Learning to See Nature, Learning to Love Nature: Lessons from Alexander von Humboldt

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Photo Credit: Alexander von Humboldt's Office. Artist unknown.

In a passage originally published in the exhibition catalog An American Place, one of America’s greatest painters, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986), reflected upon the power of learning to see a flower:

A flower is relatively small. Everyone has many associations with a flower—the idea of flowers. You put out your hand to touch the flower—lean forward to smell it—maybe touch it with your lips almost without thinking—or give it to someone to please them. Still—in a way—nobody sees a flower—really—it is so small—we haven’t time—and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time. If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small. So I said to myself—I’ll paint what I see—what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it—I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.

Learning to see is a task we never finish. Like seeing a flower, seeing nature and the Earth that sustains it takes time. In Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman asked his readers, “Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? Have you reckoned the earth much?” The great North American poet, writing these lines in 1855, was asking us to see the Earth, to appreciate it, to value it. Like a flower, like the Earth, to see nature, we need a guide.

As we celebrate the 250th anniversary of Alexander von Humboldt’s birth (1769–1859), we have occasion to revisit the gifts of guiding us to see nature that he so generously shared with us.

Humboldt served as a guide to nature. He balanced the empirical data of the phenomena of nature (the objective side) with an appreciation of the aesthetic elements of those phenomena (the subjective, perceptual side). Humboldt’s portraits of nature are exquisitely detailed accounts of the Latin American landscape, providing at once a detailed objective account of the natural environment as well as a sense of the beauty and wonder that he experienced during his voyage to the “equinoctial region of the earth,” as Spanish America was known at the time (1799–1804).

The Naturgemälde, a canvas or tableau of nature, was part of Humboldt’s lifelong attempt to achieve a Gesamteindruck (total impression) of nature. Humboldt’s commitment to preserving the “living breath of nature” required a nuanced balancing act. Humboldt attempted to balance a quantified, scientific presentation, with the free enjoyment of its charms and the awe of its power, i.e., an aesthetic presentation of nature. He believed that without empirical knowledge of nature, our aesthetic appreciation of it would be impoverished in significant ways. Yet to transform nature, “the realm of freedom,” into merely a set of quantifiable data points would strip it of its poetry and of its life force, and hence, it would be equally problematic. In his canvases of nature (the Naturgemälde), we find systematic depictions of nature—that is to say, charts and graphs with factual information on the quantifiable aspects of nature. Nonetheless, Humboldt’s Naturgemälde resists the reductionist tendency of a raw or vicious empiricism that would kill the living breath of nature that Humboldt sought to preserve.

The Naturgemälde that Humboldt created in his writings on nature are best understoodas literary acts of preservation—focusing on natural phenomena, while preserving the living breath of nature (lebendiger Hauch der Natur). Humboldt’s goal in his writings on nature, was a presentation of nature that would be as faithful as possible to his experience of nature’s beauty and its wonder. In short, Humboldt took on the task of a critique of nature. Humboldt’s task as a critic of nature was shaped by the constellation of ideas rooted in the ideas that shaped early German Romanticism, especially the romantic focus on merging the borders between poetry, science, and philosophy. This move to merge borders is part of a project aimed at overturning hierarchies: science and art are placed on equal footing; both are valuable guides in our quest to understanding nature’s meaning. In Humboldt’s work there is a balancing of the seriousness of the objective presentation of nature and the subjective aesthetic aspects of the same.

A good place to examine Humboldt’s reflections on the Naturgemälde is in the pages of his final work, Kosmos/Cosmos (written between 1843 and 1844, but published in1845), which became the first scientific best-seller of the nineteenth century.[1] The best place to enjoy the Naturgemälde is in the Views of Nature, which was recently issued in an excellent new translation by Mark W. Person, sensitively edited by Stephen T. Jackson and Laura Dassow Walls.[2] As the editors tell us in the preface, Ansichten is a work that links “the sciences and humanities in [Humboldt’s] most personal and passionate published writings.”[3] Yet “the two existing English translations, both published in 1849–50, took Victorian liberties with Humboldt’s prose and didn’t do justice to his vision or artistry.”[4] The editors aptly describe Ansichten as a “seven-part hymn to the consilience of art and science.”[5] This collection of seven essays on nature was, along with Cosmos, one of the few Humboldt wrote in German (the bulk of his writing was done in French), and it was close to his literary heart. A look at the portraits of nature that Humboldt presented to his readers will open a channel that enables us to continue his project of unifying science and the arts in our quest to understand and appreciate nature.

Kosmos, the last and never finished of Humboldt’s works, illustrates both key themes and methods in his work, in which he talks about his Naturgemälde. As Laura Dassow Walls reminds us: “Humboldt’s Kosmos did important cultural work for America. Though the multi-volume book published in English as Cosmos is known today (if it is known at all) as a popular science book about stars, that’s a little like saying Darwin’s Origin of Species is a book about breeding pigeons. Dassow Walls’ excellent and beautifully written study of Humboldt’s work, The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America[6] offers one of the deepest and most detailed analyses of Humboldt’s Cosmos.

Learning to See Nature, Learning to Love Nature

Humboldt’s expressed goal in Cosmos is to “grasp nature as one great whole, moved and animated by internal forces.”[7] In the preface to Cosmos, Humboldt explicitly asks what literary form could possibly do justice to this task. Humboldt’s concern with literary form is part of his abiding concern with how to effectively communicate with a broad public. He writes: “The very abundance of the materials which the ordering spirit should master, necessarily impart no inconsiderable difficulties in the choice of the form under which such a work must be presented, if it would aspire to the honor of being regarded as a literary composition.”[8] Humboldt acknowledges that a full mastery of the abundant materials of nature will not be accomplished, but can be attempted. The ordering spirit to which Humboldt refers will be complemented by an appreciating spirit, so that in his Naturgemälde, order and control will join freedom and appreciation in the presentation of nature. Humboldt goes on to emphasize that descriptions of nature “ought not to be stripped of the breath of life” and so must avoid the “mere enumeration of a series of general results” and the “elaborate accumulation of the individual data of observation.”[9] The mere accumulation of individual data points to quantify nature would indeed be wearying to the reader and would not do justice to the majesty of nature. To illustrate his point of what the description of nature ought to achieve, Humboldt refers to his earlier publication, Views of Nature. In Cosmos, Humboldt claims that the success of Views of Nature gave him hope that he could indeed present nature to the public without weighing down the presentation with a collection of isolated empirical facts:

This work [Ansichten der Natur] treats, under general points of view, of separate branches of physical geography (such as the forms of vegetation, grassy plains, and deserts). The effect produced by this small volume has doubtlessly been more powerfully manifested in the influence it has exercised on the sensitive minds of the young, whose imaginative faculties are so strongly manifested, than by means of anything which it could itself impart. In the work on the Cosmos on which I am now engaged, I have endeavored to show, as in that entitled Ansichten der Natur, that a certain degree of scientific completeness in the treatment of individual facts does not necessarily entail colorlessness in its presentation.[10]

Humboldt wanted to lead his readers to a greater appreciation for nature. Long before our present age of interdisciplinarity, Humboldt was well aware that certain concepts could best be approached by a perspective that drew from a variety of disciplines and methods, rather than just one. Humboldt wanted to free science from the narrow boundaries of the specialist and make it something that would be intelligible to all thoughtful people. He wanted to achieve a lively, colorful portrait of nature for his readers—one that would both educate and delight them. In this aspiration, we have a great resource that should inspire us in the present age—namely, the importance of communication in creating a bridge between humans and nature. The visionaries who see nature’s beauty and value and who want to share their vision must learn how to communicate it in a way that is compelling for a diverse audience. Humboldt was acutely aware of his audience when he wrote and quite annoyed by the failure of many of his contemporaries to engage the public. In Cosmos, Humboldt cites Goethe’s criticism of the dubious German talent for making science inaccessible to the public. He writes:

There is perhaps some truth in the accusation advanced against many German scientific works, that they lessen the value of general views by an accumulation of detail, and do not sufficiently distinguish between those great results which form, as it were, the beacon lights of science, and the long series of means by which they have been attained. This method of treating scientific subjects has led the most illustrious of our poets to exclaim with impatience, “The Germans have the talent for making science inaccessible.”[11]

Humboldt helped to correct this dubious German “talent.” His writings were intended to cultivate within his readers a “genuine love of the study of nature.”[12] Humboldt’s work as a guide to nature involved presenting the story of nature to his readers in a compelling way that paid tribute to both its empirical and aesthetic dimensions—to both its serious and its playful aspects. Humboldt never lost sight of the love for nature that inspired his work and that he hoped would inspire his readers, too.

In the preface to Cosmos, Humboldt charts the vision of nature that will guide his work—a vision intimately connected to the method of presentation that would best serve his reading public. The Naturgemälde are central to Humboldt’s task of presenting nature, so it is not surprising that, in the introduction to Cosmos, we are given several clear accounts of what precisely the Naturgemälde are. We are told that they are:

ordered according to guiding ideas, not just to pleasantly occupy the sprit. Their sequence can also indicate the grades of the impressions of nature (Natureindrücke), which we have followed, ranging from the gradually increasing intensity from the empty, plantless plains to the inexhaustible fertility of the torrid zone.[13]

As we immediately see, the Naturgemälde are associated with feelings of pleasure. They are meant not only to occupy our spirit in a pleasant way, but to present the empirical grades of nature’s diversity from the barren to the lush landscapes of the reaches of the Earth. Already in the preface to Cosmos, Humboldt explicitly states that his presentation of nature will be two-fold. He writes:

The first portion of [Cosmos] contains introductory considerations regarding the diversity in the degrees of enjoyment to be derived from nature and the knowledge of the laws by which the universe is governed, it also considers the limitations and the scientific mode of treating a physical description of the universe, and gives a general picture of nature which contains a view of all the phenomena comprised in the cosmos.[14]

Like a landscape artist, Humboldt presents nature as a canvas that will illustrate the beauty of nature. According to Humboldt, a balanced presentation of nature is a goal of both the natural scientist and the landscape artist, and he sees common ground in both circles of thinkers. As he writes, “In scientific circles as in the carefree circles of landscape poetry and painting, the presentation of nature gains in clarity and objective liveliness when the individual elements are decisively grasped and delimited.”[15]

The common ground between science and art to which Humboldt refers remains a fertile area of analysis for contemporary philosophers. In contemporary discussions of the aesthetic appreciation of nature, we are often taken back to the problem Humboldt brought into sharp focus so many years ago—namely, the role of empirical knowledge in our aesthetic appreciation of nature. Unfortunately, contemporary philosophers tend to neglect Humboldt’s valuable contributions to this issue. For example, Malcolm Budd opens his work The Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature with a detailed discussion of what kind of understanding of nature a robust aesthetic appreciation of it requires: this is precisely the sort of problem with which Humboldt grappled. More attention to Humboldt’s contributions to the problem of the role of knowledge in our aesthetic appreciation of nature would enrich the discussion we continue to have. In the context of discussing our aesthetic appreciation of nature, Budd writes:

Do we need the knowledge of the natural scientist—the naturalist, the geologist, the biologist, and the ecologist? Does experiencing something with ‘scientific’ understanding of it deepen or enhance the aesthetic appreciation of it? Does it matter aesthetically whether you correctly experience something as being a certain type of natural phenomenon or of natural kind K? Does it matter whether you mis-experience something as being of a natural kind? Does it matter whether you are not mistaken about but ignorant of the natural kind you are appreciating? . . . People have thicker or thinner conceptions of the nature of the phenomena which they see or otherwise perceive under concepts of those phenomena: children have exceptionally thin conceptions, adults have conceptions of greater and varying thickness. The thicker the conception, the greater the material available to transform the subject’s aesthetic experience of nature. . . . If you have the right kind of understanding of nature, you can recruit to your perceptual experience of nature relevant thoughts, emotions, and images unavailable to those who lack that understanding.[16]

Budd’s reference to the “right kind of understanding of nature” and his emphasis on the recruitment of “relevant thoughts, emotions, and images” to enrich the aesthetic experience of nature put him in close company with Humboldt’s project of cultivating the common ground between art and science. Humboldt would not put the problem in the terms used by Budd, but Budd’s clarity helps to highlight the sorts of issues with which Humboldt grapples and that he addressed, albeit more implicitly than Budd does, in his work. Humboldt’s presentation of nature helped “thicken” his readers’ conception of the phenomena of nature without ossifying its elements. He believed that knowledge of nature augmented our aesthetic appreciation of it, in part, because knowledge of nature—especially of the history of the phenomena of nature—helped the viewer make connections between the individual phenomena. This would allow the viewer to get at the whole or cosmos idea, which would help bring the idea of nature as the realm of freedom into sharper focus. One cannot comprehend nature unless one first sees nature in sharp focus, and scientific precision and aesthetic appreciation enable us to achieve that kind of focus.

Humboldt emphasized in his work that empiricism is vicious only when it is deployed as the only way to understand nature, a way to dominate the forces of nature and tell just one side of the story of nature’s meaning. Balancing our empirical knowledge of nature with our pleasure of nature’s beauty was one of Humboldt’s aims and part of his legacy as a guide to nature.

Naturgemälde and the Unity of Nature

In Cosmos, Humboldt maintains that the pleasure we take in nature is the result of having arrived at or at least approximated a presentation of nature as a totality.[17] In order to understand nature in its totality, and so to deepen our delight in it, we need a method that enables us to capture not only the empirical facts of the objects of nature, but also the individual elements of nature in a coherent way leading to a sense of nature’s whole. For Humboldt, the task of connecting the individual elements of nature into some harmonious whole was of high importance, for the meaning and value of nature could not be appreciated if the elements of nature remained a group of disconnected individual items. In Humboldt’s work we find a focus on the “general connection” (allgemeiner Zusammenhang) present in the phenomena of nature and his desire to grasp nature in its unity. The chain of connection that will lead us to the whole of nature is built of both knowledge of nature and appreciation for the phenomena of nature. Consider the following claim from Cosmos:

In considering the study of physical phenomena, not merely in its bearings on the material wants of life, but in its general influence on the intellectual advancement of mankind; we find its noblest and most important result to be a knowledge of the chain of connection, by which all natural forces are linked together, and made mutually dependent upon each other; and it is the perception of these relations that exalts our views and ennobles our enjoyments.[18]

Humboldt delineates two types of pleasure: 1) sensual or physical pleasure and 2) intellectual pleasure. He describes sensual pleasure in the following way: “One [sensual pleasure] arouses the open, childlike sense of humans, the entrance to free action and the dark feeling of unison, which dominate in the eternal change of nature’s silent drive.”[19] So, on the one hand, the pleasure we have in nature is something primitive, an intuitive feeling, something sensual. This sort of pleasure is available, to speak with Budd, to those with even the thinnest conceptions of nature—young children finding pleasure in spring’s first bright red tulip, for example. But there is also the intellectual pleasure we take in the contemplation of nature, which “comes from the comprehension of the order of the world and of collaboration of the physical forces within the world.”[20] This sort of pleasure, again invoking the lines cited above from Budd’s account, is a pleasure born of a thicker conception of nature, found in the experience of the mountaineer who not only enjoys the thrill of the view from atop the Chimborazo, but who is also aware of the precise altitude of her vista point and is well aware of the mountain’s composition and history—facts that connect the vista to a history of the mountain and the mountain’s place within the history of the Earth, creating a connection between an individual experience of nature and nature as a whole (that is, the web of forces and phenomena comprising our experience of nature). Like Budd, Humboldt stresses the “right kind of understanding of nature,” as he puts it:

If we would correctly comprehend nature, we must not entirely or absolutely separate the consideration of the present state of things from that of the successive phases through which they have passed. We cannot form a just conception of their nature without looking back on the mode of their formation. It is not organic matter alone that is continually undergoing change, and being dissolved to form new combinations. The globe itself reveals at every phase of its existence the mystery of its former conditions (italics added).[21]

The sort of recruitment of relevant thoughts, emotions, and images referenced by Budd finds company in Humboldt’s emphasis on creating a context that provides a fuller understanding of the phenomena of nature and their appreciation—both of which are elements of a just conception of nature. For Humboldt, the description of nature is “intimately tied with its history.” [22]The history, science, and art of nature fuse in Humboldt’s writings, a fusion of disciplines that helps sharpen our vision of nature and our appreciation of it.

The Enduring Relevance of Humboldt’s Currents

Committed as he was to a presentation of nature that would not kill its living breath, Humboldt developed a literary tool that would present nature as both an empirical realm to be mastered, and as a realm of beauty and delight that was beyond mastery. We must step out of mastery to understand the full story of nature’s meaning, and Humboldt’s aesthetic turn is just such a move away from mastery.

Humboldt’s aesthetic courage in attempting to present to his European reading public scenes of nature that were utterly unfamiliar to them was bold and, if his enduringly warm reception in the countries of Latin America is any indication, successful at wearing away at some of the troubling anti-American stereotypes that circulated widely in the late eighteenth century and well into the 1800s. Humboldt was able to transform some anti-American prejudices into an attitude of appreciation for the landscape of Latin America.

We must assimilate our knowledge of nature (be that knowledge of nature’s history or of its empirical data) into our aesthetic experience of nature. As Jerome Stolnitz points out, “merely to acquire knowledge is not enough and may even be detrimental to aesthetic appreciation.”[23] Knowledge about something must be assimilated into our aesthetic experience of that thing, otherwise it remains aesthetically irrelevant. Knowledge of a given object, be that object a painting by Picasso or a flower in a field, is, to speak with Stolnitz, aesthetically irrelevant if that knowledge remains external to our aesthetic experience of the object. Intellectual recognition and aesthetic enjoyment of the phenomena of nature are assimilated in Humboldt’s Naturgemälde. Knowledge of nature plays a role in creating connections between phenomena, and when that knowledge of nature is assimilated into our aesthetic experience of nature, the level of appreciation deepens, and the project of approximating the whole of nature is further developed. A just conception of nature is achieved. Humboldt’s Naturgemälde blend enjoyment and knowledge of nature so that our knowledge of nature can deepen our aesthetic appreciation of it. Humboldt’s Naturgemälde serve to guide the reader in her appreciation of nature, much the same way a good critic of art can guide the viewer of a work to a deeper appreciation of a painting’s value. Humboldt helped his readers to see nature, teaching them, in much the way that O’Keefe’s glorious paintings did, to see nature anew. These lessons are more relevant than ever. If we learn to see nature, to love nature, we will be well positioned to look at the many factors that threaten its survival, and then the necessary work of conservation and preservation can be done.

[1] G. Brude-Firnau, “Alexander von Humboldt’s Sociopolitical Intentions: Science and Poetics” in Traditions of Experiment from the Enlightenment to the Present. Essays in Honor of Peter Demetz, ed. N. Kaiser and D. Wellbery (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992), 45-61.

[2] Ansichten der Naturwasfirst published in1807, with new editions published in 1826 (which included the essays, “Versuch über den Bau und die Wirkungsart der Vulkane in den verschiedenen Erdstrichen” and “Die Lebenskraft oder der rhodische Genius”) and in 1849. See A. von Humboldt, Ansichten der Natur, ed. H. Beck (Darmstadt, Germany: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1987). This has been translated as A. von Humboldt, Views of Nature or Contemplations on the Sublime Phenomena of Creationtrans. E.C. Otté and H.G. Bohn (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1850). A more recent translation is A. von Humboldt, Views of Natureed. S.T. Jackson and L. Dassow Walls, trans. M.W. Person (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), which is the version to which I make reference.

[3] Views of Nature, op. cit., vi.

[4] Ibid., vi.

[5] Ibid., 1.

[6] L. Dassow Walls, The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

[7] A. von Humboldt, Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe, trans. E.C. Otté (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 24. All English language references are to this edition, hereafter Cosmos. I have often, for the sake of greater precision, modified the translation (indicated by “translation modified”) or simply translated the passage anew when I have found the Otté translation wanting (indicated as “my translation”). The German references to Kosmos are to A. von Humboldt, Kosmos. Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung, 5 Bde(Stuttgart/Tübingen, Germany: J.G. Cotta, 1845-1862). See also Humboldt, Cosmos, 7, translation modified. “Die Natur als ein durch innere Kräfte bewegtes und belebtes Ganzes aufzufassen” (Humboldt, Kosmos, vi).

[8] Ibid., 8-9, translation modified.

[9] Humboldt, Cosmos, 9/Humboldt, Kosmos, viii.

[10] Humboldt, Cosmos, 9, translation modified.

[11] Humboldt, Cosmos47.

[12] Humboldt, Cosmos, 12/Humboldt, Kosmos, xv.

[13] Humboldt, Cosmos, 27-28, translation modified.

[14] Humboldt, Cosmos, 10, translation modified.

[15] Humboldt, Cosmos, 34, translation modified.

[16] M. Budd, The Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 19.

[17] Eberhard Knobloch has analyzed the relation between pleasure and the portraits of nature in Cosmos. See E. Knobloch, “Naturgenuss und Weltgemälde—Gedanken zu Humboldt Kosmos,” Internationale Zeitschrift für Humboldt-Studien5, no. 9 (2004): 34-48.

[18] Humboldt, Cosmos, 23.

[19] Humboldt, Cosmos24, translation modified.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Humboldt, Cosmos, 72.

[22] Humboldt, Cosmos, 72.

[23] J. Stolnitz, Aesthetics and Art Criticism. A Critical Introduction (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960), 58.

  • Elizabeth Millán Brusslan

    Elizabeth Millán Brusslan is a Professor of Philosophy at DePaul University. She was educated at The State University of New York at Buffalo and at the Eberhard-Karls Universität in Tübingen. She works on aesthetics, German Idealism/Romanticism, and Latin American Philosophy.

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