Kant's Dinner Party: Anthropology from a Foucauldian Point of View

By Melville, Peter | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 2002 | Go to article overview

Kant's Dinner Party: Anthropology from a Foucauldian Point of View


Melville, Peter, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Kant believed that the study of "man" would prove to be the final resting place for all philosophical inquiry. This essay argues that his Anthropology is most valuable for exposing the figure of "man" to its limits, where it paradoxically possesses nothing and has no character but the uncanny ability to create its own character and that of its society.

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In a gesture that continues to excite critical controversy, Michel Foucault concludes The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences by welcoming the dissolution of modernity's "invention" of the anthropological subject: "man" will be washed away, says Foucault without regret, like "a face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea" (387). For Foucault, the end of the eighteenth century marks a change in what he calls the "fundamental arrangements of knowledge," a change that makes it possible for the figure of "man" to appear in the discourses of the so-called human sciences (386-87). With the anthropologization of modern thought, however, philosophy enters into what Foucault characterizes as a deep "slumber," from which he insists it now ought to awaken (340). Introducing what would amount to a postmodern imperative to "give up thinking of man" (386), The Order of Things begins the task of preparing for this awakening, for a time when the face of "man" will disappear like the fading contents of an unsettling dream.

If Foucault's influential work ends with this problematic image of the "end of man," then my essay explores "man's" equally problematic beginning as it is particularly reflected in Immanuel Kant's surprisingly under-read Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. Equating knowledge of man with "knowledge of the world, even though ["man"] is only one of all the creatures on earth" (3, emph. mine), Anthropology is indeed among the earliest texts to contribute to the two - century-old invention" of "man" to which Foucault refers. In fact, Ian Hacking argues that The Order of Things itself "arose from an attempt to write an introduction to [. . .] Kant's Anthropologie" (238)--an attempt that began with Foucault's doctoral work at the College de France. More interestingly, however, Anthropology is also among the most acutely reflexive of these early texts on "man" insofar as it senses (despite itself) in the final stages of its argument that "the problem of giving an account of the character of the human specie s is quite insoluble" (238). Momentarily mystified by its own inability to realize its most basic desire to "recognize ["man"], according to his species" (3), Anthropology nevertheless proceeds with caution and with special care, salvaging its managerial science of "man" with the consolatory and suggestively elliptical claim that "all that is safe for us to say is that ["man"] has a character that he himself creates" (238, emph. mine). Hesitating at this crucial juncture between ultimate insolubility and relative safety, Anthropology cannot help but consciously acknowledge, well before Foucault, that one cannot in fact know "man," that one can only speak cautiously of "man" as Wane knew "him"--that is, as if "man" were indeed an invention rather than an empirical certainty.

For this reason, in this essay I aim to reactivate Anthropology while reconsidering it as a kind of antecedent or precursor (albeit a conflicted one) to the more developed critiques of philosophical anthropology found much later in the works of Foucault and Martin Heidegger. Although I rely heavily at times on the work of Heidegger for this task, I have chosen a methodology more faithful and closer in kind to the Foucauldian approach to ethics as the cultivation, or care, of the self. I have chosen to read Anthropology as a conduct book written in the spirit of (and contemporaneously with) what German historians call the "flood of autobiographies and letters" published in middle-class Germany near the end of the eighteenth century (Kaschuba 393). …

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