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Accepted paper:

Revisiting the Humboldtian tradition: How to paint an incomplete cosmos


John Tresch (University of London)

Paper short abstract:

Boas was influenced by both the geoscience of Alexander von Humboldt and the linguistics of his brother Wilhelm. The Humboldts understood language and nature as unfolding within a cosmos that was essentially incomplete. This paper follows these ideas to 1900, and to recent discussions of "Gaia."

Paper long abstract:

The impact of the "Humboldtian Tradition" on Franz Boas has been documented by George Stocking and Matti Bunzl. Both the geophysics of Alexander von Humboldt and the comparative linguistics of his brother Wilhelm contributed to Boas's version of cultural anthropology. Inspired by renewed attention to Alexander's mutlifarious legacy at the 250th anniversary of his birth-- and by his rediscovery by ecological thinkers today-- this paper reconsiders connections between the earth science and the linguistic science of the Humboldt brothers. It connects both to post-Kantian philosophy, including aesthetics and Naturphilosophie, to argue that each set his object within a cosmos that was essentially incomplete. The notion of "nature as a free domain" was central to their views on the relativity of both knowledge and natural entities; both language and every domain of nature unfolded unpredictably, driven by obscure but undeniable living forces. The paper considers these ideas' influence around 1900, on Boas and the anarchist geographer, Elisee Reclus. Finally, it considers their relevance for current attempts, including Latour's take on "Gaia," to think human life and thought and its terrestrial supports on a basis of "relativity"-- as both determined and free.

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Commonplace relativities of geography, anthropology and physics in the fin de si├Ęcle