Book Review: Becoming Human: Romantic Anthropology and the Embodiment of Freedom
Becoming Human belongs to two emerging trends in the study of Kant and his early reception: an increasing focus on Kant’s anthropological writings for understanding his philosophy as a whole and a resurgence of interest in German Romanticism. Despite its subtitle – Romantic Anthropology and the Embodiment of Freedom – the bulk of Becoming Human (at least 150 of its 280 pages) focuses on Kant, so it belongs more squarely within the first trend than the second. Wellmon uses previously little-studied works of Kant’s — his Anthropology and writings on race and history — to provoke rereading Kant’s philosophy as concerned with empirically-rooted accounts of cultivating human freedom rather than merely with a priori articulations of fundamental norms.
Unlike other contemporary studies of Kant’s anthropology, however, Wellmon’s work aims to show how “Kant’s pragmatic anthropology failed because it was not dynamic enough” (276). Wellmon can then explain how German Romanticism, through an aesthetic sensitivity to concrete particulars, provides an “endlessly revisable” category of the human that claims the tensions and paradoxes in Kant’s works as bases for “different forms of knowledge” (17). Unfortunately, the book’s critique of Kant is based on exaggerated and incomplete readings of Kant’s corpus, and the Romantic alternatives are developed through readings of texts that are too focused to justify Wellmon’s claims about the prospects for Romantic anthropology. But Wellmon’s book nonetheless helpfully moves contemporary debate forward by showing that the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century reception of Kant included an important response to the empirically informed Kant that is gaining prominence today.