Beyond the magic circle: Re-reading Humboldt

jede zieht um das Volk, welchem sie angehört, einen Kreis

1. A series of citations, appropriations and translations gave the following two sentences from section §9 of Wilhelm von Humboldt’s posthumously published Über die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaues (On the Diversity of Human Language Construction, 1836) a canonical status in the English-reading world:

Man lives with his objects chiefly—in fact, since his feeling and acting depends on his perceptions, one may say exclusively—as language presents them to him. By the same process whereby he spins language out of his own being, he ensnares himself in it; and each language draws a magic circle round the people to which it belongs, a circle from which there is no escape save by stepping out of it into another. (9, italics added)

The quotation comes from Language and Myth, Susanne K. Langer’s 1946 translation of Ernst Cassirer’s Sprache und Mythos (1925). Her rendering of Cassirer’s citation of Humboldt’s original German (see below) appears to mark the moment these sentences crossed over to English for the first time. (In the introduction to the book I discuss the way Marshall McLuhan used this particular quotation in The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962).)

Uber title page1.1 Many aspects of Langer’s translation remain debatable, beginning with her insertion of the adjective ‘magic’. As Cassirer correctly had it, Humboldt referred only to einen Kreis (a circle), avoiding any hint of conjuring. Her choice of ‘ensnares’ was equally loaded. In the 1988 Cambridge edition of On Language, now the standard English version of Über die Verschiedenheit, Peter Heath used ‘spins’ (for spinnt), following Humboldt’s underlying analogy which figures language as an intricately-patterned fabric (Gewebe). In his own version from 1982, J. M. Coetzee also chose ‘spins’ (‘weaves’ is also possible). When it came to ‘the people’, however, the phrase Langer and Heath both used for Humboldt’s das Volk, Coetzee opted for ‘the national linguistic community [Volk]’, giving the key term a different political inflection while at the same time allowing for its untranslatability (181). The single word ‘nation’ has sufficed for other translators. Conscious of the racialized ethnolinguistic assumptions underpinning apartheid, Coetzee was no doubt thinking of the Germanic word’s specific resonances in Afrikaans. The Oxford English Dictionary attributes the first recorded use of the Old English (Old Frisian/Saxon) ‘folc’, meaning ‘a people, nation, race’, to a sixteenth-century edition of Beowulf but it traces many of the compounds, where the word means ‘popular’ (e.g. ‘folklore’, ‘folktale’), to the 19th century. It also notes that the meaning of the Anglo-Norman (Latinate) word ‘people’ changed from the 14th to the 17th century, shifting from ‘the mass of the community as distinguished from the nobility or the ruling classes’ to ‘the whole body of citizens of a country, regarded as the source of political power or as the basis of society’.

1.2 Langer had a particular attachment to the phrase ‘magic circle’ because she thought it went to the heart of Cassirer’s larger project in Sprache und Mythos. Following in the tradition of Humboldtian philosophical idealism,  Cassirer set out to challenge the prevailing positivistic theories of knowledge in early twentieth-century Euro-American philosophy.  Concerned as they were ‘with “facts” and the development of orderly thought about facts’, she commented in her preface, the mainstream Euro-American positivists of the time invariably dismissed older mythic and poetic forms of thinking as mistakes or ‘vulgar superstition’ (viii). Rejecting this, Cassirer insisted that ‘language, man’s prime instrument of reason, reflects his mythmaking tendency more than his rationalizing tendency’ (viii). He also argued that ‘the mind’ expresses itself ‘in different forms, one of which is discursive logic, the other creative imagination’. His point, however, was not to affirm the latter at the expense of the former. He acknowledged, as Langer put it, that ‘myth never breaks out of the magic circle of its figurative ideas’, while ‘language, born of the same magic circle, has the power to break its bounds’, thereby taking ‘us from the mythmaking phase of human mentality to the phase of logical thought and conception of facts’ (ix-x). As this suggests, Cassirer shared the positivists’ progressivist conception of intellectual history. The difference was that while they discarded the prelogical poetic phase, he wanted to keep it in play. This influenced his own reading of the passage from Humboldt which, he wrote, ‘holds, perhaps, even more for the basic mythical conceptions of mankind than for language’ (9). Langer reinforced this in her translation, effectively recasting Humboldt’s neutral Sprache (language) as poetic ‘mythmaking’ in Cassirer’s sense—hence her choice of ‘ensnares’ and her eagerness to add ‘magic’.

2. Cut adrift from their initial moorings, re-framed by Cassirer’s reading, and re-worded in Langer’s English, these two sentences became something of a snare for Humboldt himself, sealing his fate as a caricature linguistic relativist for whom language, understood as the exclusive property of a Volk, determines thought, and casting him as a founding figure in a longer story about the historical origins of what came to be called the ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’ (see Yildiz, Beyond the Mother Tongue, 2012, 6-10). Re-reading these sentences in their original context reveals a figure at once more complex and enduringly significant: a Humboldt for our own times who has surprising things to say about relativism in all its contemporary guises—cultural and cognitive as well as linguistic—and about the public value of literature (or poetic thinking in Cassirer’s sense) in today’s intercultural and increasingly interconnected world.

3. One of Humboldt’s main purposes in section §9 of Über die Verschiedenheit was to challenge an overly rationalistic ‘picture of language’ as a tool for naming things ‘already perceived in themselves’ (i.e. independently of language) and for serving ‘the need for mutual assistance’ or ‘sociality’ (i.e. communication, 60). ‘Man, as a species, is a singing creature’, he insisted, anticipating Cassirer, since language has always exhibited ‘a wealth and multiplicity of expressions that everywhere exceeds what is required’ merely for the sake of communication or labelling (60). Put in the terms of his other key analogyTweed fabric—language as a fabric—we could say that humankind is a spinning creature, only the artefact being spun in this case is not a piece of finely-woven cloth but a language with ‘a characteristic world-view’ (Weltansicht, 60). Crucially, as Underhill notes, Humboldt used the latter term to refer only to the lexical and grammatical ‘patterning within which we think’ not to any content-laden beliefs whether religious (e.g. Catholic), say, or political (e.g. Nationalist)—he used Weltanschauung (‘world-conception’) for the latter (106). So, while serving various practical needs or instrumental purposes, each language also does something more: it creates what Humboldt called a ‘conceptual fabric and mode of presentation,’ making certain ways of thinking possible (60).

3.1. In so doing, it also draws ‘a circle’ around das Volk to which it ‘belongs’ (angehört). Humboldt’s purpose in adding this further geometrical analogy was not to define a clear cognitive boundary, let alone imagine languages as snares or prison-houses. He wanted only to affirm the benefits of multilingualism in a diverse world, while acknowledging the finite, visceral way we inevitably experience language. ‘To learn a foreign language should therefore be to acquire a new standpoint’, he remarked in the next sentence, ‘but because we always carry over, more or less, our own world-view, and even our own language-view, this outcome is not purely or completely experienced’ (60). Here the qualifications (‘more or less’, ‘not purely or completely’) are as telling as the distinction between ‘world-view’ and ‘language-view’. In the preceding paragraph, he noted that ‘the native tongue possesses a strength and intimacy so much greater than any foreign one’ not so much because of ‘its mental content’ (the world-view) but because of ‘the very thing that is least explicable and most individual, its sound’ (the language-view or specifically phonology). This reflects the fact that our relationship to language is first and foremost bodily, specifically aural, rather than conceptual or cognitive—hence Humboldt’s emphasis on song. A native speaker cut off from her language for an extended period is likely to experience her re-immersion as a ‘sudden magic’, he wrote, because of the way ‘it greets the ear’ (59). Conversely, when she learns another language, the challenge is not so much to pick up its linguistic-cognitive patterns (the ‘conceptual fabric’) but to adopt its sounds and rhythms, something he believed she could never achieve completely. At some moments, no doubt when its speech patterns were most alien, her already well-trained tongue/brain would betray her visceral embeddedness as the speaker of different first language—hence the Old Testament story of the word ‘shibboleth’ (Judges 12:5-6). Stressing the ineluctable finitude of bodily experience was another feature of Humboldt’s anti-rationalism.

4. His other main purpose in section §9 was to show how the circle purportedly demarcating the circumference of each language can never be rigidly defined. This is in part because each belongs not just to das Volk but to ‘the whole human species’, a fact that makes it all but impossible to conceptualize as a bounded sphere, countable thing or object of positive knowledge (62). What each community might think of as its own language ‘flows out from an unknown wealth that is still to a certain extent discernible’, he observed, but, since it also shares an ‘infinitude, without beginning or end, with the whole existence of mankind’, it ‘then closes off, leaving only a sense of unfathomability’, a ‘dark unrevealed depth’—hence its ‘peculiar existence’ as something that both does and does not express ‘the soul’ (der Seele) of each Volk (62). As this wording suggests, Humboldt’s philosophical idealism was complicated by his anti-rationalism: if each language expresses the ‘soul’ of das Volk, on his account, it never defines its identity once and for all ‘for nowhere, not even in writing, does it have a permanent abode’ (62).

4.1 This peculiarity is also evident at the individual level. ‘When we think how the current generation of a people (einem Volke) is governed by all that their language has undergone, through all the preceding centuries’, he wrote, ‘it then becomes evident how small, in fact, is the power of the individual compared to the might of language’ (63). This sounds like straightforward articulation of linguistic determinism. Yet Humboldt immediately continues: ‘the manner in which language is modified in every individual discloses, in contrast to its previously expounded power, a dominion of man over it’ (63).

4.2 The idea that there is a constant interplay between individual and community, freedom and constraint, change and regularity was central to Humboldt’s philosophy of language. ‘In the influence exerted on [the individual] lies the regularity of language and its forms’, he continued, ‘in his own reaction, a principle of freedom’ (64). This anti-deterministic affirmation of creative potentiality once again put the boundedness of languages in question. By coining new words, importing others, or violating phonetic, orthographic and grammatical rules, any and every member of das Volk (in its populist sense) could, he argued, add to the ‘inexhaustible storehouse’ of the language (61). This aspect of his thinking had a direct influence on the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen in the 1920s (see Chapter 3 of the book) and on Noam Chomsky in the 1960s. Yet, as a figure who owed much to the German Romantic tradition of the late-eighteenth century, Humboldt also believed that ‘a genuinely new and great talent’—above all a great writer—could do something more than the ordinary speaker (61). By opening ‘a vista’ beyond ‘the field of past achievements’ and by making it possible to think and feel in ways ‘for which no understanding can discover the reason in previous circumstances’, the emergence of a genuinely inventive writer, always an indeterminable event, could both transform a language and advance the ‘intellectual struggle’ of humanity as a whole (61, 64). ‘We should misconceive the nature of language, and violate, indeed, the historical truth of its emergence and change, if we sought to exclude from it the possibility of such inexplicable phenomena’ (64).

4.3 Humboldt returns to the generative capacity of language in section §20 where he describes how ‘the mind, seeing language to be actually engaged in endless creation, no longer regards it as closed, but strives unceasingly to import new matter, so as to have this, once patched into the language, react upon itself’ (157). This was because ‘the nature of man has intimations of a region that transcends language, and is actually constricted by language; but that language in turn is the only means of exploring and fertilizing this region’ (157). In effect, simultaneously rejecting the basic tenets of linguistic relativism and determinism, he insisted that it is only by means of language that the ‘conceptual fabric’ of das Volk can be creatively stitched, unstitched and re-stitched, making it possible for new ways of thinking to emerge and its Weltansicht, that is its embedded conceptualizations, to be transformed. Again, he believed inventive writers were central to this, since it is through its literature that the language raises ‘itself to the pure evolution of thought, and to free expression’, and thereby ‘develops its character’ (151).

5. Langer’s translation of the two sentences from Über die Verschiedenheit itself highlights the generative possibilities and the potential perils of ‘stepping out’ of the ‘circle’ of one language into another, even for those as closely linked as German and English. This is especially clear in the case of a word like Volk which, despite having a life in both languages, simultaneously invites various translations, each with a different political inflection (‘people’ vs. ‘nation’), and tests the limits of translatability itself. Much the same can be said for Weltanschauung which the OED treats both as a loanword (itself a questionable metaphor given what it presumes about ownership) meaning ‘a particular philosophy or view of life; a concept of the world held by an individual or a group’ and as a calque (‘world-view’) meaning ‘a set of fundamental beliefs, values, etc., determining or constituting a comprehensive outlook on the world; a perspective on life’. It claims the calque, which it dates to 1848, entered the language twenty years before the direct loan. It also has an entry for Weltansicht, though it identifies it as a rare loanword meaning ‘world-view’ dating from 1892. Each interlingual transfer—loan or calque—added a new thread to the ‘conceptual fabric’ of English, extending its expressive capacity, though, as the definitions suggest, the particular use Humboldt made of the two terms did not make the crossover. In fact, the technical distinction he drew between Weltansicht (which is an exclusively linguistic phenomenon) and Weltanschauung (which encompasses extra-linguistic values and beliefs) remains peculiar to his philosophical lexicon even for speakers of contemporary German. Langer’s translation of den Gegenständen (‘his objects’) and seinen Vorstellungen (‘his perceptions’) raises other questions. While the first can be rendered literally as ‘the objects’, which makes no specific claims about ownership (simply the totality of things in the world, rather than those with which humanity is especially preoccupied), the second can more plausibly be translated as ‘ideas’ or ‘conceptions’ since Vorstellungen have less to do with what is seen with the eyes (the visible surface) than with what is imagined (the conceptual structure), framing rather than looking. Inevitably, with the Latinate English words we also lose some of the ‘conceptual fabric’, specifically the spatial or prepositional underpinnings, of the German originals: ‘objects’ are literally things that stand opposite you (Gegen-stand as ‘towards/against-stand’), whereas the more active ‘conceptions’ put things in front of you (vor-stellen as ‘before-set’).

6. In Humboldt’s original German, the two sentences appear as follows:

Der Mensch lebt mit den Gegenständen hauptsächlich, ja, da Empfinden und Handeln in ihm von seinen Vorstellungen abhängen, sogar ausschließlich so, wie die Sprache sie ihm zuführt. Durch denselben Akt, vermöge dessen er die Sprache aus sich herausspinnt, spinnt er sich in dieselbe ein, und jede zieht um das Volk, welchem sie angehört, einen Kreis, aus dem es nur insofern hinauszugehen möglich ist, als man zugleich in den Kreis einer anderen hinübertritt. (Über die Verschiedenheit, 58-59)

I am grateful to Tobias Heinrich and Tom Kuhn for their advice on various aspects German usage.


Ernst Cassirer, Sprache und Mythos (Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1925).

Ernst Cassirer, Language and Myth, trans. Susanne K. Langer (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1946).

J. M. Coetzee, Doubling the Point, ed. D. Attwell (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992). The essay ‘Isaac Newton and the Ideal of a Transparent Scientific Language’ first appeared in the Journal of Literary Semantics, 11.1 (January 1982), 3-13.

Wilhelm von Humboldt, Über die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaues und ihren Einfluss auf die geistige Entwicklung des Menschengeschlechts (Berlin: Koniglichen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1836).

Wilhelm von Humboldt, On Language, trans. P. Heath (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

W. Underhill, Humboldt, Worldview and Language (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009).

OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017. 

For further reading on Humboldt and relativity, see Aneta Pavlenko, The Bilingual Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Gunter Senft, et. al., eds, Culture and Language Use (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2009); Charles Taylor, The Language Animal (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016); and Yasemin Yildiz, Beyond the Mother Tongue: The Postmonolingual Condition (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012).

For an engaging contemporary take on the centrality of phonology, which bears comparison to the emphasis Humboldt placed on sound and song, see Ray Jackendoff, A User’s Guide to Thought and Meaning (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), especially pp. 43-44 and 103-107.

See also Lera Boroditzki’s blog Notes on Intercultural Communication.

And for a creative engagement with these questions, see Zineb Sedira’s three-part video installationMother Tongue‘ (2002). 

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