The Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities presents
The Intellectual and Literary History Public Seminar Series


On the Course of Human Development: German Anthropology from Kant to Darwin

How can it possibly be the case, as Hannah Arendt put it to her readers in On Revolution, that with not one but two revolutions to observe in their lifetimes—the successful American version abroad and the French one much closer to home—German philosophers were somehow more invested in producing a philosophy of history than they were in developing the philosophical framework for a successful political science? Regardless of whether we want to agree with Arendt’s assessment of the situation, her complaint still marks the general sense that politics was indeed viewed through the lens of historical determinism for such key thinkers of the German Enlightenment as Kant and Hegel. But if this type of thinking is what led to not just Marx’s analysis but his eventual failure, as Arendt saw it, it still does not explain the special attraction had by this approach to history. This talk will start out with some suggestions as to why such a developmental view of history might have been so compelling for theorists before looking in some detail at one surprising effect that it would have on the entirely different field of German anthropology. For it was only against the backdrop of philosophical arguments outlining the case for a progressive universal history that separate considerations of the ethnographic and also morphological differences between groups would be brought together in the anthropological subfield of comparative linguistics. Comparative linguistics, a science born out of investigations done by ethnographers as much as by philosophers investigating the origin of language, was carried forward into the nineteenth century by thinkers like Friedrich Schlegel in their effort to index an account of staggered historical development to a hierarchy of the races. It is the early history of comparative linguistics that needs to be reconsidered, therefore, if we are to understand the lasting impact of the Enlightenment when it comes to the politics of self-determination.

Jennifer Mensch is interested in the intersection of philosophy and the life sciences with a particular focus on debates taking place during the German Enlightenment. She moved to Australia in 2015 as a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Western Sydney University; before that, she was an Assistant Professor of Philosophy in the Program for Science, Technology & Society at the Pennsylvania State University, where she taught philosophy and the history of science and medicine. The author of numerous articles and book chapters, and editor of two forthcoming collections, her monograph, Kant’s Organicism: Epigenesis and the Development of Critical Philosophy (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2013), described the role played by life science debates on generation for Kant’s efforts to understand the mind and its production of experience. Her current research is focused on showing how Kant’s philosophical account of world history impacted the shape and direction taken by early German anthropology.


Seminar Room, Level 4 Forgan Smith Tower (Building #1)