Humboldt – Pictures with Everything

It’s long been on my unread library list, in fact it’s one of the books that made me start that list a few years ago. Clearly an important book – but there are a lot of those and I can’t read them all – Andrea Wulf’s “The Invention of Nature – The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science

One reason I practically stopped reading (books) was because I (now) have 3 (or 4) distinct (but entangled) writing projects and the last thing I need is more material. The prescription of Robert Pirsig’s psychotherapist, “Just write something!” was echoing in my head. But the entanglement has effectively stalled my writing (again) so I needed a break. A good read.

I recalled, as well as the excellent reviews, Wulf’s book had a beautiful cover, so 8 years after publication I got a good used “as new” copy of the original hardback. I’m glad I did.

So this is (as usual) a pre-review at about 1/3 through reading it.

Only negative thought so far is the heroic stylistic aspect. Clearly Wulf and her publisher had a fairly explicit 21st C green environmental political agenda in mind, so a lot of the summary statements are a little breathless hero-worship motivated to that end.

That said, he probably does deserve that valuation. A man ahead of his times. And the story, his story and the history, is full of fascinating detail – Europe before, during and after Napoleon, and the Americas before during and after Jefferson and Bolivar – all well told, readable and unputdownable. It actually has 135 pages of notes, references and index too, but the decision to use the non-intrusive page-numbered end-notes preserves the readability. The kind of book that will deserve multiple reads and referencing.

What do I think of it so far?

Unputdownable, but I’ve gone for the “reading sessions in public bars and cafes” so far. As ever, already three interruptions of the “what are you reading?” followed by “why?”. Two knew they knew the name Humboldt, and one knew his name is associated with several things – the University in Berlin, many biological species and many geographical features and locations. In fact one of the earliest things in the book is that fact, that his name has been given to many more things than any other person.

Mind-boggling list of people influenced by him in person and in his writings. Too many to list. I’ve mentioned politicians – Napoleon, Jefferson and Bolivar – already, but for now let’s add Verne, Goethe, Schelling, Thoreau, Emerson (say) and Darwin, the latter on whom Humboldt’s writings were formative, much referenced before, during and after his Voyages on the Beagle, including natural selection itself.

Empiricism Plus. The sense that knowing something, anything, involved one’s direct emotional subjective reaction to it as well as acquaintance with the objectively observable facts recurs in both Humboldt and his admirers. Count me in. The poetic, romantic language associated with this, together with the Prussian Napoleonic & Parisian people, places & events, put me in mind of the Russian classics, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and more.

One more feature, for this early pre-review, because whilst being a regular theme here, it has become very topical recently. A picture paints ten thousand words, or does it? [from 2002 & 1921]

Most recent example was Alom Shaha explaining that one constraint his publisher imposed on his recent “Why Things Don’t Fall Up” was that it could be read without diagrams nor even pictures of the practical everyday teaching props Alom is famous for. [Also the creativity of constrained freedom.] Before that I was discussing with Ben Taylor the “movement” that suggests systems thinking is – counter-intuitively, after Levenchuk – best described without system / flow diagrams and the problem I was having with re-establishing a systems meta-diagramming language (like IDEF0) which I still believe is valuable. This itself has led to two threads in the meta-dimension, with Gerry Wolff and Jonathan Rowson … but anyway let’s just say it’s topical.

Firstly, Humboldt’s work in several places actually uses “systems” language and the concept of “multiple views” of the same system, ontologies with multiple different kinds of taxonomies rather than a definitive taxonomy. Together with the Latin American revolutionary Bolivar connection this instantly put me in mind of Stafford Beer and his Cybersyn “Santiago Boys” … and I suspect this will become a bigger topic in later reviews.

But for now – the pictures?

Humboldt is famous for his “Naturgemälde” – nature paintings – embodying the alternative view(s) idea above, the most famous version being his placing the different forms of vegetation in zones from fluvial plains to mountain ice-caps, mapping the parallel between the (now) Ecuadorian volcano Chimborazo and other known landscapes around the world. A picture which paints a thousand words you might think?

Well no, firstly a topological / geographical graphic may indeed be better than a taxonomic tree (say) for the classification of vegetation in context. All models are wrong, but some are more useful than others. But secondly, when he came to publish his Naturgemälde in his major work “Views of Nature” which included the essay “On the Geography of Plants“, not only does the picture itself contain many hundreds of small-print words of names within the content and annotations within the geographical / altitudinal / latitudinal keys, it was also:

“underpinned [by thousands more words] with more details and explanations, adding page after page of tables, statistics and sources.”

The picture needed many words to be understood and (as I’ve opined many times before) the picture only symbolically conjures up those thousand words after they’ve been understood. (Equally well the picture conjures up any outstanding misunderstandings too. The picture says what you understand it says.)

Views are about organisation of presentation of information and Humboldt’s work includes many impressive illustrations of many kinds.

Enough for now. Reading on.


One follow-up – the Maps Rabbit-Hole.


2 thoughts on “Humboldt – Pictures with Everything”

  1. “The sense that knowing something, anything, involved one’s direct emotional subjective reaction to it as well as acquaintance with the objectively observable facts” — this is a succinct and approachable way of putting it.

  2. Hi AJ, Thanks. My paraphrase, but quoted and voiced many different ways in the work.

    I’m embarrassed to say, how amazingly influential Humboldt has been would be no secret to anyone whose read Darwin’s originals (which I haven’t) – I edited one reference in the post to cover my embarrassment 😉

    I’m probably not going to do a full review, about 2/3 through now, but it is fascinating and amazingly rich. A wonderful read, highly recommended.

    Easy to see why despite his amazing real influence, he is not celebrated by 21st C orthodox science. Kinda nothing new under the sun for me from my philosophy of science / metaphysics / epistemology / ontology perspective – just plenty more reinforcement and sources.

    The “green politics” agenda of the 21st C author and publisher still grates – but this is the same issue as Rowson’s “prefix” point about needing to deal with the “meta-crisis” not one or any number of “poly-crises”.

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