Natural History and Vertical Thinking in Germany’s Underground Enlightenment: Mining as the Working World of Humboldt’s Science
Anthony, Patrick Richard
The overwhelming emphasis on Alexander von Humboldt’s American journey has marginalized the vital importance of his training and experience as a mining official in the 1790s. This essay builds upon the insights of historian Ursula Klein by ranging outside of Prussia geographically and through the American journey temporally to argue that while Humboldt’s approach to natural history may have crystallized in Spanish America, it took root in a fundamentally different context: the “underground Enlightenment” of central European mining. Mining was, to speak with Jon Agar, the original “working world” of Humboldt’s science, the arena of economic activity that shaped his plant geography and cartography. This essay is, then, a case study of the way in which commercial interests shape practice and theory in the history of science. Moreover, I demonstrate how the kind of vertical mobility made possible by mining fostered a “vertical consciousness” amongst Humboldt and many of his contemporaries.