Wilhelm von Humboldt

I was looking for a book on consumer society—to snatch a chapter—because next quarter I will be working with that subject again.  I was sure I had this book; I could see it in my mind’s eye but for the life of me not in plain sight.  Instead, plucking through books, I pulled out another because reading the book sidewise I could not make out the title.  I thought at first that it was one by Helvetius that I had taken from the library, as part of an effort better to understand the origins of sociological thought.  I started reading and right off it didn’t sound like that guy but instead something very German.

Indeed, turns out I was reading from a collection—in translation—of the works of Wilhelm von Humboldt.  I can’t remember why the heck unless I was doing further research into German Transcendental Idealism. 

I am doing my version of speed reading—by this I mean I read a line here and there and on the basis of other stuff I have read from that period begin to contextualize the thought relative especially to Kant and Rousseau (the twin pillars of German Idealism).  And then I come across this line:

 As we can imagine life neither standing still nor moved by an external mover, so does the whole universe subsist only in urge; nothing lives or exists except insofar as it strives to live or exist.

 Now I doubt very much that Bob Dylan read Wilhelm von Humboldt, though it is not out of the question that he did, but suddenly this line drew my attention to something I had not quite seen or seen only peripherally in the title of this blog, “And he not busy being born is busy dying.”—taken as I previously noted, I believe, from Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma.”

I don’t know quite how to put what I previously saw in that line but, taken in the context of the Wilhelm von Humboldt, I feel the emphasis shift to being as the busy-ness to be born.  Or following von Humboldt, the line shifts into the assertion: being is becoming or becoming is being.   That would appear itself to be a paradox, unless one concludes, as von Humboldt seems to do: that “being” is an activity and not a state of stasis. 

Funny—von Humboldt thinks of the entire universe, not as a set of pre-existing scientific laws, or something empirical, but as an “urge,” or one might say a feeling.  I think in German he may have used the word “Trieb,” which means variously “urge,” “impulse,” “driving force,” or “drive.”   


One Reply to “Wilhelm von Humboldt”

  1. I wrote a little paper for Dr.Gloyn back in 67 or 68 called “Appetite as Final Cause”…that’s the urge thing going I guess…..the assignment was to write about the idea of a “final Cause”….I still think appetite is the final cause….

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