Romantic Anthropology

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What is Anthropology?

Today, the word "anthropology" means either the philosophical consideration of mankind and its special position in nature or the ethnological study of early cultures. These two definitions are only partly compatible with the way that this term was used during the Enlightenment and the Romantic period.

It is no coincidence that anthropology has its roots in the Renaissance - it is a discipline which is firmly grounded in the modern era, no longer drawing on metaphysics but instead looking to the here and now of human existence, combining philosophical ambitions with physiological and psychological questions. Thus, from its beginnings on, anthropology looked at issues which today would be considered medical, psychological, or philosophical as well as anthropological in the modern sense.

This interest in the "whole man" allowed anthropology to become a fundamental discipline in the late Enlightenment, a period which dedicated itself to the empirical study of man. Deductive reasoning, based on the universally applicable truths of reason (for example Christian Wolff's rationalistic philosophy which was so central to the early Enlightenment in Germany), was replaced by inductive thinking in which the relationship between "body" and "soul" was examined through self observation and the collection of case studies.

Thus, the last third of the 18th century saw the publication of numerous anthropological monographs – the first and most famous being Ernst Platner's Anthropologie für Ärzte und Weltweise (1772) – and periodicals – for example the Magazin zur Erfahrungsseelenkunde (1783-93, pub. Karl Phillip Moritz). Even the novelists of the period were interested in the study of the "whole man", and considered their literary work as a part of the anthropological project; Karl Phillip Moritz's Anton Reiser, Wieland's Agathon, Goethe's Werther and Schiller's Räuber can all be included here.


What are the unique characteristics of Romantic Anthropology?

In many respects the Romantic Anthropologists continued the tradition of the Enlightenment. They no longer, however, based their work on 18th century Empiricism, using instead Schelling's speculative Natural Philosophy – the latest fashionable invention of the early 19th century. Thus, Romantic Anthropology was a part – a central part, in fact – of one of the first counter movements against modern science. Starting in the first decade of the 19th century, it infiltrated and finally replaced Enlightenment anthropology.

As part of this change, idealistic systematic thinking and the joy of free speculation took the place of inductive reasoning and observation. In contrast to the strict philosophical constructions developed by Schelling or Hegel, early 19th century anthropologists, however, still tried to explain and propagate their findings and views in ways which could be understood by non-specialists. This allowed them to mix their speculative natural-philosophical approaches and arguments with medical observations and even with elements of Christianity.

This eclecticism is not the only original feature of Romantic Anthropology. More crucially: the central tenet of Idealism – the dialectical communication of opposites – was also adopted. This is the most important characteristic of Romantic Anthropology – and it proved to be a potent aid in the attempt to imagine spirit and body as a dialectic unity of opposites – a problem which Enlightenment anthropology had never been able to solve. This dialectical approach was applied as widely as possible – to the relationship between the sexes, for example, and to the subject of "romantic love".

A third aspect of Romantic Anthropology is its well developed historical mode of thinking. Romantic Anthropologists modelled not only the life of the individual and the various "Ages of Man", but also the development of humanity itself according to a dialectical, "triadic" concept. Much of the energy devoted to Romantic Anthropology was spent in designing wide-reaching universal histories which described the development of the cosmos, of inorganic nature, vegetable, animal and human life as a single process based on the fundamental laws of polarity and dialectics.

This page was designed by Uli Wunderlich and translated by Adam Lawrence. Please contact if you have any questions. Last update: 14. Februar 1999.