A cosmopolitan anthropology

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. I wish to explore the possible contribution of anthropology to such a project. If the academic discipline as presently constituted would find it hard to address this task, perhaps we need to look elsewhere for a suitable intellectual strategy.

Immanuel Kant published Anthropology from a pragmatic point of view in 1798. The book was based on lectures he had given at the university since 1772-3. Kant’s aim was to attract the general public to an independent discipline whose name he more than anyone contributed to academic life. Remarkably, histories of anthropology have rarely mentioned this work, perhaps because the discipline has evolved so far away from Kant’s original premises. But it would pay us to take his Anthropology seriously, if only for its resonance with our own times.

Shortly before, Kant wrote Perpetual peace: a philosophical sketch. The last quarter of the eighteenth century saw its own share of ‘globalization’ — the American and French revolutions, the rise of British industry and the international movement to abolish slavery. Kant knew that coalitions of states were gearing up for war, yet he responded to this sense of the world coming closer together by proposing how humanity might form society as world citizens beyond the boundaries of states. He held that ‘cosmopolitan right’, the basic right of all world citizens, should rest on conditions of universal hospitality, that is, on the right of a stranger not to be treated with hostility when he arrives on someone else’s territory. In other words, we should be free to go wherever we like in the world, since it belongs to all of us equally. His confident sense of an emergent world order, written over 200 years ago, can now be seen as the high point of the liberal revolution, before it was overwhelmed by its twin offspring, industrial capitalism and the nation-state. The task of building a global civil society for the twenty-first century, even a world state, is an urgent one and anthropological visions should play their part in that.

This is the context for my reading of Kant’s Anthropology. He elsewhere 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 questions ‘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 to be ‘popular’ and of value in later life. Above all, the Anthropology was to contribute to the progressive political task of uniting world citizens by identifying the source of their ‘cosmopolitan bonds’. The book thus moves between mundane illustrations and Kant’s most sublime vision, using anecdotes close to home as a bridge to horizon thinking.

If for Kant the two divisions of anthropology were physiological and pragmatic, he preferred to concentrate on the latter — ‘what the human being as a free actor can and should make of himself’. This is based primarily on observation, but it also involves the construction of moral rules. The book has two parts, the first and longer being on empirical psychology and divided into sections on cognition, aesthetics and ethics. Part 2 is concerned with the character of human beings at every level from the individual to the species, seen from both the inside and the outside. Anthropology is the practical arm of moral philosophy. It does not explain the metaphysics of morals which are categorical and transcendent; but it is indispensable to any interaction involving human agents. It is thus ‘pragmatic’ in a number of senses: it is ‘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.

In his Preface, Kant acknowledges that anthropological science has some way to go methodologically. People act self-consciously when they are being observed and it is often hard to distinguish between self-conscious action and habit. For this reason, he recommends as aids ‘world history, biographies and even plays and novels’. The latter, while being admittedly inventions, are often based on close observation of real behaviour and add to our knowledge of human beings. He thought that the main value of his book lay in its systematic organization, so that readers could incorporate their experience into it and develop new themes appropriate to their own lives. Historians and philosophers are divided between those who find the book marginal to Kant’s thought and those for whom it is just muddled and banal. And the anthropologists have ignored it entirely. This was a mistake.

A lot hinges on where in the long process of human evolution we imagine the world is today. The Victorians believed that they stood at the pinnacle of civilization. I think of us as being like the first digging-stick operators, primitives stumbling into the invention of agriculture. In the late 1990s, I asked what it is about us that future generations will be interested in. I settled on the rapid advances then being made in forming a single interactive network linking all humanity. This has two striking features: first, the network is a highly unequal market of buyers and sellers fuelled by a money circuit that has become progressively detached from production and politics; and second, it is driven by a digital revolution in communications whose symbol is the internet, the network of networks. So my research over the last decade has been concerned with how the forms of money and exchange are changing in the context of this communications revolution.

When I speak of the possible formation of a new human universal, 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 has sought to dominate or replace the cultural particulars that organize people’s 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. The new universal will not just tolerate cultural particulars, but will be founded on knowing that true human community can only be realized through them.

There are two prerequisites for being human: we must each learn to be self-reliant to a high degree and to belong to others, merging our identities in a bewildering variety of social relationships. Much of modern ideology emphasizes how problematic it is to be both self-interested and mutual, to be economic as well as social, we might say. When culture is set up to expect a conflict between the two, it is hard to be both. Yet the two sides are often inseparable in practice and some societies, by encouraging private and public interests to coincide, have managed to integrate them more effectively than ours. One premise of the new human universal will thus be the unity of self and society. If learning to be two-sided is the means of becoming human, then the lesson is apparently hard to learn.

Each of us embarks on a journey outward into the world and inward into the self. Society is mysterious to us because we have lived in it and it now dwells inside us at a level that is not ordinarily visible from the perspective of everyday life. All the places we have lived in are sources of introspection concerning our relationship to society; and one method for understanding the world is to make an ongoing practice of trying to synthesize these varied experiences. If a person would have an identity — would be one thing, one self – this requires trying to make out of fragmented social experience a more coherent whole, a world in other words as singular as the self.

Kant is the source for the notion that society may be as much an expression of individual subjectivity as a collective force out there. Copernicus solved the problem of the movement of the heavenly bodies by having the spectator revolve while they were at rest, instead of them revolve around the spectator. Kant extended this achievement for physics into metaphysics. In his Preface to The Critique of Pure Reason he writes,

‘Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects… but what if we suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge?’

In order to understand the world, we must begin not with the empirical existence of objects, but with the reasoning embedded in our experience itself and in all the judgments we have made. This is to say that the world is inside each of us as much as it is out there. Our task is to unite the two poles as subjective individuals who share the object world with the rest of humanity.  Knowledge of society must be personal and moral before it is defined by the laws imposed on each of us from above.

Anthropology does not sit well with the modern university. We retain the will to range freely across disciplinary boundaries; the humanism and democracy entailed in our methods contradict the bureaucratic imperatives of corporate privatization at every turn. Anthropology has always been an anti-discipline, a holding company for idiosyncratic individuals to do what they like and call it ‘anthropology’. This strategy is coming under heavy pressure today. Increasingly, academic anthropologists turn inwards for defence against all-comers and this often leaves them exposed and without allies in the struggle for survival within the universities. We can’t assume that the identification of anthropology with the academy in the previous century will continue in the next. 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 submit 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 disembedded experts is essentially moral, in that people insist on restoring a personal dimension to human knowledge. The anthropologists’ current dependence on academic bureaucracy leaves them highly vulnerable to such developments.

So the issue of anthropology’s future needs to be couched in broader terms than those defined by the profession itself. I have been building a case that ‘anthropology’ is indispensable to the making of world society in the coming century. It may be that some elements of the current academic discipline could play a part in that; but the prospects are not good, given the narrow localism and anti-universalism that is prevalent there. Rather I have sought inspiration in Kant’s philosophy. ‘Anthropology’ would then mean whatever we need to know about humanity as a whole if we want to build a more equal world fit for everyone. I hope that this usage could be embraced by students of history, sociology, geography, political economy, philosophy and literature, as well as by members of my own profession. Many disciplines might contribute without being exclusively devoted to it. The idea of ‘development’ has played a similar role in the last half-century.

I have made much of Kant’s example here because he attempted to address the emergence of world society directly. He conceived of anthropology primarily as a form of humanist education; and this contrasts starkly with the emphasis on scientific research outputs in today’s universities. We could also emulate his ‘pragmatic’ anthropology, a personal programme of lifetime learning with the aim of developing practical knowledge of the world.  In his Preface to the Anthropology, Kant recommended, apart from systematic observation of life around us, that we study ‘world history, biographies and even plays and novels’. He sought a method for integrating individual subjectivity with the moral construction of world society. World history, as practiced by the likes of Jack Goody and Eric Wolf, is indispensable to any anthropology worthy of the name today. The method of biography is particularly well-suited to the study of self and society and I predict that its use will be more commonplace in future.

The rapid development of global communications today contains within its movement a far-reaching transformation of world society. ‘Anthropology’ in some form is one of the intellectual traditions best suited to make sense of it. The academic seclusion of the discipline, its passive acquiescence to bureaucracy, is the chief obstacle preventing us from grasping this historical opportunity. We cling to our revolutionary commitment to joining the people, but have forgotten what it was for or what else is needed, if we are to succeed in helping to build a universal society. The internet is a wonderful chance to open up the flow of knowledge and information. Rather than obsessing over how we can control access to what we write, which means cutting off the mass of humanity almost completely from our efforts, we need to figure out new interactive forms of engagement that span the globe and to make the results of our work available to everyone. Ever since the internet went public and the World Wide Web was invented, I have made online self-publishing and interaction the core of my anthropological practice. And recently I have stumbled into what may turn out to be the most powerful vehicle for this project yet: the Open Anthropology Cooperative.

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.

Paper presented at the inaugural conference of the Centre for Cosmopolitan Studies, University of St. Andrews, ‘A cosmopolitan anthropology?’, 15-16th September 2009

Comments |3|

  • Keith, I can now see OAC in a totally different light than simply the place for people with a shared hobby (albeit for some a livelihood) to find each other. I couldn’t agree more that, “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.” That is a cause in which I would willingly enlist. I must now once again ponder the wisdom of, oddly enough, Mao Tse-tung. I am thinking of a short essay in which he criticizes a young cadre for blundering into a village and throwing his weight around before taking the time to thoroughly understand the actual conditions of life there.

  • John, I have been neglecting my website for the OAC, so I only just saw this and your previous comment on Development. I would be very interested in your thoughts on Mao. I just read that long hatchet job biography which is so one-sided it almost makes you want to like the guy.

Category: Anthropology