Jerome Carroll
Anthropology’s Interrogation of Philosophy from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Century
Lexington Books, 2018
256 pp., references, index

Anthropology and philosophy are today well-established disciplines in the modern academy. Philosophy is centuries older than anthropology in the academic sense, but philosophers have had an interest in anthropological knowledge for just as long, however rudimentary or limited.  Philosophy before the French Enlightenment may not be easily characterized as anthropological, but anthropology, by the end of the Victorian period, had established its academic identity as distinct from philosophy. This separation between anthropology and philosophy, however, was not quite characteristic of the intervening period in the German tradition, as Carroll demonstrates in Anthropology’s Interrogation of Philosophy from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Century (2018). Carroll’s project highlights the relationship between anthropology and philosophy in this period and offers anintellectual history of the result—namely, an attempt at holist philosophical anthropology.

Carroll’s study starts with an analysis of Herder’s proposal for the reduction of philosophy to anthropology, a contentious idea that signaled the ensuing struggle between philosophy and a form of anthropological query that started taking shape in the late eighteenth century. Carroll identifies the roots of this emerging anthropology in a body of eighteenth-century medical and physiological discourse that amounted to a critical response to the Cartesian mind-body dualism that had come to dominate philosophical views of man. He interprets the overall character of the anthropological response as anthropological holism and claims that it was initially intended to address “not dualism per se, but the sense that man’s dual nature is somehow a problem, that man is made up of two different kinds of substance that do not add up (20; emphasis in the original). Carroll’s project, then, concerns holism as it relates to seven major aspects of philosophical thought: namely, epistemology, subjectivity, phenomenology, historicism, ontology, aesthetics, and agency, each of which is treated in one of the seven chapters of the book.

Carroll explores the epistemological implications of anthropological holism in Chapter 1 by contrasting it with the philosophical and medical alternatives that employed mechanical, animist, or vitalist models of the human being. Where these models fail, according to Carroll, is in their reductionist, vague, or indeterminant accounts of the connection between mind, soul, and body. By contrast, the epistemology of the emerging anthropological holism was based on a science of the concrete, lived human experience. This epistemology included a skepticism of any purportedly objective aims of philosophical naturalism that assumed that humans, along with their culture, were merely a part of nature. Inasmuch as culture is a focus of the holist epistemology, we learn that “the shift from nature to culture involves a shift from the universal and abstract to concrete and conditioned” (27). From a methodological point of view, anthropological holism thus rejected, in addition to substance dualism, the philosophical traditions of apriorism, rationalism, speculation, system, and hierarchically structured knowledge stemming largely from Kant (28).

As Carroll argues in Chapter 2, Kant’s critical philosophy and pragmatic anthropology were also rejected by anthropological holists, for “Kant’s desire to vouchsafe human freedom precipitates a separation between the subject and the object that seems all but unbridgeable” (45).  From the holist point of view, the philosophical problem with Kant’s position on subjectivity is not unlike the one that Carroll identifies in Husserl’s phenomenology (Chapter 3), which insisted on the distinction between absolute knowledge and individual experience.  Even after accounting for Husserl’s later “anthropological turn” and his conception of a “life-world,” Carroll nevertheless concludes that “the legitimate grounding of phenomenology as a philosophy precisely depends on maintaining a hard-and-fast distinction between empirical reality and ideas and essences” (84). Husserl’s philosophy, in other words, maintains a form of dualism that is antithetical to anthropological holism.  

Carroll next pursues the problem of historicism in Chapter 4 and analyzes the consequences that anthropological holism has for history. The problem of historicism stems, in part, from Kant’s concern to delineate intersubjective human nature and individual human freedom, and from how subsequent thinkers adopted or modified the abstract parts of Kant’s reason or Hegel’s spirit. This is true of Husserl’s argument for the transhistorical basis of philosophy’s “infinite task,” which, in Carroll’s words, “crystalize the tension between an absolutist approach and a more contextualist approach” (110). The latter approach is certainly conducive to holism and, as Carroll explains, is reflected in the naturalist conception of the historically finite, socially interactive human being, as delineated by Ludwig Feuerbach (whose materialist philosophy would later influence Marx, among others). Carroll thus makes his skeptical position on the matter perfectly clear: If the ideas and principles of historicism are needed “to make sense of the world and to give our existence meaning,” then “whether they can be said to have validity beyond that meaning and beyond a certain range of historical experience is highly questionable” (119). He goes on to argue, however, that anthropological epistemology can accommodate a historical worldview by moderating historicism. The kind of historical anthropology that is possible, in Carroll’s holist view, is one that does justice to lived human experience in a philosophy of history common to both Herder and Wilhelm Dilthey, the latter of whom favored a hermeneutic approach to human nature over a natural scientific one.    

If concrete, lived experience is essential to both anthropological holism and historical anthropology, then it would be helpful to further explain just what that sort of experience is. The ontological nature of holism is the subject of Chapter 5, in which Carroll contrasts Heidegger’s conception of Being, which is supposed to be free of the particularities of experience, with Herder’s human-centered philosophy, in which purposes or meanings arise from the particularities of experience. For Herder, there is everyday sensation and experience that, while coherent overall, is nonetheless heterogenous in its constitution. For Heidegger, what exists is that which can be indeterminately or obscurely thought to be Being but nothing more. Again, it is clear who finds favor with the anthropological holism that Carroll articulates and who does not: Heidegger neglects the significance of human sensation and experience (thus entailing, perhaps, the indeterminacy and obscurity of Being), while Herder weds sensation and experience with thinking in a way that bridges the inner and outer human worlds (148, 149). Carroll subsequently connects this contrast with what he finds to be the paradox of philosophical anthropology, “namely, the fact that man is both the subject and object of inquiry” (150). This is a condition that Herder articulated as the human ability to ask philosophical questions in conjunction with the inability to ever answer them definitively in any way. It is this prima facie human limitation that Carroll uses to characterize the tradition of philosophical anthropology (144).

Anthropological holism, in turn, is linked to aesthetics, as Carroll explains in Chapter 6. He notes that Kant’s aesthetics presupposes the dualism between nature and freedom. Kant’s aesthetic experience, consequently, consists in the achievement of “harmony in the pleasure of the experience of beauty,” where the former is perceived by the understanding and the latter is made possible by the imagination (157). It is difficult to see how Kant could maintain a holist perspective of the aesthetic experience that is similar to Herder’s take on everyday experience. However, Carroll suggests that Kant “remains beholden to dualism because it is precisely conceived as the means to reunite these two spheres” (157; emphasis in the original). He further criticizes Kant’s aesthetics for its neglect of culture and values (165).

In the final chapter, Carroll discusses the philosophical relation between anthropology and agency, including analysis of the choice between “indirect” or “engaged” approaches to agency and subjectivity. The philosophical views of Hans Blumenberg and Charles Taylor set the stage for understanding the difference between these alternatives that now bear a closer historical relationship to the sorts of theoretical issues that today’s cultural anthropologists wrestle with. On the one hand, the engaged approach to agency to which Taylor adheres views humans as contextualized and embodied by, as well as embedded in, their pre-existing conditions; humans are intentional beings by nature “in the sense that our experience is predisposed by various attitudes and values,” in Carroll’s words (174). On the other hand, the indirect approach that Blumenberg argues for emphasizes the constructed nature of human existence that finds expression in metaphor—an approach that Carroll considers to be a radical break from nature that leaves a residual dualism. In the spirit of philosophical anthropology, Carroll attempts to reconcile these two views by suggesting that any remaining dualism privileges “a nonphysical dimension to life” that has more “to do with human meaning, for which we can take credit, over more physiological or material aspects that make up our being, which belong to nature” (184).

Carroll’s book is commendable for the philosophical breadth and historical depth of its treatment of a mostly German tradition that had begun reacting to Cartesian dualism by exploring the possibility of anthropological holism. That said, it is only a history of that tradition, not a history of philosophical anthropology in its entirety over two centuries, as the title of the book might otherwise suggest. In addition, the relation between anthropology and philosophy that Carroll covers seems to include an equal amount of interrogation of anthropology by philosophy, but from a perspective contrary to the holism that he finds so central to philosophical anthropology.

Both anthropologists and philosophers may find historical value in Carroll’s book. For instance, his chapter on ontology could provide a deeper historical framework for the recent “ontological turn” in anthropology (see Kohn 2015). In fact, his book may offer a deeper historical context of later conceptual links between anthropology and philosophy that appear in contemporary research on the topic (e.g., Das et al, 2014). Readers of the book, however, might  be struck by the very different nature of the kind of anthropological thought that he is investigating, as he alerts the reader early on (ix-x)—this is certainly not a book about the holistic roots of the Boasian approach. On that note, however, the reader may be left with the impression that Carroll’s project is unfinished history. Indeed, how does this tradition of philosophical anthropology and holism, for instance, link up with the holist anthropology of Franz Boas, and does Ludwig Wittgenstein not qualify as a German philosopher writing about anthropological interests? The latter had a major philosophical impact on social and cultural theory in the late twentieth century and early twenty first century, as evidenced recently by the application of his celebrated concept of “forms of life” to ethnographic analysis (Fassin et al., 2014). Carroll’s history consequently appears to reach a rather arbitrary end. His history is nevertheless a welcome volume on a subject that, as he notes, is otherwise neglected by anthropologists and philosophers alike.    

Works Cited 

Das, Veena, Michael Jackson, Arthur Kleinman, and Bhrigupati Singh. 2014. “Experiments between Anthropology and Philosophy: Affinities and Antagonisms.” In The Ground Between: Anthropologists Engage Philosophy, 1–26. Duke University Press.

Fassin, Didier, Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon, and Aurelia Segatti. 2017. “Asylum as a Form of Life: The Politics and Experience of Indeterminacy in South Africa.” Current Anthropology 58 (2): 160–87.

Kohn, Eduardo. 2015. “Anthropology of Ontologies.” Annual Review of Anthropology 44 (1): 311–27.

James A. Smith: contributions / / University of Nevada, Reno