Article ID: CBB974076719

William James and 18th-Century Anthropology: Holism, Scepticism and the Doctrine of Experience (2018)


This article discusses the common ground between William James and the tradition of philosophical anthropology. Recent commentators on this overlap have characterised philosophical anthropology as combining science (in particular biology and medicine) and Kantian teleology, for instance in Kant’s seminal definition of anthropology as being concerned with what the human being makes of itself, as distinct from what attributes it is given by nature. This article registers the tension between Kantian thinking, which reckons to ground experience in a priori categories, and William James’s psychology, which begins and ends with experience. It explores overlap between James’s approach and the characteristic holism of 18th-century philosophical anthropology, which centres on the idea of understanding and analysing the human as a whole, and presents the main anthropological elements of James’s position, namely his antipathy to separation, his concerns about the binomial terms of traditional philosophy, his preference for experience over substances, his sense that this holist doctrine of experience shows a way out of sterile impasses, a preference for description over causation, and scepticism. It then goes on to register the common ground with key ideas in the work of anthropologists from around 1800, along with some references to anthropologists who come in James’s wake, in particular Max Scheler and Arnold Gehlen, in order to reconceptualise the connection between James’s ideas and the tradition of anthropological thinking in German letters since the late 18th-century, beyond its characterisation as a combination of scientific positivism and teleology.

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Authors & Contributors
Makkreel, Rudolf A.
Kreines, James
Steigerwald, Joan
Zammito, John H.
Giovanelli, Marco
Carroll, Jerome
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
British Journal for the History of Philosophy
Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science
Philosophia Naturalis
History of European Ideas
Cambridge University Press
University of California, Irvine
Emory University
de Gruyter
Oxford University Press
Natural philosophy
Kant, Immanuel
Cohen, Hermann
Dilthey, Wilhelm
Helmholtz, Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von
Riemann, Georg Friedrich Bernhard
Taylor. Charles
Time Periods
18th century
19th century
20th century, early
17th century
20th century
20th century, late

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