The Animal Between Crisis and Catastrophe. Extremities of German Thought (1918–1949)

In the first half of the 20th century, German philosophers, biologists, and psychologists came into dialogue in an effort to ascertain what sorts of entities animals are, what sort of animal the human is, and what sorts of political community, moral obligation, and epistemological values ought to follow from man’s eccentric position in the natural world. The dissertation project aimed to chart how the shifting taxonomy of knowledge in this period (in particular, changing understandings of the relationship between the natural sciences and the humanistic disciplines) opened new horizons of possibility for thought regarding “the animal” and how it rendered the human-animal distinction integral to debates concerning the fate of Western culture.

Among the intellectual developments central to this study are: the birth of philosophical anthropology as an independent sub-discipline in the 1920s; the emergence and philosophical reception of theoretical biology, which seemed to offer a sophisticated alternative to the mechanistic reductionism of contemporary physiology and the troubling contingency of Darwinian evolutionary outcomes; and the founding of the discipline of ethology during the Third Reich. The participants in these intellectual movements saw themselves as contributing to a thorough interrogation of the foundations of Western metaphysics in response to the acute sense of cultural crisis widespread among German intellectuals during the Wilhelmine period but given new life by the failure of the war effort of 1914–18. More broadly, then, the project aimed to discern the political, ethical, and indeed metaphysical implications of these ostensibly scientific and epistemological discussions, asking how and why attempts to delimit the human-animal relation came to have such normative purchase.

Social Science Research Council International Dissertation Fellowship 2016–2018
Head researcher(s): David I. Delano