[SydPhil] Sydney HPS talk, Monday 8th October. Prof. Jennifer Mensch

Dominic Murphy dominic.murphy at sydney.edu.au
Fri Oct 5 09:52:52 AEST 2018

Professor Jenifer Mensch
Western Sydney University

New Law Annex Seminar Room 446 5.30pm

Lines of Descent: Philosophical Anthropology from Kant to Humboldt


Although it has become increasingly commonplace to trace the connections between Kant’s natural historical writings and his own philosophical system, in this talk I will look at the evidence we have available to us for thinking that Kant’s theories might have had an effect on the shape and direction of early German anthropology. Researchers in this area have traditionally focused on Kant’s relationship to Blumenbach, focusing on not only Kant’s seeming embrace of Blumenbach’s notion of a ‘formative drive’ at work in all living beings, but on Kant’s own efforts to convince Blumenbach to rely on skin colour when determining racial make-up. After rehearsing some of this line of argumentation, I will move to the contrasting case offered up by Wilhelm von Humboldt in his appropriation of Kant. Humboldt adopted key parts of Kant’s philosophical system, taking up Kant’s epigenetic theory of category formation, and applying it to Herder’s blood-and-soil theory of the origin of language. It was in this fashion that Humboldt was able to direct a new field of anthropological research toward comparative linguistics. In Humboldt’s writings, such as in his text On the Diversity of Human Language Construction and its Influence on the Mental Development of the Human Species, there were traces, moreover, of Kant’s racial theories at work in the linguistic analysis. Comparative linguistics emerged in this way as an analogue to comparative anatomy for analyzing not only racial differences, but lineal descent, and its ultimate importance in shaping both evolution theory and ethnology cannot be overstated. Despite the long course and wide-ranging nature of his career, Humboldt’s work remained, I contend, at heart a Kantian project. The effect of this legacy will be the focus of the second half of my discussion.

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