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Epistemology & Philosophy of Science

Volume 55, Issue 1, 2018

Ottmar Ette
Pages 136-154

Alexander von Humboldt
nomadic thinking and living science

The long-term scientific interests of Alexander von Humboldt ranged from anthropology and ancient American studies to geology and geography, climatology and cultural theory, physics and plant geography to language history, volcanology and zoology. As a scientist, he crossed different disciplines and explored new paths of knowledge. Humboldt developed a transdisciplinary and, in the widest sense, nomadic knowledge as a traveller through the sciences. Like a nomad, he did not seek to possess or destroy a territory (of knowledge): no wonder that he became the co-founder of an ecological and geo-ecological thinking. Humboldt wrote and published his works in German as well as in French. In his American Travel Diaries, which returned to Berlin in November 2013, and which are still awaiting their scientific analysis, Humboldt constantly changes between German and French, but also between Latin and Spanish. The author of the Kosmos couldn’t be used for nationalist purposes. Thus, Alexander von Humboldt can be understood as a nomad of science in constant movement, and in this sense as a world citizen. This first theorist of globalization shifted between the words, between the sciences, between the worlds. For him, the greatest possible mobility was not only a scientific program, but also the program of a life – his life. Humboldt wasn’t concerned with any specialization that would lead to a fragmented dialogue with other specialists. He was concerned with a nomadic knowledge, which, thanks to his extensive network of correspondents, always delivered the opportunity to argue from different disciplinary standpoints at the same time. His thinking doesn’t know the limits of interdisciplinary or “disciplined” research oppressing us today, but it rather took aim at the creation of a new world, in which mankind would be able to live together on a planetary scale in freedom and peace.

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