The Enlightenment’s ‘Race’ Problem, and Ours
By JUSTIN E. H. SMITH The Stone February 10, 2013, 7:15 pm
In 1734, Anton Wilhelm Amo, a West African student and former chamber slave of Duke Anton Ulrich of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, defended a philosophy dissertation at the University of Halle in Saxony, written in Latin and entitled “On the Impassivity of the Human Mind.” A dedicatory letter was appended from the rector of the University of Wittenberg, Johannes Gottfried Kraus, who praised “the natural genius” of Africa, its “appreciation for learning,” and its “inestimable contribution to the knowledge of human affairs” and of “divine things.” Kraus placed Amo in a lineage that includes many North African Latin authors of antiquity, such as Terence, Tertullian and St. Augustine.
Why have we chosen to go with Hume and Kant, rather than with the pre-racial conception of humanity?
In the following decade, the Scottish philosopher David Hume would write: “I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was any civilized nation of any other complection than white, nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation.”
Hume had not heard of Amo, that much is clear. But we can also detect a tremendous difference between Hume’s understanding of human capacities and that of Kraus: the author of Amo’s dedicatory letter doesn’t even consider the possibility of anchoring what individual human beings are capable of doing to something as arbitrary as “complection.” For Kraus, Amo represents a continent and its long and distinguished history; he does not represent a “race.”
Another two decades on, Immanuel Kant, considered by many to be the greatest philosopher of the modern period, would manage to let slip what is surely the greatest non-sequitur in the history of philosophy: describing a report of something seemingly intelligent that had once been said by an African, Kant dismisses it on the grounds that “this fellow was quite black from head to toe, a clear proof that what he said was stupid.”
Kraus, the rector of Wittenberg, had been expressing an understanding of the nature of human diversity that was, in 1734, already in decline, soon to be thoroughly drowned out by the fundamentally racist view of human populations as dividing into a fixed set of supposedly natural, species-like kinds. This is the view lazily echoed by Hume, Kant, and so many of their contemporaries.
In his lifetime, Amo was principally known as a legal theorist. His first publication, in 1729, which has since been lost (or, one might suspect, intentionally purged), was a jurisprudential treatise, “On the Right of Moors in Europe.” Here he argues, on the basis of a reading of Roman history and law, that in antiquity “the kings of the Moors were enfeoffed by the Roman Emperor” Justinian, and that “every one of them had to obtain a royal patent from him.” This meant, in Amo’s view, that African kingdoms were all recognized under Roman law, and therefore all Africans in Europe have the status of visiting royal subjects with a legal protection that precludes their enslavement.
Historically, this is highly implausible, since much of the continent of Africa was unknown to Europeans at the time of Justinian. Still, Amo’s understanding is remarkably different from, say, Kant’s account of global history, on which black Africans stood, from the very beginning and as if by definition, beyond the pale of history, and therefore led lives of no intrinsic value, lives that could only be given value through absorption into a global system dominated by Europe.
Scholars have been aware for a long time of the curious paradox of Enlightenment thought, that the supposedly universal aspiration to liberty, equality and fraternity in fact only operated within a very circumscribed universe. Equality was only ever conceived as equality among people presumed in advance to be equal, and if some person or group fell by definition outside of the circle of equality, then it was no failure to live up to this political ideal to treat them as unequal.
It would take explicitly counter-Enlightenment thinkers in the 18th century, such as Johann Gottfried Herder, to formulate anti-racist views of human diversity. In response to Kant and other contemporaries who were positively obsessed with finding a scientific explanation for the causes of black skin, Herder pointed out that there is nothing inherently more in need of explanation here than in the case of white skin: it is an analytic mistake to presume that whiteness amounts to the default setting, so to speak, of the human species.
The category of race continues to be deployed, not just by racists, but by anti-racists as well.
The question for us today is why we have chosen to stick with categories inherited from the 18th century, the century of the so-called Enlightenment, which witnessed the development of the slave trade into the very foundation of the global economy, and at the same time saw racial classifications congeal into pseudo-biological kinds, piggy-backing on the divisions folk science had always made across the natural world of plants and animals. Why, that is, have we chosen to go with Hume and Kant, rather than with the pre-racial conception of humanity espoused by Kraus, or the anti-racial picture that Herder offered in opposition to his contemporaries?
Many who are fully prepared to acknowledge that there are no significant natural differences between races nonetheless argue that there are certain respects in which it is worth retaining the concept of race: for instance in talking about issues like social inequality or access to health care. There is, they argue, a certain pragmatic utility in retaining it, even if they acknowledge that racial categories result from social and historical legacies, rather than being dictated by nature. In this respect “race” has turned out to be a very different sort of social construction than, say, “witch” or “lunatic.” While generally there is a presumption that to catch out some entity or category as socially constructed is at the same time to condemn it, many thinkers are prepared to simultaneously acknowledge both the non-naturalness of race as well as a certain pragmatic utility in retaining it.
Since the mid-20th century no mainstream scientist has considered race a biologically significant category; no scientist believes any longer that “negroid,” “caucasoid” and so on represent real natural kinds or categories.  For several decades it has been well established that there is as much genetic variation between two members of any supposed race, as between two members of supposedly distinct races. This is not to say that there are no real differences, some of which are externally observable, between different human populations. It is only to say, as Lawrence Hirschfeld wrote in his 1996 book, “Race in the Making: Cognition, Culture, and the Child’s Construction of Human Kinds,” that “races as socially defined do not (even loosely) capture interesting clusters of these differences.”
Yet the category of race continues to be deployed in a vast number of contexts, and certainly not just by racists, but by ardent anti-racists as well, and by everyone in between. The history of race, then, is not like the history of, say, witches: a group that is shown not to exist and that accordingly proceeds to go away. Why is this?
Philosophers disagree. Anthony Appiah identifies himself as a racial skeptic to the extent that the biological categories to which racial terms refer have been shown not to exist. Yet at the same time he acknowledges that the adoption of “racial identities” may often be socially expedient, and even unavoidable, for members of perceived racial minorities. Ron Mallon has in turn distinguished between metaphysical views of race on the one hand, which make it out to describe really existent kinds, and normative views on the other, which take race to be useful in some way or other, but not real. Mallon divides the latter into “eliminativist” and “conservationist” camps, supposing, variously, that the concept can only be put to bad uses, and must be got rid of, or that some of its uses are worth holding onto. On his scheme, one may very well coherently remain metaphysically anti-realist about race but still defend the conservation of the concept on normative grounds.
But given that we now know that the identity groups in modern multicultural states are plainly constituted on ethno-linguistic and cultural grounds, rather than on biological-essential grounds, it remains unclear why we should not allow a concept such as “culture” or “ethnie” to do the semantic work for us that until now we have allowed the historically tainted and misleading concept of “race” to do. We have alternative ways of speaking of human diversity available to us, some of which are on vivid display in Amo’s early life and work, and which focus on rather more interesting features of different human groups than their superficial phenotypic traits.
It is American culture that is principally responsible for the perpetuation of the concept of race well after its loss of scientific respectability by the mid-20th century. Even the most well-meaning attempts to grapple with the persistence of inequality between “blacks” and “whites” in American society take it for granted at the outset that racial categories adequately capture the relevant differences under investigation (see, for example: Thomas B. Edsall’s recent column, “The Persistence of Racial Resentment“) . This may have something to do with the fact that the two broad cultural-historical groupings of people in this country, which we call “white” and “black” and which have been constituted through the complicated histories of slavery, immigration, assimilation, and exclusion, tend at their extremes to correlate with noticeably different phenotypic traits.
An African-American is likely to look more different from an American of exclusively European descent than, say, an Orthodox Serb is likely to look from a Bosnian Muslim. This creates the illusion that it is the phenotypic difference that is causing the perception of cultural-historical distinctness, along with the injustice and inequality that has gone along with this distinctness. This also creates the illusion of American uniqueness: that our history of ethnic conflict cannot be understood comparatively or in a global context, because it, unlike conflict between Serbs and Bosnian Muslims or between Tutsi and Hutu, is supposedly based on “race” rather than history, politics, and culture. But where people are living with a different historical legacy, as in much of European history prior to the high modern period hailed in by Hume and Kant, the supposedly manifest phenotypic differences between “blacks” and “whites” can easily recede into the background as irrelevant.
Amo did not meet a happy end in Germany. His original manumission and education appear to have been a strategy on the part of Duke Anton Ulrich to impress Tsar Peter the Great of Russia, who had recently adopted his own chamber slave, Abram Petrovich Gannibal, as his own son. Gannibal would go on to a career as a brilliant engineer, military strategist, and politician; Amo, for his part, would be largely abandoned by his sponsors when the geopolitical winds shifted, and Russia fell off the duke’s list of priorities.
For a while the African philosopher eked out a living as a tutor in Jena and Wittenberg, and in 1747, after being made the butt of a libelous broadside accusing him of falling in love with a woman beyond his station, he returned to West Africa in disgrace. A French seafarer, David-Henri Gallandat, finds him there a few years later, and writes of meeting a man who “was very learned in astrology and astronomy, and was a great philosopher. At that time he was around 50 years old… He had a brother who was a slave in the colony of Suriname.”
The hopefulness of the 1734 dissertation was now long behind him. It is not known when Amo died, or under what circumstances. What we can say for certain is that he would not spend his final years as a successor to Augustine and Terence, but rather in the degraded position where someone like Kant supposed he belonged: outside of history, philosophically disenfranchised and entirely defined by something as trivial as skin color.
As long as we go on speaking as if racial categories captured something real about human diversity, we are allowing the 18th-century legacy of Kant and Hume, which was never really anything more than an ad hoc rationalization of slavery, to define our terms for us. We are turning our back on the legacy of Anton Wilhelm Amo, and of his European contemporaries who were prepared to judge him on his merits.
 This is not to deny that there are limited contexts in which self-reporting of “racial” identity may be informative in a local or regional context. It is indeed helpful for a doctor to know, within the context of the American health-care system, the “race” of a patient. What it does mean to say that race is no longer a legitimate scientific category is that this limited, contextual helpfulness tells us nothing about a natural kind or real subdivision of the human species. The category of “race” can be useful in a local, medical context to the extent that it often correlates with other, useful information about tendencies within a given population. But this population need not be conceptualized in terms of race. Race is a dummy variable here, but not of interest as such.
Justin E. H. Smith teaches philosophy at Concordia University in Montreal. His most recent book is “Divine Machines: Leibniz and the Sciences of Life.” He is a contributing editor of Cabinet Magazine, and writes regularly on his blog
J T Vermont
How different is racial identity from tribal identity, or religious identity? It is us versus them. That has caused conflict forever.
I have now read all the comments.
I say: Readers, please cite the work of a serious scholar.
Re-read parts of Smith’s essay dealing with the present. Here a key sentence, important for me, writing as an American living in Sweden where I professionally have daily contact with medical researchers in many fields.
Smith: “It is American culture that is principally responsible for the perpetuation of the concept of race well after its loss of scientific respectability by the mid-20th century.”
Why is this a key sentence? The answer is that “race” is not taught in Sweden and no Swedish researcher whom I have asked could imagine assigning research subjects to “races”. So, as Professor Smith asks: “Why in America?”
Learning about the absence of race (not the absence of racism) in Swedish research led me to an important discovery, work on this subject by a serious American scholar.
Meet Prof. Adolph Reed, Jr., (Pol. Sci. University of Pennsylvania)
“Making Sense of Race, I: The Ideology of Race, the Biology of Human Variation, and the Problem of Medical and Public Health Research.”
The opening sentence, describes many comment writers, including the most prolific, Steven Sailer.
“Most Americans operate with an intuitive sense that they know what race is and how to assign people to racial groups. However, on initial probing that confidence evaporates. They can not say what exactly race is or what it means.”
Read and reflect!
Ceilidth Boulder, CO
Race as a social construct carries a lot of meaning in the United States. Only those who are willfully ignorant haven’t noticed that. You only have to look at the level of anger and derangement that accompanied Obama’s election. Race as a biological construct doesn’t exist simply because human populations vary in many ways both within and between different groups and race is based almost entirely on one factor–skin color. Obama is exhibit A for this: he has relatively dark skin and therefore is perceived in the US as black, no matter that from a biological perspective his African ancestry and European ancestry are the same. And the Census is coming to terms with the way people now identify themselves rather than just setting out categories that people have to fit themselves into.
Response to Ceilidth: Obama identifies himself as “black”
[And why might he do that? RL]
Greg Cambridge, MA
This is a perfect example of the kind of poor scholarship that gets published in some fields of academia. Hume and Kant held racist views of Africans, but there were two particular Africans in the early 18th century who were treated well by two particular European rulers. Ipso facto, the Enlightenment invented racism. This is a massive perversion of history, achieved, in typical post-modern style, by cherry-picking examples. The glaring omission here is the role of the Enlightenment in criticizing slavery, and its impact on subsequent political movements. The revolutionary government in France, deeply influenced by the Enlightenment, abolished slavery, and although the American Revolution failed to end slavery, the Declaration of Independence was widely viewed to be in conflict with the institution of human property. Similarly, though the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen did not abolish slavery (that occurred five years later, in 1794), it served as an inspiration for the Haitian revolution, which developed out of a slave revolt. This article comes out as nothing but an ugly hatchet job on the Enlightenment. The uninformed reader will finish this article with a completely inverted view of Enlightenment philosophy, and this is most likely the intention of the author
JA Bronx, NY
Race was defined centuries ago at a time when modern science did not yet exist, and used for expressing the beliefs of people of that era. Today, people from humanities backgrounds still use the term race in this outdated historical sense with which they are familiar, and therefore insist that race does not exist. Scientists familiar with modern population genetics use the term in an entirely different way, to describe far less drastic differences which evolved to adapt populations to their environment, and which continue to evolve. Yes, race exists, but many scientists find it easier to use the four-syllable term “population” than to risk the wrath of ideologues from humanities backgrounds who seem to fear that centuries-old concepts would actually gain scientific credibility if the term “race” were accepted. These humanities people would be less fearful if they familiarized themselves with modern genetics.
Larry Lundgren Sweden
The Nicholas Wade construction of an East Asian Race. Steve Sailer (perhaps others) cite Nicholas Wade’s article on recent studies of the EDAR gene as definitive proof of the existence of races. Wade’s opening sentence “Gaining a deep insight into human EVOLUTION, researchers …identified…mutation in a gene (EDAR gene my note) as the source of several distinctive traits that make EAST ASIANS DIFFERENT FROM OTHER RACES. Thus I infer that in Wade’s view the “East Asian people” constitute a GENETICALLY “race” distinguishable from all other races on the basis of the mutation in EDAR. Wade’s phrase seems be a case of “Fatal Invention”. (Only 837 characters so just 3 questions): 1) How are East Asians identified? 2) Do all people so identified carry the mutated form of EDAR that Wade says distinguishes the race? 3) If this kind of excellent and fascinating research on evolution identifes once such mutation after another, how many genetically distinct “races” will we end up with? These questions can only be answered by qualified researchers in the field. Only their answers will be taken seriously by me. I would of course like to read NW’s answer. I await a Room for Debate forum where my questions are discussed by qualified scientists.
Ian Maitland Minneapolis
Larry, I won’t shed any tears if you refuse to take my response seriously, but permit me to take a crack. Let’s say that there is a cluster of people, largely inhabiting East Asia, who are genetically more similar to each other than to people in other clusters (who largely reside in elsewhere in the world). AKA, they have more genes in common. Let us also say that geneticists have discovered a mutation in a gene (EDAR) that is very common in this cluster but very rare among members of other clusters. Let us also say that some geneticists use the shorthand “race” to describe these clusters. Do you have a problem with this? Shouldn’t we just move on?
john riehle los angeles, ca
I guess I should have made it more explicit in my first post that institutional white supremacy remains equally functional, and therefore popular, not only for capitalists but obviously for many workers that can avail themselves of “whiteness”. The only thing that has changed since the 19th and early 20th centuries is that open and official racism is no longer socially acceptable, and so contemporary working class racism is more commonly unconscious and mediated through politically coded concepts that substitute for more explicit expressions of racial bigotry – chiefly concepts about “culture” and “values”. Privileges derived from generations of white skin are de-historicized and situated in a vaguely essentialist “present” defined by my hard work and self-discipline, derived from a “work ethic” inherited from my parents and their parents, etc., and supposedly lacking in the peculiar and disturbingly Un-American culture of Those People. Perhaps “cultural re-education” can cure the problem They have, but in the meantime the bulwark of “equality before the law” must be deployed to combat any attempts to assign even the smallest compensation to Them in the increasingly bitter competition for jobs and educational benefits necessitated by the austerity and neo-liberal economic policies being imposed by the capitalist class and it’s political representatives
In history, we call RC from Pompano FL’s interpretation Whig History – that is, that since the West apparently ‘won’, it means they are better people Any intelligent response would in fact have to be counterfactual, since we don’t know what would have occurred if the Europeans had not exploited, extracted, murdered, imprisoned and ‘borrowed’ technological advances. Rather than mock political correctness, RC would be better served to put his politics aside and consider say the role gun technology and the control of that technology has meant for Western dominance. His timeline is also somewhat very shortsighted. Non Western civilizations dominated the world for millennia before the mere 2000 year reign of Western supremacy. Where were all of these super-sized geniuses before then? Or does he claim that civilization occurred only when the Caucasoids emerged and formed a coalition – not based on genetic insight but more likely on kinship. All we can say with any certainty is that the spoils go to the victor and it is the victor who writes history. The notion that intelligence, productivity, ingenuity is solely a European trait is tested by taking a longer view of the past and that of our possible future and some level of intellectual curiosity beyond what is most comfortable and comforting. Surprised that the NYT selected his comment as a NYT pick. If it’s repeated enough times however, I guess it eventually becomes truth? How’s that been working?
Steve Sailer America
Does race exist? From the New York Times Science Section, February 14, 2013 ”A Genetic Glimpse Into Recent Human Evolution ”By NICHOLAS WADE ”Gaining a deep insight into human evolution, researchers have identified a mutation in a critical human gene as the source of several distinctive traits that make East Asians different from other races.” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/15/science/studying-recent-human-evolutio… People who opinionate for the New York Times on human genetics should first read what people who report for the New York Times on human genetics have amply documented over the last dozen years.
Larry Lundgren Sweden
You are quoting Nicholas Wade who apparently has now named a new race, the East Asian race. You perhaps should be a little more careful. The researchers were studying evolution. I do not have access to the full article so I do not know if they discussed race in the article. The fact that Nicholas Wade writes – changing his word order – East Asians have several distinctive traits that make East Asians different from other races is in no way support for a belief in genetically distinct races. Nicholas Wade is no more an expert on genetics than you or I are. He is a journalist who in this case appears to believe he is justified in naming a new race. If you have access to the original article and can find a passage in the manuscript that states that “our new findings demonstrate the existence of a new East Asian race, distinct from races x, y, and z” then please enter it as a Times comment if comments have not been closed. Otherwise do me the favor by sending me the file.
Larry Lundgren Sweden
There are some significant misunderstandings in the comments by Steve Sailer and the many others who want to believe in “race”. One of them is the belief expressed by many that people who do not find race a useful concept do not believe in human difference. I have read this in many comments but of course this is simply not so. As I have noted before, I work at the Red Cross in Linköping, Sweden, and when I am there I am often sitting at a round table where people from what you all would call the “standard 4 or 5 races” are sitting. I just have to tell you that these people do not want to be identified in terms of something called race. They might say, I am a Kurd, I am a Somali, I am a Somali Bantu or they might even say, I am Swedish. But race, no. Each of them is genetically unique as the kind of analysis cited in the Wade article could show. Maybe one of them has a gene that makes them more susceptible to some medical problem. That hardly assigns them to a race. So perhaps Steve Sailer and his supporters could write a comment in which each of you give our exact definition of race.
AndrewBucks County, PA
First, a quote from Richard Dawkins:
“It is genuinely true that, if you measure the total variation in the human species and then partition it into a between-race component and a within-race component, the between-race component is a very small fraction of the total. Most of the variation among humans can be found within races as well as between them. Only a small admixture of extra variation distinguishes races from each other. That is all correct. What is not correct is the inference that race is therefore a meaningless concept. This point has been clearly made by the distinguished Cambridge geneticist A.W.F. Edwards in a recent paper “Human genetic diversity: Lewontin’s fallacy.” R.C. Lewontin is an equally distinguished Cambridge (Mass.) geneticist, known for the strength of his political convictions and his weakness for dragging them into science at every possibile opportunity. Lewontin’s view of race has become near-universal orthodoxy in scientific circles.
We can all happily agree that human racial classification is of no social value and is positively destructive of social and human relations. This is Edwards’s point, and he reasons as follows: However small the racial partition of total variation may be, if such racial characteristics as there are highly correlated with other racial characteristics, they are by definition informative, and therefore of taxonomic significance.”