Alexander von Humboldt, Naturgemälde, and Intellectual Currents of Modernity

Kevin Shau
Feb 11 · 5 min read
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Geography of Plants — Naturgemälde Image (1807)

Art and Nature make life worth living. The interconnectedness of all things and phenomena — and the attempts to understand this from an aesthetic perspective, one which emphasizes a sense of creative exploration — is at the heart of an authentic environmentalist movement. This is one which was developed two centuries ago by one of the greatest minds in science, one of the greatest explorers, and one of the most gifted intellectuals to ever walk the earth — the Prussian natural philosopher Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859). The shattering of old regimes and expansion of intellectual circles which accompanied the emergence of the modern world also facilitated a search for meaning in a larger sense, one which pushed curious minds toward new and revolutionary ideas. The mere glimpses of systems thinking, found among the great minds of the further past — such as Leonardo da Vinci — found new and fertile ground in the massive potential created in the way of the cataclysmic revolutions and ruptures which occurred at the turn of the nineteenth century. The German Lands abounded with geniuses who sought intellectual stimulation, liberation, and creative exploration. Alexander von Humboldt was a towering visionary — equaled in his time only by the writer Goethe in both breadth and depth of knowledge. Decades of exploration across the Americas and Eurasia influenced what Humboldt called Naturgemälde — translated as ‘painting of nature’ — but carries with it an emphasis on the unity of nature and an emphasis on aesthetic appreciation for it.

“The principal impulse by which I was directed was the earnest endeavor to comprehend the phenomena of physical objects in their general connection, and to represent nature as one great whole, moved and animated by internal forces.” -Alexander von Humboldt, ‘Kosmos’ (1845–1847)

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Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt (1843)

The modern age began in 1789 — when Humboldt was still young, living in the intellectually-rich German Lands but among a decaying political order dominated by geriatric kleptocrats.

Humboldt’s success in the sciences rests with his intellectual curiosity coupled with actual experience. He was no ivory tower rat who hid away from the real world or simply relied on graduate students to his exploring for him. He climbed mountains in the Andes, sailed down the Oronoco, traveled to Siberia, traveled across Europe and maintained a prominent place in the intellectual networks of the time. An acuity of vision, humility, and stochastic tinkering allowed for his intellect to develop to its fullest extent.

Whereas modern politics was forged by the interplay of the various factions which emerged on across the political spectrum after 1789; modern literature from the works of Goethe and Schiller; modern philosophy from the various thinkers from Rousseau to Nietzsche; modern understanding of the metaphysical substructure of the human experience from the Brothers Grimm through Jordan Peterson; modern science and environmentalism can trace its foundations to Humboldt’s vast oeuvre. Writers have tried to comment for decades about the pre-modern nature of the polymath — emphasizing that systems thinking and the study of separate fields is the remit of premodern intellectuals. Quite the contrary! Narrow pedantry and over specialization promoted and protected by institutions constitute a blind, distorted, fragile, collection of domains whose trumpeters hoard bits of knowledge which are little more than insipid baubles — puerile before the wisdom found in holistic visions. When one studies multiple domains, one is aware of the limits of one’s own knowledge — and humbled by this — whereas the master who dedicates himself to only a single domain is likely to cut himself off and rule over even trivial bits of information in his field as if they belong to his fiefdom, which he is tempted to rule with increasing certainty and with his unconscious undermining this authoritarian impulse for control in the face of this fragility with humility being chased out. Thus, he becomes a fragilista.

It is the person who is able to move across domains and work at the edges who is most likely to innovate. The champions of narrow pedantry have, for a couple centuries now, created, enshrined, and exacerbated the bureaucratization of knowledge with particular emphasis on schooling and university systems. The truly revolutionary, humanistic act is not to develop more departments in the university but to demolish the departmental system and chase out the careerist academics and their pseudo-intellectual fiefdoms of glorified sophistry. Humboldt was not the last of a great tradition of polymaths but a shining example of what an authentic public intellectual should be!

Naturgemälde — a unity of vision which couples the scientific and the aesthetic, the rational and the emotional, the known and the unknown, the creative exploratory individual and the vastness of the unknown before him — thus inculcating a sense of humility and wonder — allows an individual to develop to the greatest extent possible. This was a path paved by Alexander von Humboldt, and earlier by Leonardo da Vinci. Humboldt’s life’s work can best be appreciated by reading his magnum opus Kosmos, an all-encompassing exploration of the various scientific fields fit into a mutli-volume narrative and grounded in both actual experience on the part of the author and superb erudition influenced by the author’s understanding of and consultation with the various top-quality written accounts of the respective subjects explored.

“From the remotest nebulæ and from the revolving double stars, we have descended to the minutest organisms of animal creation, whether manifested in the depths of ocean or on the surface of our globe, and to the delicate vegetable germs which clothe the naked declivity of the ice-crowned mountain summit; and here we have been able to arrange these phenomena according to partially known laws; but other laws of a more mysterious nature rule the higher spheres of the organic world, in which is comprised the human species in all its varied conformation, its creative intellectual power, and the languages to which it has given existence. A physical delineation of nature terminates at the point where the sphere of intellect begins, and a new world of mind is opened to our view. It marks the limit, but does not pass it.” -Alexander von Humboldt, ‘Kosmos’ (1845–1847)

Kevin Shau

Written by

Artist | Content Creator | Pantheist | Bohemian | Philosopher | Anti-Authoritarian, Pro-Decentralization/Localism| http://www.instagram.com/kevinshau/

Arte/Scienza

Exploring the Connection between Art and Science

Kevin Shau

Written by

Artist | Content Creator | Pantheist | Bohemian | Philosopher | Anti-Authoritarian, Pro-Decentralization/Localism| http://www.instagram.com/kevinshau/

Arte/Scienza

Exploring the Connection between Art and Science

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