Alexander von Humboldt Lectures

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The Alexander von Humboldt Lectures in Human Geography organised by the Department of Human Geography of the Radboud University of Nijmegen were initiated in 1999 by the chair of the department Prof. dr. Huib Ernste. For the Alexander von Humboldt lectures every year a number of prominent and internationally outstanding scientists are invited to Nijmegen for a period of about one week, to give lectures on selected themes relevant for the current debates within Human Geography and to discuss theoretical and practical issues with the members of our department and with a broader audience.

This series of Alexander von Humboldt lectures and related events has the objective:

  • to contribute to the theoretical debates on socio-spatial issues across disciplinary and national boundaries;
  • to enable talented students and young- as well as leading researchers of our department to get to know these prominent guests and to formally and informally discuss with them topical research issues;
  • to present and discuss the current research of the Department of Human Geography with the visiting peers;
  • to  involve other interested researchers and practitioners and to build up an international collaborative network of researchers around the current research themes of the department of Human Geography;
  • to develop Nijmegen as a distinguished academic 'hub' and 'pivot' in the field of Human Geography.

The climax of the visits of our Alexander von Humboldt guests is of course their Alexander von Humboldt lecture, which usually takes place in a special setting and is sometimes framed with music. Additionally these Humboldt lectures are accompanied by several seminars focussed on the research of our Humboldt guest or focussed on related research of young- or leading researchers from the department or from elsewhere. Sometimes these seminars are set up as a 'NETHUR-PhD-school'. In all cases these events are open for participation by researchers from elsewhere. As far as possible also regular students participate in these events or our Humboldt guest gives special guest lectures in the framework of regular courses. This creates the opportunity for regular students to meet the live persons, they usually only read about. In the framework of a 'social programme' we also try to establish sustainable personal contacts with our Humboldt guests. Since the boundaries between science, politics, praxis, culture and art are increasingly disappearing the Alexander von Humboldt Lectures are explicitly established as transdisciplinary 'cultural' events which create an inspiring reflective atmosphere. The Alexander von Humboldt lectures are broadly announced in several national research schools, the national research foundation, the academy of sciences, in relevant news-letters, journals and mailing-lists. Those who want to be kept informed about upcoming events can subscribe to a special Alexander von Humboldt mailing list. In total we have the ambition to make these Alexander von Humboldt events to a great experience, one will not easily forget. Most Alexander von Humboldt lectures are published in specific scientific media.

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859)

Alexander von Humboldt is often seen as one of the founding fathers of modern scientific geography, as the science of global and local relationships. 'Der Spiegel' (2004, No. 38, pp. 162-178) reported about him:

As Alexander von Humboldt more than 200 years ago returned from his five-year long American travels and put his feet on European earth again, he was celebrated as a resurrected. He was reported lost several times before, but he returned as romantic conqueror. Amazingly however: He did not subjugate any nation, but rather caught butterflies. The grounds he gained did not yield gold, slaves, prospection rights -- they only involved new 'worlds of knowledge'.

Moreover his campaigns, were much more strenuous than many military assaults. He navigated jungle streams and reached the summit of the highest known mountain at that time, the Chimborazo. He was extreme sportsman and universal scientist at the same time. When he returned to Europe he was 35 years old and handsome, as the salon ladies of those days whispered. High forehead, blue eyes, impeccable manners. He had humour and intellect and the loam of the Orinoco on his turndown boots. He had the irresistible aura of an adventurer.

He was as old as Napoleon. He was as famous as Napoleon, when he returned in 1804 from his American travels, just after he discussed slavery and the US-Mexican border issue with the American president Thomas Jefferson. This Humboldt, as discoverer, as visionary, as cosmopolitan, as inspirator, after whom the Humboldt university in Berlin was named, showed what a human being can be in these harsh times. He was more than just an exceptional human being -- he embodied an attitude, a principle. It was his ambition to bring together all available knowledge of his time in one single book. His Kosmos bore the ambition to represent a universal construction plan and beauty at the same time, in which the whole and the single human being ceaselessly interact. He always thought in relationships. Certainly many parts of it are out-dated. Not outdated, however, is the passion, which is incorporated in these pages.

After his return to Europe he first preferred to stay in Paris, where, notwithstanding all political commotions, the most outstanding scientists and artists were gathered, such as e.g. François Arago, Jean Auguste Igres, and François René Chateaubriand. In 1827 King Friedrich Wilhelm III calls him to Berlin to add lustre to the Academy of Sciences and as daily dinner companion. His Kosmos lectures were a sensation. In these lectures he shows how rewarding it can be not to underestimate his audience, a fact which is still valid today, if one would at least try it once in a while. He electrified the scientific community with his lectures. He flavoured his lectures with lived experiences. He literary wanted to bring his investigations to the people; he wants to rub it under their skin. The entry was free. Everyone pilgrimaged to his lectures: teachers, baker-masters, shop girls, delivery boys, professors, noblemen, craftsmen, a big colourful democratic utopian knowledge community. He was probably the first, who, with his 16 lectures attracted the masses and became a wisdom-guru, a great populariser, who mediated the sex-appeal of knowledge, that is, knowledge which was felt, explored, thoughtful, sensual and challenging.

He was a truly universal scientist and everything but single minded. He felt at home in many disciplines. Actually that was the starting point of his project. He was the opposite of a specialist borné. He corresponded with all famous intellectuals of his time. He wrote about 2000 letters per year, in total about 50'000 of them. He was, what today would be called a 'networker'. He created the proto-type of an international think-tank. He despised honourings. He considered speeches and banquets to be a waste of time. Certainly he was on the pay list of a reactionary king, but his heart beat for tolerance and emancipation of human kind, which always also implied the emancipation of science. The second volume of his Kosmos was just finished, when he joined the funeral procession for those who were killed in the March revolution. He wanted to bring forward the best out of the many single disciplines for human kind. He investigated the breathing of fish, the meteorite rain above Venezuela, the hieroglyph calendar of the Aztecs, the arts and philosophy. Meteorology, water management, peace research, the project of a world library, yes, even the Panama canal -- all projects, which can be traced back to von Humboldt. His transdisciplinarity is nowadays more topical then ever before. Humboldt transcended every provinciality. He was a cosmopolitan. He spoke many languages; when he travelled somewhere, he in advance quickly learned the local language. He founded the order 'pour le mérite' and fostered the internationalisation of science. Assisted by his fabulous world-wide contacts he managed to rope the Académie des Sciences in Paris, the Royal Society, the institutions in America, in Washington, Mexico and Russia in his world knowledge project.

What Humboldt still inflames in us today is the eros of knowledge. Everywhere the sciences and scientists should recognise the limits of knowledge. We should come down from our own reductions, we should in stead over and over again cross borders and widen our horizon. This is where Alexander von Humboldt can assist us.