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 17, 2010 at 2:16pm

John, why google Kant's Anthropology when the horse's mouth is available online? You only had to ask. Here is my view on Kant's relevance for anthropology today.


Kant's book was a best-seller for its day: the first print run of 2,000 copies was sold out in two years. Manfred Kuehn's definitive biography of Kant starts off with three funeral speeches delivered by his worst enemies who between them fabricated what posterity thinks it knows about him: his rigidity, aridity and all that. You don't get to be the best philosopher since Plato with that kind of personality and no other had for his culminating project anthropology as life-long learning for world citizens.


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