Thursday, March 10, 2011

Kant, anthropology and the new human universal - Keith Hart

The distinctive feature of our age
is that mankind as a whole is on the way
to becoming fully conscious of itself.

(C.L.R. James)

By “anthropology” I refer to a human teleology in James’s sense. We must improve our self-knowledge as individuals and as a species, especially the relationship between the two. This is mediated by a bewildering variety of associations and identities which have been the prime focus of anthropology conceived of as a social science. What interests me, and I believe the vast bulk of humanity, is how each of us relates to the whole and only secondarily how social connections mediate that relationship.

Immanuel Kant 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 “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, published as Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View in 1798, to be “popular” and of value in later life. Above all, his book was to contribute to the progressive political task of uniting world citizens by identifying the source of their “cosmopolitan bonds”.

If for Kant the two divisions of anthropology were physiological and pragmatic, he preferred to concentrate on “what the human being as a free actor can and should make of himself.” Anthropology is the practical arm of moral philosophy. It is “pragmatic” in a number of senses: “everything that pertains to the practical,” popular (as opposed to academic) and moral in that it is concerned with what people should do, with their motives for action. He recommends as aids “world history, biographies and even plays and novels.” These, while being admittedly inventions, are often based on close observation of real behaviour. His book’s value lay in its systematic organization, so that readers could incorporate their experience into it and develop new themes appropriate to their own lives. Kant’s Anthropology was a best-seller for its time. Modern academic anthropologists have ignored it entirely.

Academic anthropology is not well-equipped to inform participation in contemporary world society, mainly because its cultural relativism reflects the dominant nation-state structures of the twentieth century. How then might each of us find a more secure foundation for self-knowledge as individuals and as a species? The world must be imaginatively reduced in scale and our subjectivity expanded, in order for a meaningful link to be established between the two. Once people achieved this by praying to God and many still do. Works of fiction – movies, novels and plays -- fill the gap for those of us who do not pray. We need to feel more at home in the world, to resist alienation, and that means embracing movement rather than fixture in place.

Emergent world society is the new human universal – not an idea, but the fact of our shared occupation of the planet crying out for new principles of association. By this I mean making a world where all people can live together, not the imposition of principles that suit some powerful interests at the expense of the rest. The next universal will be unlike its predecessors, the Christian and bourgeois versions through which the West sought to dominate or replace the cultural particulars that organize peoples' lives everywhere. The main precedent for such an approach to discovering our common humanity is great literature which achieves universality through going deeply into particular personalities, relations and places. Ethnography does the same in its own way. The new universal will not just tolerate cultural particulars, but will be founded on knowing that global community can only be realized through them.

It is now harder for self-designated guilds to control access to professional knowledge. People have other ways of finding out for themselves, rather than submitting to academic hierarchy. And there are many agencies out there competing to give them what they want, whether through journalism, tourism or all the self-learning possibilities afforded by the internet. Popular resistance to the power of experts is essentially moral, in that people insist on restoring a personal dimension to human knowledge. Anthropologists’ current dependence on academic bureaucracy leaves us highly vulnerable to such developments.

A Kantian anthropology would focus on whatever we need to know about humanity as a whole if we want to build a more equal world fit for everyone. Such a usage could be embraced by students of history, sociology, geography, political economy, philosophy, and literature, as well as by some anthropologists. Many disciplines might contribute without being exclusively devoted to the project. The idea of “development” played a similar role in the last half-century. It is possible that we are witnesses to the first stirrings of a global democratic revolution. Anthropology was born in the eighteenth century as the intellectual midwife of democratic revolution. That, I believe, should be its future role too.

The rapid development of global communications today contains within its movement a far-reaching transformation of world society. The internet is a wonderful chance to open up the flow of knowledge and information. Rather than obsessing over private ownership of what we write, which cuts off the mass of humanity from our efforts, we need to figure out new interactive forms of engagement that span the globe and make the results of our work available to everyone. It matters less that an academic guild should retain its monopoly of access to knowledge than that “anthropology” should be taken up by a broad intellectual coalition for whom the realization of a new human universal – a world society fit for humanity as a whole -- is a matter of urgent personal concern.

Keith Hart
Co-director of a post-doctoral program on “the human economy” at the University of Pretoria and founder of the Open Anthropology Cooperative.

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