Workshop: Revisiting Humboldtian Science

Erfurt University, Gotha Research Centre
Iris Schröder, Erfurt University; Nils Güttler Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich, ETH
05.11.2014 - 07.11.2014
Dr. Erdmut Jost

“Humboldtian Science” has become a widely used concept amongst historians of 19th-century science. Following the work of Michael Dettelbach, who borrows the term coined by Sue Faye Cannon, “Humboldtian Science” refers to a very specific set of epistemic practices and values held by scientists studying nature. As many historians have pointed out, Humboldt implemented a particular ethic of precision and observation to natural history which became widely shared by field scientists later on. By linking measuring, mapping, and romantic sensibilities, it blurred the line between popular and academic science. Nevertheless, Humboldtian science seems to be irrevocably linked to Humboldt as an individual: Humboldt was not only the inventor of Humboldtian science, he was also its archetypal practitioner in whose shadow Humboldt’s (alleged) followers receded into relative obscurity. Recently, however, historians have revealed the social complexity and afterlife of many Humboldtian enterprises. This research in particular allows us to pose a very simple, but yet unanswered question: How “Humboldtian” was Humboldtian science?

Humboldtian science is taken as a synonym for an ideal way of doing science. This is true for both 19th-century scientists as well as current historiography. Especially in the German context, the reference to Humboldt – whether intentionally or unwittingly – draws an association with Humboldt’s fame, because the very mention of his name evokes the image of an irreproachable, uncontestable scientific hero. Today, this fame seems to be even brighter since he is also conceived of as an uncompromised political figure, who early in the nineteenth century openly voiced an anti-colonial attitude. As such, especially in the (Latin) American context, Humboldt is still celebrated as a veteran of the early post-colonial era. Taken in this broader meaning, the “Humboldtian” might be seen as an exemplary figure, a “scientific persona” of 19th-century science that reflects the German “naturwissenschaftliche Zeitalter” in its most prominent as well as in its most positive way.

But what does the notion of “Humboldtian science” imply for the study of 19th century scientific practice? To what extent do we simply repeat narratives of 19th-century scientists and their claims for authority and celebrity? What do we gain and what do we lose by putting 19th-century field sciences into such genealogies? Is Humboldtian science still a good starting point in order to explore 19th-century field science or does it rather obscure its complex social and epistemic make-up? Does it still make sense to refer to it?

By following such questions the workshop is an attempt to revisit Humboldtian science as a historiographic concept. In particular, it will concentrate on milieus of knowledge production that have been overshadowed by Humboldt’s biographical charisma. Yet, our goal is not to reject the concept as such but to rethink it, especially because its common reference indicates that many historians still find it useful. Humboldtian science obviously refers to something and we are interested in discussing what this “something” is.

The workshop shall bring together scholars with an interest in 19th-century natural history, in particular in the history of the field sciences and popular science. It is evident that for a long time the notion of the “Humboldtian” served as a capacious category that brought together a heterogeneous group of professional and lay scientists. Furthermore, Humboldtian science often refers to places and practices beyond academia. Focusing on these “peripheral” milieus might give us new insights into the varieties of scientific practice that have often been obscured by the biographical reference to Humboldt. At the same time the notion of the “Humboldtian” might help us to differentiate the complex landscape of popular science and field science that recent scholarship has begun to unfold. In this vein, we are particularly interested in linking European and non-European perspectives and the respective actors. Humboldtian science draws our attention to a variety of places and to a variety of actors. Thus, revisiting Humboldtian science might help us to rethink the image and geography of the “naturwissenschaftliche Zeitalter”, for instance by focusing on its non-European participants. To what extent was this age shaped by outstanding “scientific persona” like Humboldt? Or should we direct attention toward the networks, institutions and structures that produced this exceptional figure?

We invite speakers approaching Humboldtian science from a wide variety of perspectives. Papers may include:

- Places of Humboldtian science: Humboldtians in the field and their encounters
- Humboldtians in the Imperial Age
- Networks of Humboldtian science: Amateurs and professionals
- Humboldtian narratives and the making of 19th-century scientific heroes
- Scientific media: Picturing and mapping science – a Humboldtian enterprise?
- Selling Humboldtian science and marketing natural history
- Sensibilities and changing attitudes towards nature in 19th-century popular science and field science
- The lonely scientist and the hidden collectives of 19th-century science
- After Universalism: Professional Humboldtians at the university

We also welcome approaches to the workshop theme not included in the above list.

Abstract submission

The workshop will be hosted by the Gotha Research Centre in Gotha, Germany. Individual or group proposals of up to 300 words are welcome. All paper proposals should be submitted in English and include a current CV. We are currently looking for conference funding, so that travel support will be available.

Please send your abstract and contact information to Dr. Erdmut Jost,

Deadline for submissions: April 22nd, 2014.


Erdmut Jost

Schloss Friedenstein, Pagenhaus, 99867 Gotha


Workshop: Revisiting Humboldtian Science, 05.11.2014 – 07.11.2014 Gotha, in: H-Soz-Kult, 18.03.2014, <>.