Kant's Anthropology

Each of us embarks on a journey outward into the world and inward into the self. Society is mysterious to us because we have lived in it and it now dwells inside us at a level that is not ordinarily visible from the perspective of everyday life. All the places we have lived in are sources of introspection concerning our relationship to society; and one method for understanding the world is to make an ongoing practice of trying to synthesize these varied experiences. If a person would have an identity -- would be one thing, one self – this requires trying to make out of fragmented social experience a more coherent whole, a world in other words as singular as the self.


Immanuel Kant was a geography lecturer in the Baltic port of Koenigsberg. He published his first book at the age of 57, The Critique of Pure Reason (1781), and it marked his arrival as a philosopher. Kant is the source for the notion that society may be as much an expression of individual subjectivity as a collective force out there. Copernicus solved the problem of the movement of the heavenly bodies by having the spectator revolve while they were at rest, instead of them revolve around the spectator. Kant extended this achievement for physics into metaphysics. In his Preface to The Critique of Pure Reason he writes, "Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects... but what if we suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge?"

In order to understand the world, we must begin not with the empirical existence of objects, but with the reasoning embedded in our experience itself and in all the judgments we have made. This is to say that the world is inside each of us as much as it is out there. Our task is to unite the two poles as subjective individuals who share the object world with the rest of humanity. Knowledge of society must be personal and moral before it is defined by the laws imposed on each of us from above.

Kant published Anthropology from a pragmatic point of view in 1798. The book was based on lectures he had given at the university since 1772. His aim was to attract the general public to an independent discipline whose name he more than anyone contributed to academic life. Remarkably, histories of anthropology have rarely mentioned this work, perhaps because the discipline has evolved so far away from Kant’s original premises. But it would pay us to take his Anthropology seriously, if only for its resonance with our own times.

Shortly before, Kant wrote Perpetual peace: a philosophical sketch (1795). The last quarter of the eighteenth century saw its own share of ‘globalization’ — the American and French revolutions, the rise of British industry and the international movement to abolish slavery. Kant knew that coalitions of states were gearing up for war, yet he responded to this sense of the world coming closer together by proposing how humanity might form society as world citizens beyond the boundaries of states. He held that "cosmopolitan right", the basic right of all world citizens, should rest on conditions of universal hospitality, that is, on the right of a stranger not to be treated with hostility when he arrives on someone else’s territory. In other words, we should be free to go wherever we like in the world, since it belongs to all of us equally.

He goes on to say:

"The peoples of the earth have entered in varying degree into a universal community, and it has developed to the point where a violation of rights in one part of the world is felt everywhere. The idea of a cosmopolitan right is not fantastic and overstrained; it is a necessary complement to the unwritten code of political and international right, transforming it into a universal right of humanity."

This confident sense of an emergent world order, written over 200 years ago, can now be seen as the high point of the liberal revolution, before it was overwhelmed by its twin offspring, industrial capitalism and the nation-state.

Earlier Kant wrote an essay, ‘Idea for a universal history with a cosmopolitan purpose’ which included the following propositions:

1.
In man (as the only rational creature on earth) those natural faculties which aim at the use of reason shall be fully developed in the species, not in the individual.

2.
The means that nature employs to accomplish the development of all faculties is the antagonism of men in society, since this antagonism becomes, in the end, the cause of a lawful order of this society.

3.
The latest problem for mankind, the solution of which nature forces us to seek, is the achievement of a civil society which is capable of administering law universally.

4.
This problem is both the most difficult and the last to be solved by mankind.

5.
A philosophical attempt to write a universal world history according to a plan of nature which aims at perfect civic association of mankind must be considered to be possible and even as capable of furthering nature’s purpose.

Our world is much more socially integrated than two centuries ago and its economy is palpably unequal. Histories of the universe we inhabit do seem to be indispensable to the construction of institutions capable of administering justice worldwide. The task of building a global civil society for the twenty-first century, even a world state, is an urgent one and anthropological visions should play their part in that.

This then was the context for the publication of Kant’s Anthropology. He elsewhere summarized "philosophy in the cosmopolitan sense of the word" as four questions:

What can I know?
What should I do?
What may I hope for?
What is a human being?

"The first question is answered in metaphysics, the second in morals, the third in religion and the fourth in anthropology."

But the first three questions "relate to anthropology", he said, and might be subsumed under it. Kant conceived of anthropology as an empirical discipline, but also as a means of moral and cultural improvement. It was thus both an investigation into human nature and, more especially, into how to modify it, as a way of providing his students with practical guidance and knowledge of the world. He intended his lectures to be popular and of value in later life. Above all, the Anthropology was to contribute to the progressive political task of uniting world citizens by identifying the source of their "cosmopolitan bonds". The book thus moves between mundane illustrations and Kant’s most sublime vision, using anecdotes close to home as a bridge to horizon thinking.

Kant's Anthropology was a best-seller for its time. The first print run of 2,000 copies sold out in a couple of years. Earlier the Scots philosopher, David Hume, paid him a visit at home which he never left. "You're a cosmopolitan philosopher", he said. "How come you have never been anywhere?" "People come to Koenigsberg", repled Kant. "You came to Koenigsberg". Sometimes, it seems, the spectator may be at rest while the heavens turn.

Immanuel Kant, who has a claim to be the greatest philosopher who ever lived, died at the age of 80 in 1804, the year of Haiti's independence after the only successful slave revolution in world history.

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