Anthropology and the New Human Universal by Keith Hart

World society today resembles nothing so much as the eighteenth century ancient régime that Kant had every reason to believe had been abolished by revolution. Now a rich, aging white minority inured to luxuries unimaginable two centuries ago presides over masses whose passivity is measured by their lack of spending power (Hart 2002). The institutional legacy of 5,000 years of agrarian civilization, Childe’s (1954) “urban revolution”, still weighs heavily with us. The traditional recipe for managing inequality, to inject as much distance as possible between rich and poor, is contradicted by a world being drawn closer together by the digital revolution in communications. Yet, rather than embrace as inevitable its demographic replacement by the young, darker, poor masses, the dominant white elite frantically erects further barriers against entry whose principle is apartheid generalized to a world scale.

The opponents of globalization, who resist the new mobility enjoyed by capital by making a myopic appeal to national interest, participate unwittingly in this rearguard action to preserve the privileges of the western nations. If Marx showed us how the social relations of production act as so many fetters on the development of the productive forces, these today take the form of territorial states seeking to maintain established privilege by constraining the movement of people, goods, money and information in a world society that is both more integrated and more divided. Transnational capitalism, complemented by grassroots democratic movements of all kinds, today leads the way in challenging old national and regional structures, much as the rise of national capitalism underpinned liberal revolutions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Academic anthropology is not well-equipped to inform participation in such historical processes, mainly because its cultural relativism reflects the dominant nation-state structures of the twentieth century. How then might each of us find a more secure foundation for self-knowledge as individuals and as a species? Kant held that the political project of building a just world society was necessary for human development in the long run. Anthropology, however, reflects more closely his vision of individual subjectivity and is best thought of as a means to that end, as a branch of humanist education. This requires us to transcend the barriers erected by twentieth-century civilization between each of us as a subjective personality and society as an impersonal object. After all, what room did the twentieth century’s anonymous institutions — states, capitalist markets, science — leave for personal agency, beyond the right to spend whatever bits of money we can lay our hands on?

The world must be imaginatively reduced in scale and our subjectivity expanded, in order for a meaningful link to be established between the two. Once people achieved this by praying to God and many still do. Works of fiction – movies, novels and plays — fill the gap for those of us who do not pray. We need to feel more at home in the world, to resist alienation, and that means embracing movement rather than fixture in place. Each of us embarks on a journey outward into the world and inward into the self. Society is mysterious to us because we have lived in it and it now dwells inside us at a level that is not ordinarily visible from the perspective of everyday life. All the places we have lived in are sources of introspection concerning our relationship to society; and one method for understanding the world is to make an ongoing practice of trying to synthesize these varied experiences. If a person would have an identity — would be one thing, one self – this requires trying to make out of fragmented social experience a more coherent whole, a world in other words as singular as the self.

Emergent world society is the new human universal – not an idea, but the fact of our shared occupation of the planet crying out for new principles of association. By this I mean making a world where all people can live together, not the imposition of principles that suit some powerful interests at the expense of the rest. The next universal will be unlike its predecessors, the Christian and bourgeois versions through which the West sought to dominate or replace the cultural particulars that organize people’s lives everywhere. The main precedent for such an approach to discovering our common humanity is great literature which achieves universality through going deeply into particular personalities, relations and places. Ethnography does the same in its own way. The new universal will not just tolerate cultural particulars, but will be founded on knowing that true human community can only be realized through them.

There are two prerequisites for being human: we must each learn to be self-reliant to a high degree and to belong to others, merging our identities in a bewildering variety of social relationships. Much of modern ideology emphasizes how problematic it is to be both self-interested and mutual, to be economic as well as social, we might say. When culture is set up to expect a conflict between the two, it is hard to be both. Yet the two sides are often inseparable in practice and some societies, by encouraging private and public interests to coincide, have managed to integrate them more effectively than ours. One premise of the new human universal will thus be the unity of self and society. If learning to be two-sided is the means of becoming human, then the lesson is apparently hard to learn.

We cannot assume that identification of anthropology with the academy in the last century will continue in the next. It is now harder for self-designated guilds to control access to professional knowledge. People have other ways of finding out for themselves, rather than submit to academic hierarchy. And there are many agencies out there competing to give them what they want, whether through journalism, tourism or all the self-learning possibilities afforded by the internet. Popular resistance to the power of experts is essentially moral, in that people insist on restoring a personal dimension to human knowledge. Anthropologists’ current dependence on academic bureaucracy leaves us highly vulnerable to such developments.

“Anthropology” is indispensable to the formation of world society in the coming century. The academic discipline could play a part in that; but the prospects are not good, given its prevalent localism and anti-universalism. A Kantian anthropology would focus on whatever we need to know about humanity as a whole if we want to build a more equal world fit for everyone. Such a usage could be embraced by students of history, sociology, geography, political economy, philosophy and literature, as well as by some anthropologists. Many disciplines might contribute without being exclusively devoted to the project. The idea of “development” played a similar role in the last half-century.

Kant attempted to address the emergence of world society directly. He conceived of anthropology primarily as a form of humanist education; and this contrasts starkly with the emphasis on scientific research outputs in today’s universities. We could also emulate his “pragmatic” approach, a personal program of lifetime learning with the aim of developing practical knowledge of the world. Kant recommended, apart from systematic observation of life around us, that we study “world history, biographies and even plays and novels”. He sought a method for integrating individual subjectivity with the moral construction of world society. World history, as practiced by the likes of Jack Goody (1976) and Eric Wolf (1982), is indispensable to any anthropology worthy of the name today. The method of biography (Mintz 1960) is particularly well-suited to the study of self and society; and I suspect that it will become more commonplace in future.

The rapid development of global communications today contains within its movement a far-reaching transformation of world society. “Anthropology” in some form is one of the intellectual traditions best suited to make sense of it. The academic seclusion of the discipline, its passive acquiescence to bureaucracy, is the chief obstacle preventing us from grasping this historical opportunity. We cling to our revolutionary commitment to joining the people, but have forgotten what it was for or what else is needed, if we are to succeed in building a universal society. The internet offers a wonderful chance to open up the flow of knowledge and information. Rather than obsessing over how we can control access to what we write, which means cutting off the mass of humanity almost completely from our efforts, we need to figure out new interactive forms of engagement that span the globe and to make the results of our work available to everyone. Ever since the internet went public and the World Wide Web was invented, I have made online self-publishing and interaction the core of my anthropological practice (Hart 2009). And recently I have stumbled into what may turn out to be the most powerful vehicle for this project yet: the Open Anthropology Cooperative (

It matters less that an academic guild should retain its monopoly of access to knowledge than that “anthropology” should be taken up by a broad intellectual coalition for whom the realization of a new human universal – a world society fit for humanity as a whole — is a matter of urgent personal concern.

(Click here for entire article Kant, “anthropology” and the new human universal)


Childe, V.G. 1954. Man Makes Himself. London: Moonraker; Goody, J. 1976. Production and Reproduction: A comparative study of the domestic domain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Hart, K. 2002. ‘World society as an old regime’, in S. Nugent and C. Shore (eds) Elite Cultutres: Anthropological perspectives. London: Routledge, 22-36; Hart, K. 2009. ‘An anthropologist in the world revolution’, Anthropology Today 25/6: 24-25; James, C.L.R. 1989 [1938]. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo revolution. New York: Vintage Books; Kant, I. 1997 [1784]. ‘Idea for a universal history with cosmopolitan purpose’, in Kant: Political Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 41-51; Kant, I. 2003 [1795]. To Perpetual Peace: A philosophical sketch. Indianapolis: Hackett; Kant, I. 2006 [1978]. Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Kant, I. 2008 [1781]. Critique of Pure Reason (Norman Kemp Smith). Google Books; Miller, D. 2010. ‘Anthropology in blue jeans’, American Ethnologist 37.3: 415-428; Mintz, S. 1960. Worker in the Cane: A Puerto Rican life history. New York: W.W. Norton; Wardle, H. 1995. ‘Kant, Kingston and common sense’, Cambridge Anthropology, 18/3:40-55; Wolf, E. 1982. Europe and the Peoples without History. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Keith Hart is International Director, Human Economy Programme, University of Pretoria and Centennial Professor of Economic Anthropology, London School of Economics. He has taught at a number of universities, for the longest time at Cambridge. He contributed the idea of an informal economy to Development Studies and has written extensively on money. His recent books include The Human Economy (2010) and Economic Anthropology (2011).