Romanticism, Alexander von Humboldt and the distinction of “Natur” and “Geist”
Jiménez Pazos, Bárbara
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Alexander von Humboldt is often considered a decisive figure in establishing clear methodological standards in modern natural sciences. But many people forget that he was a true Romanticist in his descriptions of nature as given in his Ansichten der Natur (1849) and Cosmos (1866). He contributed to the distinction between ‘Geist’ (spirit) and ‘Natur’ (nature) in contemporary academia as it is understood today in the distinction between “Humanities” and “(Natural) sciences”. Nevertheless, he called for a close and equal collaboration of these two domains to explain the world– something many experts miss when they think about contemporary academia. Romanticism is known to be indefinable (Toreinx 1829) as it shares some characteristics with other historical movements. And following Arthur O. Lovejoy’s ideas (1948), there has not been a single movement called “Romanticism” but several “Romanticisms”, not only among the different European countries, but also within those countries. However, there are some features that can be considered as genuinely romantic. Many of them are related to the observation of landscape and, simultaneously, the reference to transcendental entities. Scientific observation follows the strict path of objective observation, and this seems to be the way Humboldt chose for analyzing nature. Ansichten der Natur is well considered as a scientific work that provides the reader with detailed natural descriptions as well as an attempt to explain nature’s phenomena as a whole. There are, nonetheless, some easily recognizable features in the text that can remind the reader of the way romantic poets used to describe their feelings when observing some kind of landscapes or natural phenomena. Humboldt could be, therefore, considered as the bridge that links Romanticism and Naturalism as he, on the one hand, analyzes nature with a scientific eye but on the other hand describes the effect that these elements of nature or landscape cause in him. This kind of gentle gesture to the importance of metaphysics is what makes it possible to consider Humboldt as a “hybrid” author. The romantic defense of human feelings and the pursuit of measuring the world from a scientific point of view show the existence of one great historical dichotomy between science and literature. This dichotomy remains in the distinction of (natural) sciences and humanities in contemporary academia. Today, there seems to be an outright conflict between natural scientists and those academics who are engaged in history, art, literature or even philosophy– with a high degree of willful ignorance on both sides. In many cases, a dialogue becomes almost impossible. Even though Humboldt’s ideas were partly responsible for this dichotomy, the clash was not at all what Humboldt intended 200 years ago. On the contrary, his idea was to describe nature as a whole.