Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin | Über die Universität | Geschichte | Rektoren und Präsidenten | Christoph Markschies | Reden des Präsidenten | Opening Session der Konferenz "Continents under Climate Change" im Weltsaal des Auswärtigen Amts

Opening Session der Konferenz "Continents under Climate Change" im Weltsaal des Auswärtigen Amts

Grußwort vom 21. April 2010

Dear Minister of State Cornelia Piper,

dear Secretary for Natural Sciences of the Leopoldina, Gunnar Berg,
dear colleagues Wilfried Endlicher, Friedrich-Wilhelm Gerstengarbe and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

the most well-known visiting student of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin was at the same time one of our most well-known academic scholars, even if he was only a visiting lecturer. Those among us who either know the history of the Humboldt-Universität or the history of climate research - and I am pretty sure that one or the other refers to all of us - already know whom I am talking about. Needless to say, I am talking about Alexander von Humboldt. After Alexander returned from his beloved Paris to the unloved Berlin in 1827, he became the most well-known visiting student of our university. He attended lectures in Egyptology and Chemistry, yet he also gave one of the most well-known and most attended lectures in history: the so-called Kosmos-Vorlesungen (the Cosmos Lectures) in 1827.

The Berliners loved his lectures so much that Alexander von Humboldt gave them in two versions: one popular version in the building of the Singakademie, and an academic version in the main building of the university. Nevertheless, Humboldt was not a full professor at the university, but only a visiting lecturer as his salary was paid by the Akademie der Wissenschaften, the Berlin Academy of Sciences. Part of his duties at the academy was to teach at the Berlin university.

Certainly, I do not dare to bore you at this conference about climate change with some slightly strange details of the life of Alexander von Humboldt. And indeed, I do not talk to you because of the fact that our University currently celebrates its two-hundredths anniversary or because I had already prepared a speech about Alexander von Humboldt, which was just waiting in my closet. With my introductory remarks I sought to prepare all of you to the fact that I - being a church historian and not a natural scientist - was deeply impressed by some remarks written by Alexander von Humboldt, remarks which concern the climate.

In the second volume of his book Kosmos, published in 1844, Alexander von Humboldt extended and modified his Berlin lectures. Humboldt wrote

"The most basic meaning of the term Klima (climate) refers to all changes in the atmosphere by which our organs are affected in a noticeable way; among them are: the temperature, the humidity, the changes in the barometric pressure, the condition of calm air or the effects of various winds, the electric charge or the electric voltage, the purity of the atmosphere or its mixture with more or less unhealthy breezes of gas; finally, also the degree of the specific transparency or the cheerfulness of the sky; this is not only important for the thermal radiation of the soil, for the development of herbal organisms and for the ripening of fruits, but also for all sentiments of the souls of human beings."

As a scholar of the ancient world and as a church historian I should not attempt to interpret these sentences in front of an audience that is full of experts in climate research. Nevertheless, I would like to share with you some of my observations.

It is highly remarkably that Humboldt does not define climate by making use of the objectively distanced language of other traditional definitions. In one encyclopedia, for instance, we can read the following definition: "The term climate describes the entirety of all metereological activity, which is responsible for the status of the earth's atmosphere at one place".

In another encyclopedia we can read: "climate is the entirety of all possible weather conditions at one location, including their usual sequences as well as their changes with respect to days and seasons".

The advantage of Humboldt's definition is that it also refers to the affection (or maybe I should rather say the state of being affected) of the human organs, particularly of the wits, as a constitutive part of the definition of climate.

According to Humboldt, human beings are directly affected by the climate, they suffer from it, or they praise it - we all know various examples. Yet, this is not what I would like to trace your attention to. I would like to argue that Alexander von Humboldt's observations of the nature were shaped by the romantic epistemology of the famous Friedrich Schleiermacher, according to which all statements, even scientific statements, were to be made in a self-reflexive manner.

Is this a philosophical violation of the realm of nature, which antecedes our knowledge? Should we regard Humboldt as a philosopher and his definitions in the Kosmos as a sign for this predominance? My following answer is based on the programme of your conference and on the information which I was given from the climate researchers working at our university. And my answer also includes some of my own impressions from every-day life.

To cut a long story short: I regard Humboldt and his very person as an important conversational partner for our current debates; Humboldt is by no means outdated or obsolete, which one could think with respect to his allegedly naïve ideas about totality, which shine through many of his thoughts.

Humboldt's self-reflexive foundation of the notion of climate opens the floodgates to a broad understanding of its subareas. Our new public and academic interest in the effects of climate change, for instance, might not directly refer back to Humboldt, yet it is nevertheless an effect of Humboldt's notion of climate. The Humboldt-Universität is aware of Humboldt's importance for the natural sciences; this is also demonstrated in the fact that we have two statues of Alexander von Humboldt - one made of stone in front of the main university building, the other made of plaster in our institute for geography at the campus Adlershof.

Certainly it would be highly interesting for me to continue to ponder about Alexander von Humboldt's most inspiring texts and to share my interpretations with you. Yet, you as experts in the field of climate research cannot really profit from my interpretation of Humboldt's texts. And I guess you almost expected that the president of the Humboldt-Universität would argue that it is worthwhile to read the texts written by Alexander von Humboldt. My aim was to document that all the new debates about climate and sustainability, about climate and society, are the current developments of traditions that reach back far into the 19th century. And I also wanted to show that it can be worthwhile from time to time to retrieve and analyse those traditions.

Ladies and gentlemen, I wish you a most inspiring conference and stimulating discussions. Welcome to Berlin and to the Humboldt-Universität!

Dear Minister of State, dear Cornelia Piper: thank you very much indeed for your kind hospitality to host the opening session of our conference here in the Weltsaal of the Foreign Office. I would also like to thank my colleagues Wilfried Endlicher from the Humboldt-Universität and Friedrich-Wilhelm Gerstengarbe from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research and their teams for organising this conference. Once again, a very warm and sincere welcome to all of you. Enjoy your time in Berlin, enjoy the various cultural activities and - I guess you understand that I am tempted to joke about it - enjoy the nice and summerlike climate of Berlin.

Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Christoph Markschies
Präsident der Humboldt-Universität


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