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Cambridge Interfaith Programme

Detail from a painting featuring dozens of people walking and talking

... between the peoples of the book

Dr John Walker (Birkbeck, University of London, and Cambridge)

In his most recent monograph, Wilhelm von Humboldt and transcultural communication in a multicultural world: translating humanity (Boydell and Brewer, 2022), Dr Walker analyses the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) to show how it presents a philosophy of dialogue and communication that is crucially relevant to contemporary debates in the Humanities. 

Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) is the progenitor of modern linguistics and the originator of the modern teaching and research university. However, his work has received remarkably little attention in the English-speaking world. Humboldt conceives language as the source of cognition as well as communication, both rooted in the possibility of human dialogue. In the same way, his idea of the university posits the free encounter between radically different personalities as the source of education for freedom. For Humboldt, both linguistic and intellectual communication are predicated firstly on dialogue between persons, which is the prerequisite for all intercultural understanding.

Linking Humboldt's concept of dialogue to his idea of translation between languages, persons, and cultures, Walker shows how Humboldt's thought is of great contemporary relevance. Humboldt shows a way beyond the false alternatives of "culturalism" (the demand that a plurality of cultural and faith-based traditions be recognized as sources of ethical and political legitimacy in the modern world) and "universalism" (the assertion of the primacy of a universal culture of human rights and the renewal of the European Enlightenment project). John Walker explains how Humboldt's work emerges from the intellectual conflicts of his time and yet directly addresses the concerns of our own post-secular and multicultural age. 

Dr Walker will present and discuss examples from his book, with reference to the practice of Scriptural Reasoning. Dr Daniel Weiss (Cambridge) will respond, before opening up wider discussion with those in attendance. 

About the speaker

John Walker studied Modern Languages in Cambridge (1975-79) and wrote a doctorate on Hegel's philosophies of history and religion under the supervision of Professor Nicholas Boyle of Magdalene College. He taught at Selwyn from 1988-94 and is now Emeritus Reader in German Intellectual History at Birkbeck College, London. His book Wilhelm von Humboldt and Transcultural Communication in a Multicultural World. Translating Humanity was published by Camden House in October 2022. His primary interest is in the relationship between language, culture, and faith. 

An Inter-Religious Relations research seminar
Register in advance to join the online audience.

Further reading (optional)

For those who wish to learn more about the topic, the following is recommended:

  • Wilhelm von Humboldt, 'On Language', ed. Michael Losonsky; translated Peter Heath (Cambridge: CUP, 1999)

Those within the University of Cambridge may access a digital version of Dr Walker's book via the University Library service.

If a copy is not available through your institution, the eBook is available to purchase online from retailers including the Hive network of independent booksellers. For print and alternative e-editions, visit the publisher's website (

NB This seminar was originally scheduled for November 2022 and rescheduled due to unforeseen circumstances.

Tuesday, 14 March, 2023 - 14:15 to 15:45
Event location: 
Lightfoot Room, Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge

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