The two essays on sexual difference published by W. Humboldt in 1795, Über den Geschlechterunterschied und dessen Einfluß auf die organische Natur and Über die männliche und weibliche Form, because of the peculiarity of the topic made a sensation at their appearance. The essays’ main point is that the complementarity of the sexes must be regarded as foundational of the relationship between organic nature and cultural life. Thus, in a sense, they can be considered as forerunners of gender studies. The first part of the present article briefly examines the conceptual and cultural premises of Humboldt’s discourse, which are mainly laid down in the first essay. The article then moves on to consider the second essay, On the form of masculinity and femininity, which has been paid much less attention. I will in particular scrutinize the conception of beauty as well as its social implications, arguing that Humboldt elaborates on an epigenetic-evolutionary interpretation of the Kantian problem of the sense-intellect duality, and – in doing so – provides Winckelmann's classicist aesthetics with a sort of anthropological and naturalistic foundation. Thereby, he establishes an essential relationship between the concept of beauty and the sexual attractiveness of the human body. The consequence of this, I argue, is the following: while the concept of “mutual action” (Wechselwirkung) between masculinity and femininity is generally considered as a significant advance towards the recognition of gender equality, it actually consolidates the bias of the “naturalness” of the social and intellectual minority of women.
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