A Kantian anthropology for the internet age
What then might be an anthropology for the internet age? I would start with Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace: a Philosophical Sketch. He held that Cosmopolitan Right, the basic right of all world citizens, should rest on conditions of universal hospitality, that is, 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. The contrast with our routine experience of international travel today could not be more marked. He says, “The peoples of the earth have entered in varying degree into a universal community, and it has developed to the point where a violation of rights in one part of the world is felt everywhere. The idea of a cosmopolitan right is not fantastic and overstrained; it is a necessary complement to the unwritten code of political and international right, transforming it into a universal right of humanity.” This confident sense of an emergent world order, written over 200 years ago by the man who defined ‘anthropology’ for modern purposes, can now be seen to be a product of the high point of the liberal revolution, before it was overwhelmed by its twin offspring, industrial capitalism and the nation state. We now live in a less confident world, but it can still generate moments that touch our universal humanity, like the first man to orbit the earth in space or a Chinese man confronting a tank on global television.
Kant believed that human co-operation in society required us to rely on personal judgement moderated by common sense, in the double meaning of shared intelligence and taste. This common sense, also the title of his contemporary Tom Paine’s revolutionary pamphlet that launched the American war of independence, was generated in everyday life, in shared social experience (good food, good talk, good company). Earlier he wrote an essay, “Idea for a universal history with a cosmopolitan purpose”, which included these propositions:
In man (as the only rational creature on earth) those natural faculties which aim at the use of reason shall be fully developed in the species, not in the individual.
The means that nature employs to accomplish the development of all faculties is the antagonism of men in society, since this antagonism becomes, in the end, the cause of a lawful order of this society.
The latest problem for mankind, the solution of which nature forces us to seek, is the achievement of a civil society which is capable of administering law universally.
This problem is both the most difficult and the last to be solved by mankind.
A philosophical attempt to write a universal world history according to a plan of nature which aims at perfect civic association of mankind must be considered to be possible and even as capable of furthering nature’s purpose.
The world is much more socially integrated today than two centuries ago and its economy is palpably unjust. We have barely survived three world wars (two hot, one cold) and brutality provokes fear everywhere. Moreover, the natural (we would say ‘ecological’) consequences of human actions are likely to be severely disruptive, if left unchecked. Histories of the universe we inhabit do seem to be indispensable to the construction of institutions capable of administering justice worldwide. When Roy Rappaport wrote recently that “Humanity…is that part of the world through which the world as a whole can think about itself”, he was repeating the central idea of Kant’s prescient essay. The task of building a global civil society for the 21st century is urgent and anthropological visions must play their part in that.
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 pose 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. Which is to say that the world is inside each of us as much as it is out there. This is why one definition of ‘world’ is ‘ all that relates to or affects the life of a person’. Our task is to bring the two poles together as subjective individuals who share the object world in common with the rest of humanity.
The 19th and 20th centuries, in identifying society with the state, constitute a counter-revolution against Kant’s Copernican revolution. This was launched by Hegel, whose Philosophy of Right contains the programmes of all three founding fathers of modern social theory (Marx, Weber, Durkheim) rolled into one. This counter-revolution was only truly consummated after the first world war. The result was a separation of the personal from the impersonal, the subject from the object, humanism from science. It was enshrined in the academic division of labour and it is why most people have never heard of Kant’s seminal contribution to anthropology. This is the split that the decline of national capitalism in the face of the digital revolution might allow us to reverse. In my book, I argued that the cheapening of the cost of information transfers as a result of the digital revolution makes it possible for much more information about individuals to enter into commercial transactions at distance that were until recently largely impersonal. This repersonalization of the economy has its counterpart in many aspects of contemporary social life, not just in the forms of money and exchange. It involves a new idea of the person, one that is based on digital abstractions as much as on the emergence of more concrete forms of individuality. The customized interactions that most academics now have with amazon.com and similar pliers of books reflect this trend, at the same time personal and remote.
I do not imagine that I am alone when I respond in this way to our moment of history. Clearly one consequence of the use of new technologies in teaching is that learning can now be much more individualized and ecumenical at the same time; and this juxtaposition of self and the world in itself poses a threat to the traditions of the academic guild. Here then is one source of a renewed emphasis on subjectivity. It all adds up to a radical revision of conventional attitudes to subject-object relations, grounds indeed for us to reconsider the positivist dogmas on which so many modern university disciplines are based, including social anthropology’s paradigm of scientific ethnography. It has long been obvious to me that learning anthropology would be impossible if we were not, each of us, human beings in the first place. Anthropologists who once could rely on public ignorance as support for their exotic tales must now cope with mass mobility and communications. We have to consider seriously what our expertise can offer that is not delivered more effectively through novels and films, journalism or tourism. We live in a time when both the rhetoric and the reality of markets encourage individuals to choose the means of their own Enlightenment. It would be surprising if trends in the teaching of anthropology did not reflect all this; perhaps we are on the verge of a new paradigm for the discipline, one that will reflect the social and technological changes of which the internet is the most tangible symbol.
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