The Stimulations of Travel: Humboldt's Physiological Construction of the Tropics

Michael Dettelbach

in Tropical Visions in an Age of Empire

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print October 2005 | ISBN: 9780226164717
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226164700 | DOI:
The Stimulations of Travel: Humboldt's Physiological Construction of the Tropics

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This chapter discusses Humboldt's preoccupations with tropical travel that is connected here to a late Enlightenment culture of sensibility. Humboldt—and those who followed in his footsteps, many quite literally—saw the tropics as a site for enacting a new model of the self, which visions of tropical nature helped to sustain. Humboldt's account of the American tropics is pervaded by physiology, especially a close attention to his own physiological and aesthetic responses to outside stimuli—a trait shared with many diarists and letter writers of the late eighteenth century. This physiological scaffolding was put in place in the decade before he left for America, as an experimental philosopher and Prussian official. This chapter examines the function of one's own physiology through several examples. It suggests that attending to the effects of the tropics on one's own physiology (including aesthetic effects) was critical to establishing one's authority as a philosophical traveler. The tropics exemplified the rule of nature for Humboldt; they could only perform this function in relation to other, quite different sites for fashioning self and nature: the laboratories and mines of Europe.

Keywords: travel; tropics; physiology; philosopher; nature

Chapter.  5938 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Colonialism and Imperialism

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