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date: 05 May 2021

(p. 15) Ideas of Race in the History of Modern Philosophy

Abstract and Keywords

Locke owned stock in slave trading companies and was secretary of the Lords Proprietors of the Carolinas, where slavery was constitutionally permitted. He had two notions of slavery: legitimate slavery was captivity with forced labor imposed by the just winning side in a war; illegitimate slavery was an authoritarian deprivation of natural rights. Locke did not try to justify either black slavery or the oppression of Amerindians. In The Two Treatises of Government, Locke argued against the advocates of absolute monarchy. The arguments for absolute monarchy and colonial slavery turn out to be the same. So in arguing against the one, Locke could not help but argue against the other. Examining the natural rights tradition to which Locke’s work belongs confirms this. Locke could have defended colonial slavery by building on popular ideas of his colleagues and predecessors, but there is no textual evidence that he did that or that he advocated seizing Indian agricultural land.

Keywords: John Locke, natural rights, just war, slavery, Indian agricultural lands, David Hume, human sciences, black inferiority, geography, white supremacy, Kant, race, teleology, morality, moral theory, Friedrich Nietzsche, slavery, colonialism, antisemitism, antiblack racism, racial contract, racism, nonideal theory, social contract theory, The Racial Contract

Race is one kind of difference within our species. Western ideas of races can be traced to relational and genealogical notions of tribes, clans, and lines of descent. In addition, practices such as slavery that are associated with later ideas of human difference occurred in ancient Greece and Rome. However, the idea of race as a taxonomy or demarcated system of human group differences with biological, moral, geographical, and historical foundations was new to the modern period.

The modern idea of race was developed by leading intellectuals, as well as social, political, and economic leaders. Two powerful factors contributed to this new notion. First, new practices of conquest, domination, and resource extraction by Europeans over other parts of the world during the Age of Discovery and the Industrial Revolution involved intense, systematic contact with people in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Where earlier explorers had first visited and reported novelty, there now came to be structured settling, development, export, and exploitation. Second, the creation and development of the natural physical science of biology and the social science of anthropology over the nineteenth century afforded new conceptual tools for describing and analyzing human differences, especially differences between Europeans and those in parts of the world that became subordinate to Europe.

Philosophers have rarely had direct political power, but famous philosophers have had cultural influence over the imagination and factual beliefs of succeeding generations. For a (p. 16) long time, it was assumed that what canonical philosophers had to say about race was either incidental to their main intellectual work—if it had any philosophical content—or that it was in the realm of mere human opinion, if it was informally expressed. In recent decades, this assumption has shifted to more concerned enquiry about whether the ideas about human racial difference held by canonical philosophers in the modern period were an integral part of their philosophies. Contemporary philosophers of race are less likely than previous generations of scholars in the history of ideas or the history of philosophy to assume good will or otherwise overlook racism or bigotry by the likes of Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche. This is because analyses of racism and racist perspectives continue to become more subtle and penetrating, and progressives are now quite bold in discussing the racism of icons.

However, assessing the racism of revered philosophers is neither a simple matter of dismissing “dead white men” nor retaining them as humans with foibles. Philosophical assessment should be balanced and fair and also without familial sentimentality. In a discipline that places a high intellectual value on knowledge of its own past, it is important to be able to accurately identify past racism without anachronism and determine how far responsibility extends over consequences that may not have been intended. This is not so much a question of whether our canonical ancestors were good people, but of how their philosophies were or were not distorted by chauvinism, arrogance, egotism, entitlement, or other disruptive forms of selfishness. This balanced and fair approach motivates the inquiries and assessments in this part. The examinations of philosophical content pertaining to race in the writings of John Locke, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, and Friedrich Nietzsche are judicious but unrestrained. The result is that the last contributor’s inference of a broad racist consensus among modern political philosophers seems well supported.

John Locke was not fully part of the modern period—he is usually classified as “Early Modern”—but his England and wider world were in sufficient agitation toward future Enlightenment changes in colonialism, nationalism, science, and industry, for us to ask whether some of his thought about non-Europeans was racist. Common sense would seem to tell us that in order to be a racist, Locke would first require an idea of race or a belief that human beings are divided into races. The modern idea of race did not develop until after the late 1600s, when Locke produced his major work. But there is intellectual and humanist consensus that the ill will and contempt associated with modern racism has historical antecedents in clusters of ideas and attitudes that preceded modern ideas of race and were directed toward politically subordinated groups or those whose religions were suppressed. William Uzgalis examines Locke from within that consensus.

Uzgalis accepts Locke’s practical involvement with oppressive colonial practices as a stock owner of slave trading companies and Secretary of the Lords Proprietors of the Carolinas, where slavery was constitutionally permitted. However, after a close examination of Locke’s two notions of slavery, one legitimate and one illegitimate, Uzgalis finds no justification for either slavery or the oppression of Amerindians in Locke’s political philosophy. Legitimate slavery for Locke was a form of captivity with forced labor imposed by the just and winning side of a war against the defeated; illegitimate slavery was an authoritarian deprivation of natural rights that Locke proposed representative government as a means to correct or avoid. Uzgalis reasons that Locke would have known that colonial slavery was a violation of the God-given natural rights that he otherwise explicated and upheld; he finds no textual evidence that Locke thought either Africans or Amerindians should be deprived of those rights or have illegitimate forms of slavery imposed on them. Uzgalis also shows how Locke (p. 17) could have defended colonial slavery by building on popular ideas of his colleagues and predecessors, but simply avoided that. Uzgalis thereby presents Locke as a political philosopher who rejected the doctrine of might makes right, but nonetheless lived out a contradiction between his political ideals and his economic and political actions.

Aaron Garrett and Silvia Sebastiani begin with textual evidence that David Hume thought there were human races and that nonwhites were inferior to whites. They note how the first two lines of an infamous footnote in Hume’s “Of National Characters” from his Essays, Moral, Political and Literary explicitly make those points:

I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation.

Garrett and Sebastiani note that Hume consistently insisted on a natural inferiority of blacks that set them apart from other races. He also believed that the difference between Europeans and Amerindians was as great as the difference between human beings and animals (and males and females, although that raises a host of other issues). A polygenicist who insisted on different origins for human races, Hume nevertheless refused to accept that geographical or climactic differences were the cause of cultural differences among human groups. This position, together with his rejection of slavery, rendered his ideology of white supremacy somewhat enigmatic, because he did not provide a convincing causal account of what he took to be racial difference.

Locke’s actions and political philosophy were contradictory, and Hume was curiously silent about explaining what he thought were self-evident racial differences. In contrast to this gap and lack, Kant presents a more complicated plenum in relation to his ideas about race. Kant constructed a well-developed theory of racial difference, explicitly expressed contempt for nonwhites, and became famous for a moral theory that posited the intrinsic worth of every human being. Bernard Boxill seeks to resolve Kant’s explicit racial contempt with his idea of universal intrinsic individual human worth.

Although Kant followed Hume in positing the existence of human races, unlike Hume, he was a monogenicist, believing that all members of the human species had common ancestral origins. Races for Kant were distinguished by traits that remained hereditary over generations. Kant studied the past of white European groups via the science of anthropology, but he reserved the study of nonwhites for geography. Although Kant achieved lasting fame for his work on ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology, most of his academic employment was based on his courses about race. Indeed, Kant is credited with having founded the science of anthropology that came to be the locus for studying non-European and nonwhite races (Eze 1997). At any rate, Kant believed that the influence of geography on members of the original human species who later dispersed resulted in irreversible racial traits. Boxill exhibits two characteristic passages from Kant’s “Of the Different Races of Human Beings.”

[The] natural disposition of the Americans, betrays a half extinguished life power, [so that] one makes use of red slaves (Americans) in Surinam only for labors in the house because they are too weak for field labor, for which one needs Negroes. (Kant 2:438)

The Negro, who is well suited to his climate, [is] strong, fleshy, supple, but who given the abundant provisions of his mother land, is lazy, soft and trifling.

(Kant 2:438)

(p. 18) Boxill observes that these passages and a number like them, as well as Kant’s acceptance of the possibility of white genocide of nonwhite peoples, are very disturbing for Kantians. He suggests that they can be reconciled with Kant’s broader moral philosophy and the aim of eventual peace in his political science, by taking his use of teleology into account. According to Boxill, Kant’s racial theory followed from his idea that human affairs were governed by an unsociable sociality—humans are drawn into mutual association but, once related, they contend to get their own ways. The result is that in the even broader vision of the common intergenerational human good, not all groups are likely to survive and the hierarchical view of race explains why some groups are less equipped for, and less worthy of, long-term survival.

Kant’s view of race as Boxill interprets him resembles social Darwinism—the idea that survival and success in society depend on group talents and strengths. Nietzsche, by contrast, rejected evolutionary thought and developed a more normative notion of breeding, toward the goal of a European master race. Robert Bernasconi emphasizes the neglected contrast between Nietzsche’s favorable attitude toward Jews and his antiblack racism, which included endorsement of slavery at a time when the majority in the educated European community were already abolitionists. Bernasconi notes that although Nietzsche did not often use the term “race” or rely on biology for racial differences, his reliance on spiritual and historical ideas of race was pernicious because of his Lamarkian belief that customs were physically hereditary. That is, in his insistence that “it is not in the least possible that a human being might not have the qualities and preferences of his parents and ancestors in his body,” Nietzsche posited physical or biological mechanisms as media for cultural racial transmission. He could speak of the Germans as “the most monstrous mixing and blending of races,” on the grounds of their mixed cultural heritage, but at the same time view them as the future of European excellence based on human breeding (Zucht) and the extinction of “bad races” (Austerben).

Building on his earlier work, Charles Mills presents a critical theory about white European oblivion of the human worth of nonwhites from Africa, Asia, and the Americas. It is a critical theory because it coherently explains both a history of actions of exploitation and destruction and its accompanying thought, in ways that would have been denied by actors and thinkers at that time. Mills has shown how the treatment of nonwhite Europeans and ideas about them implicitly constituted an agreement for the material benefit and elevated status of white European men. White European men implicitly subscribed to a racial contract among themselves, while explicitly subscribing to a social contract that presumed consent to government by those governed, presumably all humans. In his alternative social contract theory, Mills shows how the official social contract obscured both the domination of poor by rich among whites and the treatment of nonwhites as subhuman by whites.

Mills’s insights, together with the essays here about Locke, Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche, afford us a better understanding of the coexistence of egalitarian humanism with hierarchical racism: egalitarian humanism was only for white male Europeans, so that all others, including white women, in failing to be eligible for such principles, were by implication rendered subhuman. It could be countered, however, that it was not the intention of egalitarian humanists to regard or treat nonwhite men and all women as subhuman, but that they simply did not care sufficiently about all human beings in any universal sense. However, the Enlightenment was not lacking in alternative voices on these issues, as we shall see in Part II regarding ideas about race from people of color, and in Part X about race and gender.

Bernasconi, Robert. (2014). “Silencing the Hottentots: Kolb’s Pre-Racial Encounter with the Hottentots and Its Impact on Buffon, Kant, and Rousseau.” Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 35 (1-2): 100–124.Find this resource:

Eze, Emmanuel Chukwude. (1997a). “The Color of Reason: The Idea of ‘Race’ in Kant’s Antropology.” In Postcolonial African Philosophy: A Critical Reader, edited by Emmanuel Chukwude Eze, 103–140. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.Find this resource:

Eze, Emmanuel Chukwude, ed. (1997b). Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.Find this resource:

Popkin, Richard. (1977). “Hume’s Racism.” Philosophical Forum 9 (2-3): 211–226.Find this resource:

Schaub, Jean-Frédéric, and Silvia Sebastiani. (2014). “Between Genealogy and Physicality: A Historiographical Perspective on Race in the Ancien Regime.” Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 35 (1-2): 23–52.Find this resource:

Zack, Naomi. (1996). Bachelors of Science: Seventeenth Century Identity, Then and Now, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.Find this resource:

Zack, Naomi. (2001). Philosophy of Science and Race. New York: Routledge. (p. 20) Find this resource: