Wittgenstein and von Humboldt on the description of the world

Wittgenstein’s Tractatus begins with two stark assertions about the world and these are followed by a series of further remarks on the same topic later in the text. These assertions deserve more attention than our interpreters have given them so far because they open up to some of the deepest layers of the Tractatus as I have tried to show in an essay entitled “Wittgenstein’s World.” I now want to turn to a second, closely connected topic that Wittgenstein also addresses in the Tractatus that calls equally for more examination. It is the topic of our relation to the world. The Tractatus speaks of this in three interconnected ways. Where the book had begun with an assertion about the world being all that is the case, it ends with the admonition that we must “see the world rightly.” (TLP, 6.54) Throughout the Tractatus as well as in later writings, Wittgenstein speaks of the seeing of things and of seeing them in the right way. We should therefore ask what it means to see the world in the right way. Second, Wittgenstein also talks in the Tractatus of our view or views of the world. There is, he says, a modern view of the world (Weltanschauung): “At the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanation of natural phenomena.” By contrast “the ancients,” i.e., the world view of the ancients, stopped with God and Fate as unassailable. Both the moderns and the ancients, Wittgenstein adds, “are right and wrong.” “But the ancients were clearer, in so far as they recognized one clear terminus, whereas the modern system makes it appear as though everything were explained.” (TLP 6.371-6.372) Somewhat later he remarks on the same topic: “The view of the world sub specie aeterni is its view as a – limited – whole.” (TLP, 6.45 The notion of a world view is again one that Wittgenstein comes back to in other writings. We want to ask what a world view consists in, according to him, what it means to have a world view, and what it is to see the world as a limited whole.

Finally, the Tractatus speaks of descriptions of the world. “Newtonian mechanics,” we read, “brings the description of the world (Weltbeschreibung) to a unified form.” In the unusually detailed passage 6.341, Wittgenstein imagines different nets superimposed on a surface of irregular spots. Each net can be used to give a description of the surface “in a unified form.” The form of the net, he asserts, is arbitrary but a description of the surface in terms of one net may be simpler than one in terms of another net and for that reason presumably preferable. “To the different networks correspond different systems of describing the world. Mechanics determines one form of the description of the world.” And in conclusion, he emphasizes once again: “Mechanics is an attempt to construct all true propositions that we need for the description of the world according to one single plan.” (TLP, 6.343)

My intention here is to focus first of all on the notion of a description of the world and to work myself forward to an examination of the notion of world view as Wittgenstein uses it, and to raise finally the question what it means to see the world rightly.

Von Humboldt’s Weltbeschreibung

In 1827, Alexander von Humboldt, the famous explorer of the Americas and natural scientist, delivered a much-acclaimed series of lectures in Paris and Berlin in which he sought to bring his entire knowledge of the natural world together into a single narrative account. Almost twenty years later he began to work this material into the form of a book. Its first volume appeared in 1845. Three others followed in the years up to 1859. To indicate the scope and intention of the work von Humboldt revived a term from Pythagorean and Platonic philosophy and called his book: Kosmos. “What provided me the main impetus,” he wrote, “was the desire to see the manifestations of bodily things in their general context, nature as a whole moved and animated by inner forces.” He had, so he added, initially conceived of a description of the earth (an Erdbeschreibung) based on the knowledge he had gathered in his journeys. But his perspective had widened and he was now trying to give an account encompassing everything on earth and in the heavens and so he subtitled his book: Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung which we might translate as “Project design for a description of the physical world.”

To von Humboldt’s surprise, his book became an instant bestseller, was quickly translated into the major European languages, and reprinted a number of times during the following decades. After that it was largely forgotten, surpassed by new scientific discoveries and attitudes. But more recently the book has gained some new readers because of its holistic and ecological perspective. In the present context, Humboldt’s work is of interest to me because of the light in throws on Wittgenstein’s use of the somewhat unusual term “Weltbeschreibung.” This is not to suggest that Wittgenstein had read von Humboldt’s work. I am unaware of any evidence to that effect. But given the fame of the work we should not exclude the possibility. Von Humboldt’s thinking and terminology may also, of course, have reached Wittgenstein in another, more indirect fashion. His remarks on the topic of a world description anticipate, in any case, some of Wittgenstein’s thoughts though they also diverge from him in other significant respects. But I assume that Wittgenstein’s thinking on the topic profited in both respects either directly or indirectly from von Humboldt’s treatment.

Von Humboldt’s animating thought was that of the world as a whole. He wanted to achieve, as he put it, “insight into the order of the universe (Weltall).” In the third volume he restated the point once more by explaining that “the main principle of my work … is contained in the drive to understand the phenomena of the world as a principle of nature, to show how in particular groups of these phenomena their shared determination has been recognized, i.e., the rule of great laws, and how one rises from these laws to the investigation of their original interconnection.” Von Humboldt was clear that natural science would always have to do with the investigation of particulars. The project of a world-description was by no means itself a science. “What I call a physical world-description … does therefore not lay claim to the rank of a rational science of nature; it is a thoughtful reflection on the empirical phenomena as a natural whole (als eines Naturganzen).” He even called his book at times very modestly “conversations about nature.” He also spoke of it as a poetic and artistic work and as nature painting (Naturgemälde), analogous, perhaps, to a landscape painting. Von Humboldt was not even sure whether we could ever come up with a complete world-description and he certainly didn’t assume that he was giving one. The natural sciences are still developing, he wrote, and their researches may never come to an end. Often we lack knowledge of the causal relations. The kind of world description that was now possible was therefore, in fact, “only in some parts a world-explanation. The two expressions can as yet not be considered to mean the same.” For all these reasons, von Humboldt called his book a mere “Entwurf” for a world-description – a project design, as I translate the term; we might also say a sketch.

He qualified his project moreover, by calling it a “physical” world-description or a description of the physical world. It was the material universe that concerned him, not any separate ideal or spiritual reality. But he wanted to describe this physical world in an integral manner from the most distant stars to the smallest plants on earth. His account was meant to unite the “uranological and telluric spheres,” as he put it, the astronomical and the terrestrial domain as well as their interconnection. He saw human life, moreover, as part of this whole, not as separated from it. “Nature is for thoughtful reflection a unity in a multiplicity, a combination of a manifold in form and mixture, an encompassing notion of natural object and natural forces as a living whole.” The human species reworks the material that the sense present and “the products of such mental labor belong just as essential to the domain of the cosmos as the internally reflected phenomena.’’ The diversity of human cultures and human languages are part of the cosmic whole. “World-description and world-history are for that reason located in the same experiential plain.”

While he considered the project of a physical world-description as new, von Humboldt assumed that even our most primitive ancestors had a dark feeling “of the unity of the natural powers, of the mysterious tie that connect the sensory and the supersensory.” But in the absence of sufficient empirical knowledge, these world views had been expressed in numerous, different, and sometimes fantastic forms. In the Introduction to his first volume von Humboldt promised, among other things, a “history of world views, i.e., of the gradual dawning of the concept of the interaction of forces in nature as a whole.” In the end he limited himself, however, to a summary account of this development from the early Greeks to Newton. The ancient Greeks had initially venerated “the rule of spiritual powers in human form.” More abstract forms of world view had been developed by the Ionian and Pythagorean philosophers. Von Humboldt treated with sympathy, in particular, the Aristotelian view of the world but then jumped quickly to an “expansion of cosmic views” in the 13th and 14th century. With a mere reference to Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus and his Liber Cosmographicus, and Peter d’Ailly, he jumped to Giordano Bruno, Kepler and his Mysterium cosmographicum, Descartes and his Traité du Monde, and from there to what he called Newton’s “immortal work.” Newton, he wrote, had taken an essential step in the development of world views; he had “elevated physical astronomy into a solution of one of the great problems of mechanics, a mathematical science.” His words made clear that he saw Newton as a forerunner to his own physical world description.

Two points stand out in von Humboldt’s story. The first is his pre-occupation with the concepts of unity, oneness, wholeness, of “inner links between the universal and the particular.” He would sometimes speak of this totality (Weltall, Naturganzes) in a scientific spirit as held together by universal laws (Weltgesetze), as something to be accounted for in the spirit of Newton with the help of a mathematized science of mechanics; but he would also allow himself at times a more Romantic characterization of this totality as a “living whole,” as something built on a world plan (Weltplan) and embodying an all-encompassing idea (Weltgedanke).

The second important is that he considered this concern with the totality of the world a an essential human drive for “the first, highest, and inner purpose of intellectual activity consists in the discovery of natural laws, the exploration of the orderly structure of natural formations, insight into the necessary connection of all changes in the universe.” But contemplation of the world as a unity had in addition a still deeper meaning. It gives aesthetic (and implicitly moral) satisfaction. Nature, von Humboldt wrote “is the realm of freedom” and it can provide us with a deep sense of freedom. What we call the enjoyment of nature is entrance in to this freedom (Eintritt in das Freie).” The early pages of von Humboldt’s Kosmos are for that reason devoted to impress on his readers the idea of the enjoyment of nature. This enjoyment is by no means diminished, it is, in fact, deepened, by a proper scientific understanding of the world.

1 comment

  1. Your comments are most interesting and even more so with the parallels of Humboldt’s view of nature and Wittgensteins fully developed theory of the background kingpins of common understanding. When he developed language game theory in Zettel and other late works it is like reading Humboldt, in that things only make sense against a common shared world of interactions. Similarities become more important than fixed meanings and “explanations” cease where description takes over. Reading both at the same time now makes me feel sad he was probably not aware of Humboldt’s amazing works.

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