Cover image for Becoming Human: Romantic Anthropology and the Embodiment of Freedom By Chad Wellmon

Becoming Human

Romantic Anthropology and the Embodiment of Freedom

Chad Wellmon


$100.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03734-9

$39.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-04852-9

336 pages
6" × 9"

Literature and Philosophy

Becoming Human

Romantic Anthropology and the Embodiment of Freedom

Chad Wellmon

“In Becoming Human, Chad Wellmon accomplishes three significant feats: he provides a genealogy of the conceptual crisis that still haunts cultural anthropology, demonstrates the complexities of the ‘Enlightenment project’ that developed a richer notion of humanity than post-Enlightenment caricatures of the autonomous cogito suggest, and puts those complexities to work in a redefinition of modernity with a critical potential that can address contemporary issues.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Immanuel Kant wrote that his infamously academic, arid philosophy posed three questions: What can I know? What can I do? What can I be permitted to hope for? He then added a fourth that he claimed would subsume them all: What is the human? This last question, he suggested, could be answered by a new science of man called anthropology. In Becoming Human, Chad Wellmon recounts the emergence of anthropology around a question that had become too capacious for a single discipline and too unstable for the distinctions that had come to ground Enlightenment modernity—distinctions between nature and culture, body and mind, human and animal, European and non-European.

If, as Friedrich Schlegel wrote, we don’t even know “what the human is,” then what would a science of the human base itself on? How would it be possible and why would it even be necessary? This book is an intellectual and literary history of how these questions took form in late eighteenth-century Germany. By examining this period of anthropological discourse through the works of thinkers such as Kant, Novalis, Schleiermacher, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and Goethe, Wellmon argues that the crisis of a late eighteenth-century anthropology marks the emergence of a modernity that sees itself as condemned to draw its norms and very self-understanding from itself. Modernity became fully modern when it became fully reflexive—that is, sensitive to the paradoxical and possibly futile nature of the modern project.

“In Becoming Human, Chad Wellmon accomplishes three significant feats: he provides a genealogy of the conceptual crisis that still haunts cultural anthropology, demonstrates the complexities of the ‘Enlightenment project’ that developed a richer notion of humanity than post-Enlightenment caricatures of the autonomous cogito suggest, and puts those complexities to work in a redefinition of modernity with a critical potential that can address contemporary issues.”

Chad Wellmon is Assistant Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Virginia.



Introduction: On the Possibility of Critique and the Failure of Anthropology

Part One: The Historical Problem

1. Proto-anthropology and the Discovery of Reflexivity

Part Two: A Provisional (Kantian) Solution

2. Cultivating Freedom: Kant’s Affective Ethics

3. Freedom, Between Nature and Reason: Kant’s Pragmatic Anthropology

4. Testing the Human: Kant and Forster on the Differences of Race and the Possibilities of Culture

Part Three: Three Responses to Kant

5. Poesie as Anthropology: Schleiermacher, Colonial History, and the Ethics of Ethnography

6. Lyrical Feeling: Novalis’s Anthropology of the Senses

7. The Body of Language: Goethe, Humboldt and the “Lively Gaze”






On the Possibility of Critique and the Failure of Anthropology

Around 1800 Immanuel Kant stated that his philosophy posed three questions: What can I know? What can I do? What can I be permitted to hope for? He then added a fourth that he claimed would subsume them all: What is the human being? This last question, he suggests, could be answered by a new science of the human, a science that had come to be called anthropology. The late eighteenth-century convergence of medicine, natural science, philosophy, literature, and history around the figure of the anthropos—as an embodied, natural object—had made such a science possible. By 1800, however, this science was already in crisis. A solitary, monolithic discipline called anthropology had not yet emerged; instead, there were multiple and competing anthropologies. The distinctions that had come to ground Enlightenment modernity, distinctions between nature and culture, body and mind, human and animal, European and non-European, had become too capacious, too unstable for a science that was to answer the question of the human. If, as Friedrich Schlegel wrote, we don’t even know “what the human is,” then what object could ever ground a science of the human? Kant invoked was less a discipline than a conceptual problem.

In his seminal essay “The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man,” Clifford Geertz suggests that twentieth-century anthropology never escaped this crisis. To distinguish between what is “natural, universal, and constant in man and what is conventional, local, and variable” has been the task of anthropological inquiry since its disciplinary origins in eighteenth-century Europe. Geertz wonders what we are to conclude about “human nature” from, for example, his studies of the Balinese. Are we to conclude that differences between cultures are merely “incidental,” differences only of customs? Or should we conclude that human beings are simply what their cultures make of them? If the latter holds, suggests Geertz, the individual “dissolves, without residue, into his time and place, a child and perfect captive of his age” and becomes “conscripted” into the large, weary march of historical progress and determinism.

I argue that the conceptual problem of twentieth-century cultural anthropology has a long history—one that historians and students of contemporary cultural anthropology could not glean from Geertz’s caricature of “the Enlightenment view of man” as presupposing an immutable human nature. In fact, the historical and conceptual collision of a post-Kantian philosophy and literature with the fragmented discourse of anthropology around 1800 laid bare the conceptual architecture of a seemingly impossible discipline. It revealed a mode of thought in which the subject becomes entangled in thoroughly self-referential forms of knowledge. Kant, Friedrich Schlegel, Novalis, Schleiermacher, Goethe, and Wilhelm von Humboldt make clear the ironies, which have confounded the discipline of anthropology from its inception, of a mode of thought in which the human being is both the object and subject of observation. Anthropology becomes the necessary but formidable conjuncture of an account of what the human being is and a corresponding account of what it should become. In Becoming Human I argue that the crisis of late eighteenth-century anthropology marks the emergence of a modernity—and by “modernity” I mean the world of philosophical and literary discourse and social relations created in the wake of Kant and the late Enlightenment—that sees itself as condemned to draw its norms and very self-understanding from itself. Kant’s fourth question invokes a disciplinary failure and a particular mode of anthropological thinking that has come to characterize the subject of modernity. Modernity so understood becomes fully modern when it becomes fully reflexive, that is to say, when it becomes deeply sensitive to the paradoxical and possibly futile nature of the modern project itself.

In Becoming Human I tell the story of modernity as an anthropological mode of thought. For modern European thought anthropology is not just the discipline of ethnographic inquiry into the diversity of human beings. Its question is modernity’s question: what is the human? For many, however, the question of the human has become hopelessly tethered to a thoroughly rational, self-determining subject. From Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud to Heidegger, Derrida, and Foucault, thinkers have plotted the failures and blind spots of the modern, autonomous self. The philosophical project of Enlightenment modernity has long since been revealed as a fiction grounded in the ruse of a Cartesian cogito that, even in its doubt, was always naïve about the power of reason. This particular narrative is, as Robert Pippin puts it, suspicious of the sort of human that modern democratic societies seem to require. The modern self, they contend, has been scattered amidst the ruins of an Enlightenment reason that imagined itself pure and autonomous.

Recently, scholars of the Enlightenment and the broader eighteenth century have begun to tie the emergence of anthropology as a discipline to a more complex account of Enlightenment reason. This work has sought to undo the narrative that caricatures Enlightenment reason as blind to the exigencies of life and numb to the particularity of experience. I continue the revision of the European Enlightenment in this book by focusing on the impurity of reason, but I do not provide a history of the discipline of anthropology as we know it today; instead, I articulate a particular mode of anthropological thinking that we have come to associate with modernity. Anthropology’s crisis of self-recognition epitomizes the critical project of modernity that since its self-proclaimed inception has been obsessed with its own operations.

Highlighting how Kant, Novalis, Schleiermacher, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Friedrich Schlegel, and Goethe confronted and sought to transcend the conceptual architecture of an anthropology in crisis, I emphasize the critical potential of an Enlightenment modernity that many dismiss as a monolithic and imperializing ideology. I suggest how the possibility of critique emerges within the tension between the empirical and transcendental functions of anthropology, between questions about what the human being is and what the human being should or could become.

Foucault’s ambivalent embrace of Kant offers an especially useful frame for the inextricable link between this particular anthropological mode of thought and modernity. In this introduction I consider, however briefly, the possibilities of a Kantian critique that Foucault found promising. In the chapters that follow I articulate something similar. I will outline the perils and promises of a critique that operates between the conjuncture of the empirical and the transcendental. In his discussion of Kant’s “Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?” Foucault offers a hesitant embrace of what he saw as the promise of Kant’s legacy. Kantian critique, he suggests, offers us not a “permanent body of knowledge” or doctrine but a particularly modern ethos or attitude. For Foucault, the promise of critique lies in an analysis of the historical conditions that limit the human and the possibilities of exceeding these limits. “Criticism is no longer going to be practiced in the search for formal structures with universal value, but rather as a historical investigation into the events that have led us to constitute ourselves and to recognize ourselves as subjects of what we are doing, thinking, saying. In that sense, criticism is not transcendental, and its goal is not that of making a metaphysics possible.” What is the ethos of modernity, then, that Foucault claims to have found in Kantian critique? The transcendental aspirations of Kantian critique, as they are often portrayed, would not seem to align with the goals of Foucault’s critical project. Is not Kantian critique a fundamentally transcendental project?

On the one hand, Kant envisions a critique that would “guard against error” and “serve the determinations of boundaries” by marking the limits of knowledge. This is a philosophy that “reins in” human reason. Critique as transcendental philosophy does aim to show that all experience or representation of objects is fundamentally governed by self-legislated rules. This is the philosophy of the finitude of reason. On the other hand, Kant also speaks of philosophy as a process, as a move away from philosophy as a metaphysics with positive principles and toward philosophy according to its cosmopolitan concept (Weltbegriff). According to this cosmopolitan conception of philosophy, we learn to “philosophize,” to “exercise the talent of reason.” But this exercise of reason, this process of philosophizing is, he insists, carried out according to an end, according to the “relation of all cognition to the essential ends of the human race” (A839/B867). Kantian critique, then, seems to have two registers, an empirical demand on a historical subject and a transcendental argumentative claim. Whereas the latter is synonymous with a form of transcendental argumentation or critical philosophy that considers the conditions of possibility of knowledge, the former is more concerned with present possibilities and effects. This is the aspect of critique that makes the imperative of Kant’s Enlightenment essay possible: “Have courage to make use of your own reason.” With this double character in mind, Kant’s revision of the ancient imperative sapere aude is, on the one hand, a confident exhortation to make use of the autonomy of reason, to self-legislate. On the other hand, however, it is a two-pronged warning: to ignore this imperative is to remain under the sway of dogmatism (be it philosophical, religious, or political), but to heed it is to recognize that the only thing we can rely on in modernity is our own self-legislated claims, our own autonomy. To heed the ancient imperative in the Kantian sense is to become modern. In this second, more qualified instance, critique takes shape as enlightenment.

This discussion points to a more complex form of critique. Critique operates between its transcendental aspirations—to ground the conditions of knowledge—and its more immediate imperatives addressed to a historical subject. There is, therefore, a more qualified, empirical notion of critique. Kant, of course, goes to great lengths to keep these two realms, the empirical and the transcendental, separate. This tension is evident in the preface to the Kritik der reinen Vernunft, when he writes, “Our age is the genuine age of critique to which everything must submit itself.” The epoch of critique is located in a specific time, our time, and not displaced or projected into some transhistorical realm. The pronoun “our” locates critique in a particular historical moment. But the imperative to subordinate everything to critique expresses another element of the project: it is unabashedly directed toward a possible but always deferred enlightenment and toward a future that could be radically different from the present. Kant’s distinction of critique from an epistemological knowledge project, from a project that would concern itself simply with constitutive claims about reality, points to a form of critique akin to an attitude toward the present made possible by a hopeful embrace of the future, a future that imagines the world otherwise. The paradox of these two aspects of critique arises from the fact that Kant bases his transcendental philosophy (including his transcendental doctrine of the faculties) on the finite human being. For Kant, critique, as both a transcendental philosophy and a more limited imperative, is necessary for our reason, for us as human beings not only to philosophize but to become human. And it is necessary because of the fundamental finitude of our cognitive faculties. Kant acknowledges these imperatives from the start of his project.

This second, more limited form of critique is the one that Foucault wants to cultivate. Foucault’s seeming embrace of Kant has struck some as odd, since in The Order of Things he accuses Kant of having awakened philosophy from its dogmatic slumber only to have lulled it back into its “anthropological sleep,” a sleep in which the human being is both the object of empirical inquiry and the transcendental ground of all knowledge. Habermas reconciles Foucault’s seemingly contradictory accounts of Kant and the Enlightenment tradition by simply dismissing them as the exhausted surrender to the modernity Foucault fought to undo. I, however, read this ambivalent embrace as a function of the fundamental tension that burdened anthropological thinking from 1800 on: the tension between the empirical and the transcendental, between the human being as the object of observation and the transcendental ground of such observation. The modern ethos that Foucault admires in Kant has its conceptual origins in the post-Baconian, post-Kantian articulation of anthropology’s conceptual paradoxes. I investigate the approaches of several key figures to this tension between the empirical and transcendental that is most acute and perhaps most productive subsequent to the Kantian radicalization of an Enlightenment anthropology, namely, around 1800. The paradoxes of the self-referential subject crystallize in a moment of crisis for anthropology, while simultaneously forcing a moment of recognition that would irreversibly shape modernity. In this book I try to recover a notion of critique that emerges from a modernity that, as Habermas puts it, sees itself “condemned to draw on itself” for its own self-understanding and norms. Modernity is the epoch in which the human being is condemned to justify itself.

Kant frames this paradox pragmatically by offering a provisional response to the crisis of anthropology. He presents an anthropological mode of thought that makes claims about not only what the human is but what it ought to become. Appropriately, the post-Kantian figures that I consider in the following chapters ask whether such normative claims of anthropology can be compelling. The primary figures in this book, then, were key participants less in the discipline that would become anthropology than in that more profound mode of anthropological thinking that Foucault calls modernity. They radicalize the very conceptual architecture that burdened the discipline of anthropology even in its early, fragmented form.

-The Argument

In Becoming Human I sketch how the conceptual paradox of Enlightenment anthropology crystallized in Kantian and post-Kantian critiques of a certain anthropological mode of thinking. The story I tell focuses on the tension between two forms of critique, one empirical and one transcendental. They collide most clearly in a post-Kantian critique (but not necessarily overcoming) of a particular mode of anthropological thinking. Immanuel Kant and those immediately following him made clear the ironies and obstacles facing a science in which the human being is both the object and subject of observation. They reveal the crisis of anthropology as the irreducible tension between the empirical and the transcendental, the natural and the moral.

In recent years, the discourse if not the discipline of anthropology has become a paradigm for studying the eighteenth century, so much so that scholars have spoken of an “anthropological Enlightenment.” The common characterization of eighteenth-century anthropology as the devaluation of the soul, however, is indicative of the conceptual limitations of such a paradigm. Until recently most scholarship has limited eighteenth-century anthropology to a medical discourse and its discursive traces in various cultural forms from literature to politics. Whereas a physiologically oriented anthropology might be of primary importance for a broader history of the discipline, I am more interested in the particular mode of thinking that led to the late eighteenth-century declaration of “crisis” in anthropology that preceded any institutional discipline of anthropology. Scholars have only recently begun to consider these tensions in eighteenth-century anthropology between the more physiological-medical anthropology of Ernst Platner and the so-called philosophical physicians, on the one hand, and the emergence of a comparative anthropology characterized by a normative or cultural-philosophical orientation, on the other. As Jörn Garber and Thomas Heinz put it in their innovative collection, the nascent discipline of anthropology moves between the poles of “physis and norm.” My reading of what we could call a Kantian or romantic anthropology locates the promise of critique at precisely this juncture, in the reciprocation between the empirical observation of what the human being is and the normative claim of what the human being should be. Consequently, in the following chapters I am not, fundamentally at least, interested in the explicit topics of anthropology but in the very form of anthropological questions. I consider how the paradoxes of self-implication inherent in this emergent “science of the human,” in which the human being is both the subject and object of inquiry, manifest themselves in a range of questions. The confusions and tensions of an anthropological mode of thinking—the endless reduplication of anthropological inquiry—were not just theoretical paradoxes; they were also ethical problems.

In light of such scholarship, I have four main aims. First, I wish to outline how the shift in anthropology from a medical to a cultural science led to a conceptual crisis and the proliferation of anthropologies. Initially, anthropology was a medical discourse concerned with the relationship of the mind to the body. As the so-called philosophical physicians—doctors more interested in the animal nature of the human being than its metaphysical possibilities—became more influential, the material character of psychic and cognitive processes became more accepted. Anthropology was understood as the meeting of physiology and psychology. Toward the end of the century, however, these medical concerns became increasingly bound up with moral and cultural concerns. Questions about the animal nature of the human being became so intertwined with questions about the rational nature of the human being that by 1800 anthropology was wavering between the poles of the material and the normative. In 1795 Wilhelm von Humboldt called for a comparative cultural anthropology that would organize itself around the very conundrum that had come to define anthropology: the tension between the empirical and transcendental. The medical anthropology of the previous decades had become a cultural anthropology that began to recognize its conceptual problems.

Second, I wish to demonstrate that this conceptual shift from a medical to a cultural anthropology can be observed most clearly, and perhaps most surprisingly, in the work of Immanuel Kant. Kant lectured on anthropology for almost thirty years and eventually published Anthropologie in pragmatischer Hinsicht (Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View) in 1798. Kant’s idiosyncratic anthropology—idiosyncratic in the sense that it was, from the start, positioned in opposition to more mainstream anthropological inquiry—was concerned not with what nature could make of the human but what the human being could make of itself. And for Kant, the discipline of anthropology was meant to orient and guide the individual toward becoming human. Anthropology was pedagogy for the human race. Kant’s radical cultural anthropology confused empirical, scientific, and normative questions. By inserting Kant’s anthropology into the larger context of eighteenth-century anthropology, I reread Kant’s philosophy, which was until recently often derided as hopelessly formal and abstract, as bound up with anthropological, historical, and pedagogical concerns. But, more centrally, I locate the conceptual paradox of a modern anthropological mode of thought in what might paradoxically, but appropriately, be termed Kant’s promise of a teleological anthropology.

Third, I intend to survey the challenges to Kant’s provisional solution to the problem of anthropology by Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of modern hermeneutics; Friedrich Schlegel, the literary critic; Goethe; Novalis; and Wilhelm von Humboldt, the statesman and founder of the modern research university. I chose these figures for their interest in the recursive character of anthropology—that is, they all examine how the human subject of anthropology is always implied in the object of anthropology. If Kant’s pragmatic anthropology posed two questions—what is the human? and what should the human become?—the recursive or reflexive character of the “science of the human” led Novalis to pose a third question: what does the human as a natural being make of the human? The distinctions that Kant and previous anthropologies had made between sciences of the body and sciences of reason are collapsed into a single form of inquiry. With the rise of the life sciences and the subsequent naturalization of the human body during the eighteenth century, the rational human being becomes a natural being as well. At the juncture of a Kantian critical philosophy and the emergent life sciences, romantic anthropology asks how anthropology and modern forms of knowledge can account for these processes of mutual formation that always fold back upon themselves.

Finally, I intend to describe a semantic and ethical shift in the category “human” that took place around 1800. Long before modernism’s challenge to the rational self, eighteenth-century anthropology had given the Cartesian cogito a body. This anthropological shift makes possible different ways of thinking about universality and normativity. Claims of what the human is are reshaped and reformulated in, for example, the self-reflexive ethnography of Schleiermacher and Humboldt, the reformulation of a hierarchy of the senses by Novalis, and the moral technologies and disciplines of Kant’s anthropologically inflected ethics. While the figures in this book do not abandon Enlightenment notions of the human, they place these notions under increasing scrutiny. We must then ask how we might conceive of the human as a norm with both a universal force and an anthropological flexibility. Can normative claims be compelling if they are recursively articulated, reformulated, and revised?

In the first chapter, “Proto-anthropology and the Discovery of Reflexivity,” I outline the conceptual framework of eighteenth-century anthropology and how its fragmented and centrifugal character threatened its disciplinary aspirations from the beginning. I show how a crisis was precipitated by the shift from a medical discourse interested in the mind-body relationship to a broader discourse concerned with the diversity of peoples, races, and cultures. By 1800 there was no simple, monolithic discipline of anthropology; instead, there were multiple anthropologies. The only conceptual center was the tension between the empirical and the transcendental, between the reduplication of the subject in the object of study.

In the second chapter, “Cultivating Freedom: Kant’s Affective Ethics,” I explore Kant’s ethics as integral to this anthropological mode of thought and to the articulation of the limits of anthropology. Whereas scholarship has tended to view Kant’s moral philosophy as simply metaphysical and hopelessly formal, in this chapter I explore it in a more pragmatic light. Building on recent work in Kant studies that emphasizes an embodied Kantian reason, I argue that Kant’s notion of freedom required not metaphysical insight but a hard-won and technically crafted attitude. Freedom is not a metaphysical discovery but a practical disposition that, in the end, needs anthropological insights to guide and cultivate individuals. We see this complex moral education in Kant’s elaborate descriptions of the best moral techniques and exercises. He details the proper and most effective methods for training “the young boys” who aspire to moral maturity. Thus, there is not just a metaphysics of morals but a discipline of morality. Critique and enlightenment are not, primarily at least, a set of doctrines or deductions but a particular mode of thought or attitude.

Against this broader backdrop of eighteenth-century anthropology, in chapter 3, “Freedom, Between Nature and Reason: Kant’s Pragmatic Anthropology,” I argue that Kant’s own Anthropologie is initially concerned with the possibility and theoretical problems of anthropological inquiry in general. In a move indicative of eighteenth-century anthropology, however, Kant brackets such concerns and transforms anthropology from a theoretical to a practical discipline in an attempt to resolve the tension between the empirical and transcendental. Kant’s pragmatic anthropology offers a blueprint of the future not just for the individual but for the entire human race, through its appeal to a seemingly paradoxical anthropological teleology. Its goal is to form a sensible creature into a moral being. Anthropology becomes a science of culture and charts a normative path through which the individual might become human.

In chapter 4, “Testing the Human: Kant and Forster on the Differences of Race and the Possibilities of Culture,” I consider how this transformation of anthropology into a historical and pedagogical undertaking was driven by debates on race and human diversity. Race, for a number of figures, was the decisive conceptual issue that moved anthropology from a discussion of the individual body to a discussion of culture and thus to the conceptual architecture of the entire discipline in which the human being as observer is always bound to the human being as observed. For Kant, as well as for the naturalist Georg Forster, the scientist J. F. Blumenbach, and a host of other figures, the debates about race were ultimately concerned with reconciling the universal claims of the human with the diversity of human beings. For Kant and Forster at least, the possibility of a common humanity was basically a problem of narration. How, they ask, can humankind be narrated? How can a common story be found or told amidst the multiplicity of human beings? Anthropology inherits the narrative task of weaving human beings together through an imagined past and future. Kant turns to an aesthetic and reflective act, narration, to reconcile the empirical and transcendental.

In the fifth chapter, “Poesie as Anthropology: Schleiermacher, Colonial History, and the Ethics of Ethnography,” I not only uncover the anthropological beginnings of modern hermeneutics but locate one of the earliest and most devastating critiques of eighteenth-century anthropology’s failure. Schleiermacher wrote a fragmentary ethnography of New South Holland (modern-day Australia) that took aim at the entire tradition of travel writing as it had been practiced up to his day. In his attempt to reconcile Enlightenment universality with the particularity of ethnography, Schleiermacher’s early work anticipates the task of his hermeneutic philosophy: relating the particular to the universal, the individual to the human. Schleiermacher the anthropologist and ethnographer precedes Schleiermacher the father of hermeneutics. But the fragmented state of his own project seems to highlight the very impossibility of bringing a romantic anthropology to completion. The human being is an ever-changing form.

The tensions of this anthropological mode of thought are nowhere more evident than in Novalis’s rethinking of the senses. In chapter 6, “Lyrical Feeling: Novalis’s Anthropology of the Senses,” I consider how anthropology transforms the relationship of sensibility and reason into a broader theory of modernity. By redefining sensibility so as to undo oppositions of nature and culture, physis and norm, Novalis radicalizes the reflexive structure of anthropology as an ethical response to a perceived fragmentation of the senses and modern humanity in general. In this chapter I focus on Novalis’s poetic and philosophical reframing of the basic problem of anthropology. His anthropology of the senses highlights the inherently reflexive conundrum of an anthropological mode of thought in which the cognizing human being is always bound up with the sensing human being.

In the final chapter, “The Body of Language: Goethe, Humboldt, and the ‘Lively Gaze,’” I look to Wilhelm von Humboldt’s early theoretical reflections on anthropology and his travels to the Basque country of Spain as a radical expansion of Kant’s anthropological thinking and a distillation of what I term romantic anthropology. It traces the beginnings of this anthropology from Humboldt and Goethe’s collaborative dissection of human corpses in Jena in 1794 to Humboldt’s work on a Basque grammar. Over a period of less than a decade Humboldt had traded bodies for words. In this transition we find an attempt to rescue a type of anthropological thinking from its conceptual impossibility. In Humboldt’s observations of local dance traditions and linguistic differences in the Basque country, we observe the emergence of a mode of thought driven to relate the particularity of the individual to a more universal category called the human through a fundamentally reflexive mode of thought.

This book is in part a recovery effort. In it I set out to unearth that particular form of Enlightenment critique that Foucault so ambivalently embraced. In it I do not trace the emergence of anthropology as a discipline, nor do I take up Foucault’s own critical project. Instead, I locate the ethos of modernity, of which Foucault speaks, in anthropology’s early moment of crisis. If, as Foucault argued in The Order of Things, Kant lulled modernity into its great anthropological sleep, in Becoming Human I counter that our slumber has been restless and fitful from the beginning.

Mailing List

Subscribe to our mailing list and be notified about new titles, journals and catalogs.