Humboldt’s State – and Ours (May 2021)
Welcome to our May 2021 edition of Liberty Matters. This month Professor Michael Bentley has written our lead essay on Wilhelm von Humboldt. Humboldt is one of the least well known yet very influential liberal philosophers in the Western world. Humboldt is best known for his work in the fields of linguistics, education, and the importance of individual development. His most famous work, The Limits of State Action, published by Liberty Fund, had a significant impact on John Stuart Mill’s thinking in his classic, On Liberty. Professor Bentley notes that while Humboldt was read in the 19th century as someone commenting on the size and reach of government, the state as he knew it was much smaller, and therefore he focused on the importance of individuals and individual development. According to Bentley, Humboldt’s key contribution to the history of liberal thought is his emphasis on individual experimentation in the scope of human existence. He writes that “He (Humboldt) sees liberty of action as fundamental to personal growth. Its exercise, so long as we do not harm others, functions as a mainstay for an individual-within-society.” It was this focus on providing a wide space for individuals to live their own lives as they saw fit that so influenced Mill and others.