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Kant, Herder and the Birth of Anthropology by John Zammito

The loser wins, comments Ivan Brady as he ponders John Zammito’s book on the rivalry between Kant and Herder.

One flash of the title of this erudite book by John H. Zammito and inquiring anthropological minds want to know, whose anthropology? It takes no effort to discover that the author means the core discourse of German anthropology grounded in the Enlightenment, with its vast implications for rethinking and acting on the nature of being human, and more. He says that the birth of German anthropology needs a wider context to be understood and he backs this up throughout the book with links to the basic ideas of the times – materiality, spirituality, biology, epigenesis, pedantry in the academy, privileged access to formal education in the guilds, the rise of public education, and so on. The anthropologies of eighteenth century France and England, though certainly problematic from a German perspective, were also instrumental in the birth of German anthropology and related Enlightenment philosophy and they tie into the present in important ways.

Zammito examines these intellectual industries and their bearing on the early mutual interests and subsequent falling out of two men: Immanuel Kant and his prized student, latterly rival, cleric, poet, philosopher and anthropologist Johann Gottfried Herder, in the 1760s and early 1770s.

This was Kant's ‘pre-critical' period, as Kant scholars sometimes call the time before he developed the ideas in his seminal Critique of Pure Reason. Zammito is careful to distinguish the present-day philosopher's view from that of the historian, and equally cautious about challenging the enormous intellectual contributions Kant made in his ‘critical' period. He defines his task as ‘contextual intellectual history', an effort to retrieve “a substantial body of thought in late-eighteenth century Germany identified with ‘popular philosophy' and the ‘science of man' (anthropology)” and to examine the profound effect of this period on Herder's intellectual growth. Zammito asks us to recognize the worth in these works and the influence they had on the intellectual landscape, then and now. He reasserts the foundational role of Kant in philosophy but also asks for a reconsideration of his role “as a dissident and even a transformer.” In other words, Zammito wants us to value Kant not only as the intellectual colossus he became in his later years but also for what he achieved in his own formative period and what he inspired in the young Herder. This is a matter of some importance in the history of anthropology, as Herder has emerged as more fundamental to that subject than Kant both in precedent and in lasting influence.

Herder was a bright, small town boy and first-generation academic who fell under Kant's spell early, and as it turned out, indelibly, in Kant's classes at Königsberg between 1762 and 1764. Zammito examines Herder's enthusiastic and copious notes from this period and puts the encounter between the two scholars in its context up to about 1773. Durng the earlier part of that time Kant's career was still unsettled. He was challenging himself to think and write in new ways, reconciling himself to life after forty, rethinking his connections with academic pedantry and facile explanations of anything, and trying to be patient about his long-awaited professorship (which he finally got in 1770).

Kant's concerns with national character, natural versus civilized man as evidence of human nature, the moral dimension of human beings, the place of reason in relation to imagination, the core distinction yet necessary relationship between the logical and the substantively real, and the perplexities of unanalyzable concepts (not to mention what today can be generously called his fumblings about women and gender) all fed into his own research on the intellectual lives of the French and the British. They helped form his conception of anthropology, which he wished to transform into an empirical natural science that would help prepare his students for their active lives in the world.

In these and other matters Kant taught philosophizing rather than philosophy. His head for philosophical revisionism and emphasis on the need for empirical inquiry in several disciplines (especially anthropology and physics) as distinct from methods appropriate to his a priori science of metaphysics, and his exhortations to see things as much as possible from the Other's viewpoint as a way to “widen the scope of one's own thinking,” to say nothing of the intellectual pressures in and out of the academy “to change rather than just to know man,” had a powerful effect on his brightest charge. Herder took the ball and ran with it as he embarked on a literary and philosophical career of his own in Riga in 1765. He set up a very public disagreement with Kant as the latter was launching into his most influential and enduring thoughts on the nature of being human, and laying the groundwork for much that followed in German philosophy and the blossoming of Romanticism in Germany and elsewhere.

Herder became a notable literary critic and a pioneer in the rise of natural history. In part as a consequence of that and the publication of his classic ‘Essay on the Origins of Language,' which has earned its own niche in the history of linguistics, he developed a highly public profile in the vanguard of German anthropology. He denied that people need moral philosophy to teach them morality and he found metaphysics to be equally problematic. He developed what was for the times a fairly sophisticated concept of the social construction of reality, ethnocentrism, and its flip-of-the-coin counterpart, cultural relativism, but he was not a relativist in the present sense of the term. He believed in the many but not the many in the one (unless you count God as the unifier). Cultures were similar in the sense that all human beings resemble each other and behave in fundamentally similar ways, at the level of having babies, cooking food, showing emotions, and so on. This allowed members of different cultures to empathize and communicate more or less with one another. But the fact that they had their own world views, their own universes of experience, and were each unique to the others, situated in their own histories, led Herder to exaggerate their individuations. Truth was not universal. It was uncompromisingly plural, scattered, made by cultures themselves in a bed of nationalism and divine immanence. Pursuing those patterns in the history of individual groups, Herder saw historical writing more as an art than a science but not one lacking in the need for empirical inquiry and rigor. He put achievement over ascription in the process of becoming conscious, value-laden, and human. Analogies between cultures did reflect the nature of the divine but did not indicate substantive connections, even while the forms and cultural particulars of those substances were communicable through language. Exaggerations aside, this reasoning evolved into original thinking and lectures where Herder would gather “natural science, natural history, some mathematics, and much data, many appearances, many histories” and to which he “immediately added ethnography: ‘the species of man, political and wild and half wild world, in their forms, clothing, style of life … lots of data about mores, major institutions and conditions: what they have and produce, are and are not, in what measure it is a unity or not'.”

It is hard to defend Herder's view that the foundational ‘laws of nations' could be determined from studying the laws of physics, the laws of human and animal nature, with their ‘attractions and compulsions' and the complicated interplay of intellects and senses. He did help to develop the now incontestable anthropological proposition that human nature is rooted in the physical human body and thus in the sensuous but is appropriated and molded by culture. This was his context for exalting aesthetics and for denying that reason and reflection were transcendental properties of mind. He abandoned ‘preformationist' views of embryology faster and more radically than Kant in favor of emerging thoughts on epigenesis. However, Kant's attentions to the wellsprings of organic evolution together with Herder's on language, history, and the irreducible pluralities of diverse human groups helped to establish comparative methodology, the sine qua non of anthropological work. Of the two, Herder moved most directly along the path of what anthropology has become today. Much of Kant's work has proved to be too abstract for anthropological inquiry because of its ultimate dedication to the transcendentalism of a priori reasoning. Both scholars tried to reconcile the existence of and belief in God as essential parts of their theories. Neither can withstand much present-day scrutiny of their views of Others, including Blacks and Chinese, although Kant's blindness was grounded in biology and Herder's in culture. Either way, their conclusions about Others were plainly racist and muddle-headed by today's standards – rubbing the wrong way especially against the argument pioneered by the twentieth century anthropologist Franz Boas and his students at Columbia that there is no necessary or fixed relationship between race, language, and culture.

Studied fairly in his own milieu, Herder was a pathbreaker in historiography, sociology, comparative literature, linguistics, and hermeneutics. Under the early stimulus of Kant and the umbrella of Herder's own passionate work and his influence on others around him, anthropology was becoming deeply eclectic, drawing insights from literature, medicine, philosophy, history, travel, and their perceived interrelationships. Zammito sees “this distinctly metaphorical transfer not just of data but of ‘ways of knowing'” as “the distinctive feature of the emergent ‘science of man'. Its eclecticism was not a weakness; it was an opportunity for synthesis of an extraordinarily fruitful nature” that was not “something subsumed under but rather bursting loose from philosophy.” The result helped the status of anthropology as a discipline in eighteenth century Germany. It increased the attention paid to the complexities of cross-cultural relationships and to the concept of universal history in a Europe that was rapidly expanding into other geographic regions. Making an appropriately invidious comparison in this context, Zammito notes that “Herder was among the most sensitive and creative respondents to this challenge,” and that his “unfinished masterpiece, Ideas for a Philosophical History of Mankind (ca. 1784), stands as one of the great monuments of eighteenth-century ethnography and ethnology. In comparison, the second part of Kant's Anthropology makes a poor impression.”

By examining the history of anthropology, Zammito hopes to throw new light on some complex issues, including the rivalry between Kant and Herder and the latter's commitments to popularising philosophy and to constructing ‘epistemologically liberalized' disciplines (a mix which has resurfaced with a vengeance in the confusions of post-modernism). In fact, says Zammito, a careful look at what anthropology became in the Enlightenment and how it has developed since might give us a whole new way of reading Kant's entire opus. The convincing documentation and clear reasoning of this well-written book promote that promise nicely and offer an interesting body of information for anthropology itself. Zammito reexamines the influence not only of the ‘pre-critical' Kant on Herder but of both of them on subsequent thinking about the nature of the world and our place in it. In doing so he answers the question about whose anthropology is at stake in this work. I think we knew it all along: it is the anthropology of (both sexes embodied in) Everyman, generated through discourse with Everyman, for Everyman. We can all live with that.

The bottom line? It is hard to overestimate the impact of Kant's Critiques on thought in the Western world. It is not much of a stretch to say that the history of philosophy as an academic discipline must pass through him in order to be understood. Philosophy without Kant would be astronomy without a moon – missing a fundamental piece. Herder was a figure of great consequence in many areas but, as Zammito concludes, a loser in the head-to-head struggle with Kant for cultural dominance in eighteenth-century Germany's Enlightenment. Nonetheless, he has been recognized in the long run as a major contributor to the rise of anthropology in Germany, and by reasonable inference, to the history of the discipline as a whole. Not bad for second place.

© Ivan Brady 2005

Ivan Brady is Distinguished Teaching Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the State University of New York in Oswego. His new book, The Time at Darwin's Reef: Poetic Explorations in Anthropology and History has just been published by AltaMira Press.

Kant, Herder, and the Birth of Anthropology by John H. Zammito (Univ of Chicago Press, 2002) £20.50/$29 paperback. ISBN 0-226-978591.

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