die organische Natur der Bildung menschlicher Kräfte zu einem Ganzen” (55–65), discussing “Wilhelm von Humboldt’s Bildungstrieb,” proceeds from the conviction on Geier’s part that Humboldt’s lifelong commitment to Bildung flowed from a deep awareness of its organic roots in the individual, an awareness powerfully reenforced by Kant’s Kritik der Urteilskraft.

Ernst Osterkamp rounds out the first section with his revealing discussion of “Individualität und Universalität in Wilhelm von Humboldts Sonetten” (67–79). Osterkamp answers his own question whether it is indeed worthwhile to occupy oneself with this “sublime as well as curious testimonial to old-age loneliness piled up in 1183 sonnets” with a resounding yes that comes to the reader between the lines of a thoughtful analysis (69). One need not be where Humboldt was to appreciate the stanzas he ground out late in life as an almost daily routine, but an empathic reading will convey the relevance of the demonstrated frailty of aging to the author’s entire œuvre.

Whereas the essays of the first section offer matters of general interest, the five contributions grouped...


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