By Xabier Insausti (EHU-UPV, Philosophy)
Iñaki Zabaleta Gorrotxategi (professor, University of the Basque Country) has published a book on Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) and the Basque Country: Wilhelm von Humboldt eta Euskal Herria (UPV/EHU). The basis of the work is the two trips that Humboldt made to the Basque Country in 1799 and 1801. The first trip was brief–he was passing by on his way to Madrid–but he was so enchanted with the language of the Basque Country that he returned for a longer stay two years later. In his second stay he traveled widely through the country, leading him to review his reflections on the relationship between anthropology and the language of a country. Finally, from his travels he established a new paradigm: the idiosyncrasies of a people are largely determined by their language. A country cannot be understood without its language, and it is a language, not a political decision, that makes a nation (Although bad policy can ruin a nation.)
Zabaleta divides the work into two parts. In the first he analyzes Humboldt’s two trips in remarkable detail, specifically highlighting the relationships between popular culture, idiosyncrasies and politics; definitively, Humboldt’s anthropological and humanist project. In the second part, Zabaleta focuses on Humboldt’s reflections after his visits (throughout the second part of his life) that led him to conclusions related to language theory, primarily based on the analysis of the Basque language.
The current importance of this research is unquestionable. Humboldt has no qualms about linking the concepts of language and country (patria). If the language is lost, the homeland is lost. Ultimately, a nation is a linguistic community. Although the political meanings differ greatly, the words of Heidegger seem to echo here: language is the house of being.
The Basque language (euskera) is a pre-Indo-European language. This characteristic makes the language especially interesting to those who have learned to appreciate it, such as German linguists and philosophers, unlike the arrogant Spanish philosophers who despise and ignore it. Even Heidegger became interested in the Basque language, without even knowing what it was.
Although Humboldt says he learned a lot from the Basques, it is no less true that we can learn much from him. Zabaleta’s representation of Humboldt’s experiences and philosophies is academically without blemish, thoroughly documented, and philosophically illuminating. In short, it is an indispensable book in understanding the complex political present.