Keith Hart has, several times since I joined OAC, urged us to look deeper into anthropology's history and consider the anthropology of Immanuel Kant. I must confess that I have resisted this suggestion, anticipating a head-banging encounter with Kantian critical philosophy. Today, however, having a bit of time on my hands and procrastinating from getting to work on other tasks, I turned to Questia to see what I would find if I searched for "Kant anthropology." At the top of the list of works that popped up was

 

Jacobs, Brian and Patrick Kain (2003) Essays on Kant's Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 

Reading the introduction, I came across the following paragraphs, which do, indeed, offer some provocative suggestions about what anthropology, as Kant conceived it, might be.

 

First, it would be a pragmatic discipline, pursued with an eye to utility as well as intellectual knowledge or pleasure per se.

 

Rather than offer a merely theoretical account of human affairs, useful only for theorizing in the schools, Kant intended to provide a ʻdoctrine of prudenceʻ (Lehre der Klugheit)  toward which future citizens of the world could orient themselves. Following the lead of works such as Rousseau's Emile, Kant aimed to provide observations of peoples and cultures useful for his auditors to get on in the world, to conduct commerce and politics with a greater understanding of human beings and of human relations. (Jacobs and Kain 3)

Second, it would draw upon ethnography but not be confined to it.

For Kant, anthropology is not a study of other cultures in the sense of comparative ethnography, although as a pragmatic inquiry into the nature of human beings in general it does draw in part upon such works. Kant's sources include not only travel accounts of distant regions, but also plays, poetry, histories, novels, physiology, and philosophical works. In the lectures on anthropology, one is as likely to encounter a reference to Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy as to Lucretius' De rerum natura. Kant draws upon these sources to provide an empirical and useful account of the powers of the human mind in general and the vocation of the human race. (Jacobs and Kain 3)

 

It was startling to read that Anthropology was Kant's most popular course and one he taught for more than 20 years (1772-1794). This was due,  at least in part, in the way it was taught, using lively humorous language and vivid anecdotes, in a style that contrasted sharply with the high abstraction and labored theorizing of the great Critiques.

 

Kant's anthropology is important, however, not only because of the questions it raises about Kant's philosophical system or the history of the human sciences. It is also important as an unambiguous counterpoint to the still prevalent view that, in Wilhelm Dilthey's words, ʻin the veins of the knowing subject, such as ... Kant [has] construed him, flows not real blood but rather the thinned fluid of reason as pure thought activity.ʻ Kant's anthropology lectures present the acting and knowing subject as fully constituted in human flesh and blood, with the specific virtues and foibles that make it properly human. This is an account that can and should be taken seriously in its own right. (Jacobs and Kain 6)

 

 

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Comment by Keith Hart on December 25, 2010 at 12:58pm

Josh Reno said: Ought there to be another thread on defining human nature (proposed title: 'placing boundaries around the human')?  I am happy to start one, but I wasn't sure if you were aware of such a post
already having begun.

 

That's a great idea. Why don't you start one, Josh?

Comment by John McCreery on December 25, 2010 at 11:42am
P.S. Here in Japan, it is Christmas evening and one of my happiest Christmases ever. I wish I could share it with everyone here.
Comment by John McCreery on December 25, 2010 at 11:40am

It strikes me that as liberal thinkers like Berlin
and Rawls steered away from what they imagined to be the 'totalitarian'
risks of Kant and Hegel, privileging negative liberty and negative
justice in place of the cultivation of human potential, they also
scrapped ideas of human nature. 

This may be true; it sounds plausible. But why stop with Berlin and Rawls? I have mentioned Charles Taylor, whose Sources of the Self might be described as Kant historicized, accepting the necessity of categorical assumptions and a moral horizon as preconditions for judgment but also recognizing that the content of such assumptions has changed over time. I would also recommend a look at Zygmunt Baumann, who argues that the role of critical theory in the early and mid-20th century era to carve out a space for freedom in the  face of all too real totalitarian threats; but has now been so successful in that pursuit that it has destroyed all common ground for rational debate. Thus, he suggests, critical theory must assume a new role, reconstructing that common ground.

Baumann also suggests that the way to understand a society or an era is to study its nightmares. Taking up this suggestion, I propose that if the nightmare to which an earlier critical theory responded was Orwell's 1984, the new nightmare is a world so fluid and chaotic that judgment is reduced to habit or impulse. 

 

But what alternative is there besides totalitarian simplifications or amoral chaos? To me science, properly understood, has a lot to offer, and the difference in question is primarily one of attitude. If my memory serves me right (always a debatable assumption), Nietzsche captures that difference in The Birth of the Tragedy and the Genealogy of Morals, in a passage in which he compares the Scientist and the Metaphysician to two men watching Salome perform the dance of the seven veils. The Scientist is content to be tantalized as one veil after another is slowly removed. The Metaphysician is the boor shouting, "Take it all off, now!"

Coming back then to Kant, I see a philosopher who like Descartes and, going all the way back, Plato and Parmenides is looking for some essential, immutable, irrefutable Truth on which all further discussion must be based. But reading Kant as Nietzsche's Scientist might, I am happy to agree that a few basic assumptions on which to build any useful model, note where the models fit the data and where they don't, and ask myself what further modifications might be needed to achieve a closer fit. If I can get a bit closer to things in which I can believe without a reasonable doubt, that suffices for me. 

Thus, when I look at concepts I don't worry too much if they don't cover every possible case. I don't expect them to. I look at them as tools, useful in some situations but not in others. My concern about taxonomy should be seen from this perspective. A taxonomy is like a hammer, the most basic of tools, and useful when you need one. The problem is that I see too many of my colleagues acting like the proverbial fool who, having a hammer and nothing else, sees every problem as a nail and becomes hugely frustrated when what the problem calls for is a drill, screwdriver or allen wrench and all the hammer can do is make the problem worse.

Comment by Josh Reno on December 25, 2010 at 3:10am

Thank you both for your thoughtful responses.  I am responding on Christmas day, having just 'delivered' presents to the tree in one of my first engagements with Santa-theater.  Quite fun, I can now see why
parents so readily lie to their children.

First Keith.  Ought there to be another thread on defining human nature (proposed title: 'placing boundaries around the human')?  I am happy to start one, but I wasn't sure if you were aware of such a post
already having begun.

Thank you for the mini-excursus on Kant, also.  If I understand correctly, was Kant hoping then to modify human nature, or to use the ideal to modify the human condition as the 'nature' was fixed?  As I am currently preparing an opening lecture for a course on human rights at Goldsmiths, I have been reading through a bit of moral and political philosophy lately.  It strikes me that as liberal thinkers like Berlin and Rawls steered away from what they imagined to be the 'totalitarian' risks of Kant and Hegel, privileging negative liberty and negative justice in place of the cultivation of human potential, they also scrapped ideas of human nature.  What matters in the liberal tradition, if I am not mistaken, is not what ought to be for all, but what ought to be avoided on behalf of the individual.  Is that a fair distinction to make between these philosophical threads?  Are (specifically Anglo-American) anthropologists too trapped within the liberal tradition?  I also wonder, thinking about Wendy Brown's work on tolerance, whether this has also tended to limit "inclusive" civil rights politics in our time, including that of disability rights.  Due to a lack of an idea of human nature (of some dialectically arrived at sameness or ideal for all), all people of color, women, the disabled can win is the right to not have things taken from them.

I am not sure the descriptivist/anti-descriptivist debate is worth rehatching, but basically it started because Saul Kripke (in "Naming and Necessity") argued against the Frege/Bertrand-Russell idea that names
refer to descriptions of the world.  So "Kant" would mean a set of descriptions we could agree on like 1. 18th century German philosopher, 2. writer of the famous "Critiques" and 3. a man who is no longer
living, (in the same way a chair could be associated with a set like i. artifact, ii. seating typically one person, iii. supported at the base).  Kripke's point was that we rigidly refer to people with names, so that even if it turned out that all three of those agreed-upon descriptions were false (Kant was really a woman vampire and a fraud who murdered the real originator of "his" ideas and posed as a man in public lectures and still lives to this day), we would still think of that person as "Kant."  Hilary Putnam later argued (in his essay 'the meaning of meaning') that we use words for things like chairs the same way too.  So if we found out tomorrow that all things we thought of as 'chairs' were actually living things (aliens posing as artifacts to study our race, say) we would still think of them as 'chairs': he argues in this counterfactual world we wouldn't say, 'chairs don't exist!' but 'chairs are alive!' 

Now this might have no place in this discussion, but the reason I mentioned it is that it strikes me that if human nature wasn't associated with a set of properties but (somewhat tautologically) to a set of people we rigidly refer to as "human" irrespective of their talents, then that might solve the problem.  Although I suppose it doesn't really solve it, it only defers the question (as John suggests) to matters of taxonomic classification or the human anatomical equipment, which makes possessing "human nature" a matter of being identifiable as homo sapiens sapien.  But is such an identifiableness only allowable through genealogical connection to other humans?  If so, that excludes AI from ever acquiring humanness. 

Or perhaps I am misunderstanding and the transcendental categories are not fixed in bodies and their is no reason, a priori, why they couldn't be programmed into a machine or apparent in an intelligent ET who evolved a kind of human nature on a different planet (although I am pretty sure Putnam would suggest that they did not possess 'human nature' because he thinks rigid designation requires some kind of primordial stuff, like DNA, that provides the real basis the assumption of continuity of reference and extension of meaning).

That's it for me, sorry to ramble and happy holidays!

 

Comment by John McCreery on December 24, 2010 at 7:19am

For example, the 'set' of attributes that is usually assumed to essentially define 'humanness' includes bipedalism, language, and abstract intelligence, even though not all of those we would readily label human beings are natured and nurtured for these abilities.  As a consequence the built environment, civil society and political economy are organized to exclude and subjugate them and they are treated as less than human.

Josh, thanks for bringing this up. The reasons you articulate so well are, to me, more than sufficient to make me look for alternatives to the taxonomic approach to classification embodied, in this instance, in the way in which "human nature" is usually conceived.

To look for a set of necessary and sufficient conditions  [nature] shared by members of a set [human beings] implies, as you have noted, that those who fail to meet those conditions are, by definition, excluded from humanity. The good news is that there are now many other ways to think about human nature in broader and more accepting terms. I have mentioned several approaches -- family resemblances, fuzzy sets, prototypes, for example -- in the discussion of taxonomies and topographies that is running parallel to this one. 

Kant responded to Hume, rejecting the notion that transient associations in impressions provided by the senses are all we have to think with and asserting, instead, that human nature requires the use of transcendental categories (space, time, agency, causality, good and beautiful) to organize what we learn through the senses. Durkheim responded to Kant by observing that, while some such categories are necessary, their specific content varies from one society and one historical epoch to another. Foucault's archeologies of knowledge build on Durkheim's insight. In Sources of the Self Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor traces changes in the Kantian categories and how they structure the self from Homer's heroes to late 20th century bourgeoise selves. I have mentioned elsewhere George Lakoff's magisterial Women, Fire and Dangerous Things, with its critique of taxonomic thinking and review of current alternatives to the uniformly distributed necessary and sufficient conditions required by scholastic logic. Here I would point to Lakoff's Philosophy in the Flesh, whose central argument can be summarized in the proposition that, however varied the fundamental categories of space, time, agency, causality, etc., may appear to be, they are all fundamentally grounded in the structure of human anatomy. 

It is Christmas Eve, and I must soon be off to sing with the chorus to which I belong. So let me stop here and simply suggest that rereading Kant in light of these examples of more recent scholarship, not as a possible source of THE ANSWER, but, instead, in the way that physicists read Copernicus and Newton, a great predecessor who pointed in directions we are free to develop, might be the way to go. 

Comment by Keith Hart on December 23, 2010 at 7:41pm

Thanks for this important extension of the life of the thread, Josh. I was caught in my comments between a purely antiquarian account of Kant on human nature and a possible allegory for contemporary problems in anthropology. But you have made the discussion decidedly contemporary and I am glad of the chance to follow you there. I will stick with Kant for now, but only as a bridge to what I hope will become a broader discussion not limited to him.

 

Kant was an idealist philosopher in the tradition of Plato who felt that general forms were more true than individual incidences of them. He set up the analytical a posteriori of empiricism as an equal to the synthetic a priori, the forms of reason we bring to experience of the world. Human nature is to be understood as a dialectical concept arrived at through a combination of the two.

 

I can best illustrate Kant's idea of form through an analogy with a birdwatcher's guide. You could illustrate each species with a photo of an individual member, but it might lack a limb or be looking the wrong way to show a diagnostic feature. So a sketch making sure to include the distinctive beak, wing markings and feet would be a more reliable guide. I think 'human nature' is a form or what Weber would call an 'ideal type', a general tendency that is not expected to be manifest in every individual. But that form may be approached through empirical enquiry, just as the neo-Kantian Weber did. His aim was to establish sameness but only concieved of dialectically as constituted by difference.

 

Kant's method was to explore the earth as laboratory, but to come up with generalizations that had normative or moral intent. Thus his brand of cosmpolitics held that the earth belongs to all humanity and we should all be able to go where we like without hindrance. He knew that this was not yet empirically so, but he would be shocked to see the shackles placed on travellers by states today.

 

I indicated that I felt the concept of nature in an 18th century sense, like its cognates God and Providence, might not make it for contemporary intellectual taste. It is too unitary an idea.

 

I am not familiar with the descriptivist/anti-descriptive distinction, so we might benefit from a clarification of that.

 

But your main point, I take it, is that too much water has passed under the bridge in the last two centuries concerning what is human for us to be able easily to dispense with the main features of that discourse. My aim was to show that Kant thought some things through more effectively than those who chose to ignore or reject him. But I don't think we would reach the same conclusions.

 

There is a long anti-humanist discourse since at least the late 19th century which I don't want to go into here. But the issue of placing boundaries around what is 'human' must be vital for anthropology and there are many currents here, some of which you have already referred to. The most important of them concerns the grounds for distinguishing between humans and animals or indeed other life forms. There is the whole cyborg issue.

 

If Kant is to be of value to us in our attenmpt to renew anthropology today, we have to address such questions. That makes this thread huge, but maybe we can still debate some limited aspects of it.

Comment by Josh Reno on December 23, 2010 at 6:43pm

It is also important to remember that nature conceived in this way is, to borrow Clifford Geertz's distinction, both a model-of and a model-for. It is not only a description of attributes presumed to be shared by every human being; it is also the ground from which morals and ethical judgments are derived, the ground on which the scholar stands when she not only describes local customs and habits but makes value
judgments about them.

I have been reading this dialogue with great interest and am very sympathetic to Keith's views on Kant.  However, I would like to provoke further discussion; partly because, like most I suppose, I am wary of "human nature" as a concept for all of the usual reasons, but more specifically because as a reader of disability studies, I get nervous about the models for that result from seemingly uncontroversial models of (i.e. decisions about what humans are supposed to be and do).  For example, the 'set' of attributes that is usually assumed to essentially define 'humanness' includes bipedalism, language, and abstract intelligence, even though not all of those we would readily label human beings are natured and nurtured for these abilities.  As a consequence the built environment, civil society and political economy are organized to exclude and subjugate them and they are treated as less than human.

We are left with a few options.  One is saying that these are pathological deviations from the 'norm' (medical view) and that they are human insofar as they ought to have received these abilities, but for whatever reason lost or were denied them.  Another is to say that these impairments are socially derived (social theory of disability view) and our we can eliminate 'disability' by becoming more inclusive, caring and respectful of difference, which means that the model of human nature needs to be continually adjusted, the criteria refined and the set widened.  A third possibility is that we abandon models of and agree with Robert Pepperell's Posthuman Manifesto that "The human is identifiable, but not definable."  After all, if humanness is broadened so widely, how long before it would include chimps, dolphins, spirits, gods, and my pet golden retriever.  How could lines be drawn at all?  And does it matter?

Now I am not advocating any of these, nor suggesting that they are the only possibilities in play, I am happy to entertain more.  But I do wonder if human nature, taken pragmatically in Kant's sense, needs to get beyond the idea of a fixed set (in the descriptivist, Betrand Russell sense) and become something more like a rigid designator (in the anti-descriptivist, Kripkean sense).  Maybe human nature should be thought of as a sameness people would share in all possible worlds, including those where some do not suffer discrimination and impairment, a name to signify that the bearer would be capable of any and all the feats (linguistic, cognitive, physical) that any other human has accomplished in the right circumstances. 

Or perhaps I am on entirely the wrong track.  I am interested to hear your thoughts in either case.

Josh

Comment by John McCreery on December 21, 2010 at 8:37am

In the work of writers like Rousseau and Goethe, nature stands for what has finished becoming, whatever will not change

This point is vitally important for how Kant must be read to continue to be useful today. It is also important to remember that nature conceived in this way is, to borrow Clifford Geertz's distinction, both a model-of and a model-for. It is not only a description of attributes presumed to be shared by every human being; it is also the ground from which morals and ethical judgments are derived, the ground on which the scholar stands when she not only describes local customs and habits but makes value judgments about them.

Here, however, we encounter the stumbling block I have mentioned before, for to privilege universal grounds for judgment over  local values and feelings is believed by many among us to be a very bad thing indeed, to be damned and dismissed as chauvinism, imperialism or both. How to get over this stumbling block without retreating into what we now see as the crass and simplistic views of our predecessors is, arguably, the greatest issue that anthropology faces today.

 

Comment by Keith Hart on December 20, 2010 at 1:25pm

The word nature is hard for us to read across two centuries or more. Liberal philosophy aimed to replace the old regime with democracy. Power was held by kings and aristocracies who claimed divine right to rule eternally. Their critics saw the social differences they supervised as being historically arbitrary and therefore transient. The question was what principle of government to replace it with. Government by the people for the people should be founded on what all people have in common, their human nature.

 

Nature was part of a set with God and Providence. Sometimes the way Kant and others invoke it sounds strangely teleological to us. It is worth recalling that Adam Smith invoked the 'invisible hand' of Providence (not the Market) and Deists like Jefferson were reluctant to abandon the idea of a controlling intelligence, even if they were against the Church.

 

In the work of writers like Rousseau and Goethe, nature stands for what has finished becoming, whatever will not change in future. Becoming and become stand to each other as life to death. Human nature is presumed to be firm ground on which to base a constitution, since it will not change -- it is the opposite of arbitrarily imposed social orders that come and go in history. Hence Locke's emphasis on natural rights which subsequently became civil rights and are now thought of as human rights.

 

The main point to keep in mind is that nature is not biology as opposed to culture or as in our natural sciences. If it is now part of my nature to be a curmudgeon, but this need not be a genetically transmitted trait but may be because I am too old to change any more. Rocks are obviously in a natural state of being finished or dead, but what is permanent and what flexible in human beings does not map readily onto our nature/culture division. And now we know from quantum physics that what is apparently fixed actually moves.

 

Kant divided anthropology into physiological and pragmatic branches. He focused on the latter, but still sought to anchor his inquiries in human nature. He thought this could be found in our shared genetic make-up, but also perhaps in universal practices of motherhood and he was open to comparative cultural analysis as a guide to common principles.

 

Thus he would found world society on cosmopiltan right, the universal right to hospitality. But what did that mean in practice? His comparative inquiries revealed that strangers were not everywhere entitled to food and shelter, but it seemed that did have a right not to be killed.

 

The question of local difference was something he took for granted. People everywhere are shaped by their local culture. The issue is what they have in common. But then he had not lived through a century of nationalisms as we have.

 

Everything is at one level the same and at another different. The Battle over Methods in late 19th century German economics pitched historical economists in Berlin against the new marginalists in Vienna. The question was whether modern and ancient Greek economy were the same or different and could be studied in the same way or not. Max Weber put the lid on that one by saying that we would not be interested in the Greeks unless they were different and we couldn't study them unless they were in some respects the same as us. This was the sameness that Kant wanted to to study through anthropology.

Comment by John McCreery on December 20, 2010 at 7:30am

I am reading Chapter 3 "Kant and Human Nature" by Allen W. Wood, in Jacobs, Brian and Patrick Kain (2003) Essays on Kant's Anthropology. Wood lays out Kant's concept of anthropology in a way that I find satisfying, but many here may reject. I have broken a single paragraph into three segments to clarify what I see here.

 

Kant does not doubt that there is a single nature common to human beings. Nor does he have any doubt that the investigation of this nature is the proper object of the branch of human knowledge he calls ʻanthropology.ʻ
"A single nature common to human beings" — This seems entirely plausible to me, given that we are all members of a single species of mammalian featherless bipeds who walk erect,  with binocular vision provided by front-facing eyes combined with hands with thumbs. Ad tool use and languages that turn out to be translatable from one to another. Yes, a common human nature, yes.
Kant argues against doing what he calls a merely ʻlocal anthropologyʻ - studying only the behavior or characteristics of human beings as they are found in a particular time and place. ʻAnthropology, is not a description of human beings but of human natureʻ (Ak 25: 471). Further, he does not think that ʻlocalʻ knowledge of human beings is even a starting point for an investigation of human nature in general. On the contrary, Kant thinks that a ʻlocal knowledge of the worldʻ must rest on a ʻgeneral knowledge of the worldʻ (a knowledge of human nature as such) if it is to be useful to us (Ak 25: 734).
This could be a sticking point, given anthropologists' enduring interest in details of local lives, and the premise that these can only be properly understood in local context. The answer may lie in the final point.
Kant rightly sees that our deepest interests, both prudential and moral, in studying ourselves and other human beings always lies in discovering what the members of the human species have in common. This is what makes it both possible and necessary for us to take human beings as a subject of our investigation. (Jacobs and Kain 39)
The argument here, to put it most simply, is that our grasp of local difference necessarily begins with assumptions about what all human beings have in common, for without this common ground no translation from one culture or language to another would be possible. It is only against the common ground that differences become significant.
I hasten to note, however, that the need for some common ground does not imply that only one understanding of our shared human nature is possible. On the contrary, with advances in biology, neurophysiology, psychology, network science, etc., our understanding of what we share with all human beings will need to be constantly updated. The good news is that the updates are unlikely to affect any of the basic features already taken into account: bipedal locomotion, binocular vision, opposable  thumbs, tools, language, that sort of thing.
I also note that this happy conclusion omits for for the moment cyborg integration of human and machine and affects of gene manipulation of the kind science fiction considers, found, for example, in Bruce Sterling's Mechanist/Shaper universe. At least for the moment, however, Kant's view is one I would happily embrace.

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