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Wilhelm von Humboldt

Wilhelm von Humboldt (June 22 1767 - April 8 1835), German linguist, government functionary, foreign diplomat, philosopher; founder of Humboldt Universitšt in Berlin; friend of Goethe and Schiller. His brother Alexander von Humboldt was equally famous in the natural sciences.

Humboldt is credited with being the first linguist to identify human language as a rule-governed system, rather than just a collection of words and phrases paired with meanings. This idea is one of the foundations of Noam Chomsky's theory of language (transformational grammar). Chomsky frequently quotes Humboldt's description of language as a system which "makes infinite use of finite means", meaning that an infinite number of sentences can be created using a finite number of words.

Humboldt was also a philosopher of note and published On the Limits of State Action in 1810, the boldest defence of the liberties of the Enlightenment. It anticipated John Stuart Mill's Essay on Liberty by which von Humboldt's ideas became known in the English speaking world. As Prussian minister of education, he oversaw the system of Technische Hochschule and Gymnasia that made Prussia, and subsequently the second German Reich, the strongest European power and the scientific and intellectual leader of the world.

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