Lyrical Feeling: Novalis' Anthropology of the Senses

By Wellmon, Chad | Studies in Romanticism, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Lyrical Feeling: Novalis' Anthropology of the Senses


Wellmon, Chad, Studies in Romanticism


SCHOLARS HAVE RECENTLY BEGUN TO RECONSIDER KANT'S PHILOSOPHICAL project, and the Enlightenment project for which it often stands, as "one of bridging, not just sounding the abyss of dualism between reason and nature." (1) And, as Immanuel Kant writes in his Logic, to consider the unity of man is to ask "What is man?"--a question he assigns to anthropology. (2) More than an abstract philosophical problem, anthropology emerges as a discipline in the second half of the eighteenth century when disparate inquiries--from medicine and biology to literature and philosophy--converge around the possibility of a science of the "whole of man," a science that hoped to redress modernity's estrangement of man from himself, others and nature. Already in 1800, however, the German professor of history and political philosophy Karl Heinrich Ludwig Politz claimed in his Populare Anthropologie that this emergent science of man had entered a "state of crisis." (3) In Germany at least, anthropology's eclecticism gave rise to debates about the proper limits and disciplinary identity of a "science of man." In his Anthropologie fur Arzte und Weltweise (1772), Ernst Platner, professor of medicine in Leipzig, had defined anthropology as a medical discourse concerned primarily with man as a natural being. By the end of the eighteenth century, however, a series of anthropologies concerned with man as a moral being capable of setting his own purposes had emerged. In 1794, Carl Christian Schmid, for example, one of the most devoted Kantians in 1790s Jena, described his own "teleological anthropology" as concerned with man's ability to determine himself through freedom. (4) In his Anthropologie in pragmatischer Hinsicht (1798), Kant similarly described the so-called crisis in anthropology as a decision between a physiological anthropology that considers what nature "makes" of man and a pragmatic anthropology that considers what man as a free being can and should make of himself (K 7: 122). The very modality of Kant's formulation--the factuality of "makes" [macht] versus the normativity of "should" [soll]--condenses and foregrounds the central concerns of anthropological discourse around 1800.

While recent scholarship, especially in Germany, has shown an increasing tendency to emphasize the anthropological orientation of the eighteenth century in general, (5) scholars have only recently begun to consider the plurality of eighteenth-century anthropologies or, more precisely, the tension between a Platnerian medical anthropology, on the one hand, (6) and the emergence toward the end of the century of a more normative or cultural-philosophical anthropology, on the other hand. (7) As Jorn Garber and Heinz Thomas put it in one of the first books to take up these concerns, Between Empiricalization and Constructivism: Anthropology in the Eighteenth Century, eighteenth-century anthropology moves between the two poles of "physis and norm" (vii). (8) Within this paradigm, the now-prevailing characterization of eighteenth-century anthropology as primarily a medical discourse is limited, because concerns with the physical body of man were increasingly interwoven with concerns regarding the cultures of man. This intersection of anthropologies finds a clear expression in 1795 when Wilhelm yon Humboldt developed a plan for a comparative cultural anthropology that takes physiological methods of comparison as a model, a model that his anatomical studies in Jena with Goethe and his brother Alexander yon Humboldt in 1794 made all the more conceivable. (9)

In a chiasmic crossing of the normative and medical forms of anthropology, the early German Romantic Friedrich von Hardenberg, better known as Novalis, adds a third question to anthropology's disciplinary concerns: what does man as natural being make of man? This chiasmic reformulation of Kant's distinction between nature and rational norm highlights what for the early Romantics is the fundamental problem of anthropology: the implication of man as his own object of study. …

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