German Studies Association Seminar

Translating the Pacific: Georg Forster and the Order of Nature in Meiners, Kant, and Herder

‘Landing of Captain Cook at Middleburg, Friendly Islands,’ after William Hodges, 1774–1797, © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Seminar. Jennifer Mensch (Western Sydney University) and Michael Olson (Marquette University) are running a three-day seminar at the Annual Meeting of the German Studies Association, 5–8 October 2023, Montréal, Canada.

Summary. As even a quick glance at the list of “Neue Literatur zu Georg Forster” included at the end of each installment of the Georg-Forster-Studien will attest, scholarly work on Georg and his father, Johann Reinhold Forster, is being produced at a steady clip. The enduring fame of the Forsters begins with their time spent as naturalists on James Cook’s second major expedition to the Pacific in search of a southern continent (1772-75). The Forsters each published important accounts of the voyage, and continued for decades afterward as key disseminators—via translations, commentaries, articles, and books—of travel literature for German readers. For today’s historians of philosophy, however, Georg Forster is best-known for his dispute with Kant on race. But the Forsters’ ethnographic observations and natural historical writings were more broadly influential than this one exchange suggests, and their philosophical reception history remains significantly understudied overall. This seminar aims to begin recovering some of their impact on the philosophical anthropologies produced by Herder, Kant, and Meiners.

The Fleet of Otaheite assembled at Oparee, William Woollett (after William Hodges), 1777 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Format. Participants will receive advance copies of whole texts by Georg and Johann Forster, Herder, Kant, and Meiners for the seminar—roughly 100 pages—with shorter sections identified for each day’s discussion. Participants will be asked to choose a text and write a brief account—no more than 1500 words—highlighting themes and questions for the seminar to address.


Indicative Texts (English translations available).

  • Georg Forster, “O-Tahiti” (1780; link), Vom Brodbaum (1784; link); “Noch etwas über die Menschenraßen” (1786; link), Review of Meiners’s anthropological writings (1791; link, part 2)
  • Christoph Meiners, “Einige Bemerkungen aus der Geschichte der Insel-Bewohner der Südsee” (1775; link), “Historische Nachrichten über die Wahre Beschaffenheit des Sclaven-Handels, und der Knechtschaft der Neger in West-Indien” (1790; link).
  • Immanuel Kant, “Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht” (1784; link), Review of Herder, Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (1785; link), “Bestimmung des Begrifs einer Menschenrace” (1785; link), “Muthmaßlicher Anfang der Menschengeschichte” (1786; link), “Über den Gebrauch teleologischer Principien in der Philosophie” (1788; link).
  • Johann Gottfried Herder, Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit, part 1 (1784; link).