by Bharath Vallabha
Nowadays when racism is reflexively brought up as an explanation for social phenomena, I cringe. The person who raises it usually does so excitedly, as if they have penetrated to the heart of the issue. But most of the time I find they are confusing passion for clarity and skipping over all the interesting questions.
Fixating on racism as a master explanation is like focusing on the brain or evolution as the explanation of every dimension of human life. What is the origin of love? The love module in the brain. Belief in God? The god gene. The phenomenon are shoe-horned into the form of explanation one feels must be the only explanation. The trouble is, it doesn’t explain much.
Here is an example I have struggled with for a long time. Kant is one of my favorite philosophers. Anyone who wants to understand what it means to be human in light of modern science – how to reconcile, in Wilfred Sellars’ terms, the “manifest” and the “scientific” images – has to engage with Kant. He made some of the central philosophical moves, which we are still working through.
He also had some clearly false views about the philosophical capacity of non-Europeans. As Bryan Van Norden notes in an Aeon article, Kant “treated race as a scientific category (which it is not), correlated it with the ability for abstract thought, and…arranged them in hierarchical order.” Kant wrote: “the race of the whites contains all talents and motives in itself… the Hindus are educable in the highest degree, but only in the arts and not the sciences. They will never achieve abstract concepts…the race of Negroes…can be educated, but only to the education of servants…the [indigenous] American people are uneducable.” 
How do we reconcile Kant’s genius in philosophy with how deeply wrong he was about other races?
Racism seems an obvious starting point. But what does it explain? Kant’s quotes clearly endorse racism, the idea that Europeans are better than other races. So pointing to racism doesn’t provide any deeper explanation. It just restates the facts, like saying salt dissolves in water because it is soluble. And saying it while protesting – or filled with moral indignation – doesn’t make it anymore explanatory.
Saying Kant’s racism was a feature of his society doesn’t explain much more. The puzzle remains. After all, he didn’t slavishly follow his society’s views about modern science or politics. He was a trail blazer on those issues. So why wasn’t he a trail blazer regarding racism?
Actually, in an important way, he was. That’s the key to solving the puzzle. Kant wasn’t mindlessly following centuries of racist prejudice. In endorsing a racial hierarchy, in which only Europeans are capable of philosophy and science, he actually was doing something new.
Van Norden himself makes this point. But he misses its significance, when he uncritically accepts Kant’s racism as the final explanation.
Following Peter K Park’s book Africa, Asia and the History of Philosophy, Van Norden notes that it was common in 18th century Europe to think philosophy began in Asia or Africa. The idea that philosophy is unique to Europeans was not commonplace 300 years ago. After all, in the Middle Ages European philosophy was mainly Christian, and Christianity arose out of Judaism. And as is well known, the European rediscovery of classical philosophy was enabled by Islamic philosophy. When medieval Europeans looked eastward, they wouldn’t have found obviously inferior races, but rather the vast Islamic and Chinese empires.
So what happened? Why did Kant ignore this evidence of non-European philosophy and endorse his racialized philosophical hierarchy?
Again, the temptation of the racism explanation rears its head. It says: “It’s because of colonialism. Modern Europeans needed a way to justify their taking over the world, and that meant dehumanizing others. Rendering them less than rational. Kant’s history of philosophy was only a justification for the colonial takeover of other lands.”
Of course, there is something to this. It probably didn’t hurt that Kant’s racial hierarchy could so easily fit with a colonizing mindset. But this doesn’t explain Kant’s philosophical motivations for embracing the racial hierarchy. Kant didn’t believe it just so Europeans could take over the world. To accept that would be to have a low opinion of Kant not just as a person but as a thinker; as if Kant’s thinking was simply a façade for the deeper instincts of power.
Once we take this reductive approach, we are left only with subliminal drives to power on everyone’s part, and the ideal of rational discourse disappears. This was part of Kant’s deep insight in his theoretical and moral work: the normative stance we take can’t be reduced to a descriptive stance. No matter how much we better understand the descriptive realm of our instincts, we, as rational and discursive beings, are still faced with the task of thinking as free beings. Seeing Kant as only buffeted about by his instincts for racial power is to mis-characterize Kant’s rationality, as well as our own rationality in engaging with him.
When we resist the reductive explanation that it’s all about power, a much more interesting explanation comes to light.
The modern Europeans’ ability to go to all corners of the globe brought about a gestalt shift. Until that point, even the biggest empires of the past hadn’t taken a perspective on the world as a whole. Enabled by colonialism, European philosophers in the 18th century were faced with a new task: to come up with a framework for a unified history of thought that included peoples from all the continents.
Consider any great philosopher from anywhere in the world prior to the modern period. Be they Chinese, Egyptian or Roman, for them parts of the globe were simply shrouded in darkness, as if they did not exist. As great philosophers they were usually part of great empires, which meant they knew their share of diverse traditions. But still they didn’t think about humanity as a whole. The perspective of the world as the planet, which is so obvious to us now, only first arose during the Western Enlightenment.
My 25 year old self burned with indignation and disappointment at how Kant could be so callous in his dismissal of non-European philosophies. But I would now say to my former self: “Don’t be too harsh on Kant and his contemporaries. They were very wrong about the global history of philosophy, but they were also the very first to take baby steps in that directions. They were the first truly global philosophers. None of the great philosophers before then confronted such a task. If history had been different and global colonialism had started in China, India or the Middle East, then Mencius, Shankara or Avicenna might have made similar errors.”
Dismissing the very idea of non-European philosophy was a way for philosophers like Hume, Kant and Hegel to wrap their mind around the idea of a truly global philosophy; to make it more manageable. When Kant writes, “Philosophy is not to be found in the whole Orient…Their teacher Confucius teaches…nothing outside a moral doctrine designed for princes,” he was in effect saying that European philosophy is already global philosophy. That whatever he needs to know to develop a comprehensive history of philosophy is available to him from his own contingent tradition.
Calling this “racism” obscures the deeper issue, which is a kind of intellectual juvenility. It is how the world looks to a young child: that his home is the world. The child, entirely dependent on his parents, has a hard time conceiving that his parents are not at the cutting edge of the world. It is only through the struggles of becoming an adult that he embraces the limitations of his upbringing and faces the challenges of developing a broader perspective.
In the famous beginning to his “What is Enlightenment?” Kant wrote:
Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another.
Kant affirmed the racialized philosophical hierarchy because on the topic of global philosophy he hadn’t “emerged from his self-imposed immaturity.” He assumed that the history of philosophy he knew was sufficient. When confronted with reports of intellectual traditions from distant continents, Kant imposed onto the data the framework he uncritically believed.
This is entirely compatible with Kant being a philosophical genius. When it comes to the topics of nature and normativity, science and humanity, many of us are still adolescents growing into the paths of maturity explored by Kant. Like a father who is bold and brave on some things, but weak on other things, Kant was a giant of theoretical and moral philosophy, even as he was still a child when it came to global philosophy.
The choice isn’t whether to embrace Kant due to his genius or to ditch him due to his juvenile views on global philosophy. Maturity requires us to learn from Kant where he is ahead of us and to move beyond him where he is behind us.
Seeing Kant’s history of philosophy only through the prism of racism fosters the illusion that protesting the racism is sufficient. As if removing all vestiges of racism within ourselves will make the proper framework for global philosophy obvious. This is just not true. Any more than loving everyone will solve global warming, or finding a cure for cancer means just giving cancer patients more love. At root developing a framework for global philosophy is a deep, challenging intellectual issue, which requires ingenuity to think through the difficult problems.
To move beyond Kant on global philosophy, we can’t get stuck moralizing about racism. That’s the easy part. The harder part is learning about different traditions and confronting the hard challenges of bringing them into dialogue with each other.
85 responses to “Kant, Racism and Global Philosophy”
I don’t know when translations of Eastern philosophy first became available in Europe. Maybe they were not accessible to Kant.
Schopenhauer, who was born 60 years after Kant, read them and was very enthusiastic about Indian philosophy.
Does any reader know when Indian and Chinese texts were first translated into German?
Actually, I should also ask when Indian and Chinese texts were first translated into Latin, since both Kant and Schopenhauer read Latin.
I am not an expert on this history, so I welcome anyone else who knows in detail. In his Aeon article, Van Norden says the first translation of Confucius into Latin was in 1687 by the Jesuits. He says Leibniz and Christian Wolff engaged with Chinese philosophy with admiration. In his book, Peter K Park argues some of Kant’s contemporaries like Friedrich Schlegel were pursuing a more comparative approach to global philosophy, which took non-European traditions seriously. It was a historical contingency that the Kant/Hegel approach of a racialized philosophical hierarchy won out in 19th century German phil departments and from there influenced other countries through the spread of German Idealism.
I tried Wikipedia, and the Upanishads were first translated into Latin in 1801-1802. Schopenhauer and Schelling read them and were influenced. Emerson and Thoreau in the United States also read them (Wikipedia doesn’t say in which language) and learned from them. So Kant, who died in 1804, probably never had access to them.
Anyway, by the early 19th century several prominent Western thinkers had recognized the importance and relevance of Indian philosophy.
If Kant had read the Upanishads, would he have thought it was philosophy? We can’t be sure, but I doubt it. And not just because he had racist views. I think the more interesting issues are: Are the Upanishads and the First Critique addressing the same kinds of questions and with comparable methods? If not, is the First Critique type of philosophy an advance over the type of philosophy that is the Upanishads, or did the First Critique lose the kind of power the Upanishads had? Kant clearly believed the former, and he would have seen the Upanishads as best a kind of proto-philosophy. This is a legitimate view, and nothing racist about it. I am tempted to it myself sometimes, though ultimately I don’t believe it.
Schopenhauer, Emerson, Thoreau appreciated the Upanishads in part because they didn’t think something like the First Critique was the best form for philosophy. They had a much more ordinary sense of philosophy as something that speaks to everyday concerns, and helps ease suffering. Kant’s systems were more concerned with the foundations of modernity, which have deep implications for everyday life, but which aren’t the concern of most everyday people.I think this debate about what form philosophy can/must take is at the heart of Kant’s objections to saying non-Western traditions have philosophy. Those who disagree with Kant need to engage with this issue.
Btw, one thing Kant could not have known is that actually a lot of Indian philosophy looks less like the Upanishads and more like Aristotle, Hume and Kant. I am not sure if even Emerson or Thoueau knew about the more scholastic dimensions of Indian philosophy, and if they knew, not sure they would have cared much for it. This brings out that the issue might be not European vs Indian, as much as which modes of philosophy one finds inspiring and wants to practice.
Part of the issue is going to be how philosophy is defined, and doing so in such a way that texts like the Upanishads fall on the side of religious texts rather than philosophy is not automatically racist or Eurocentric. There are many ethical treatises, for example, in the Western tradition that are nonetheless not philosophy, in part because they are dogmatic rather than argumentative in nature.
I wouldn’t consider the Upanishads philosophy. But then, I wouldn’t consider the Ethics of the Fathers from the Talmud philosophy, either. Or Ecclesiastes or Job, despite the fact that all of these texts can give *rise* to fascinating philosophical discussion.
I thought Kant was called the Chinaman of Konigsberg! More seriously, he did not transcend the societal ideas about women either, without the excuse of not having exposure to them.
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy considers the Upanishads to be philosophy and dedicates an article to it.
Agree there is nothing racist about saying the Upanishads are religion rather than philosophy. That’s an open debate.
I have wavered on this, but I now think the Upanishads are philosophy. Just like Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, or Thomas Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, or Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. These are not ethical texts in the sense of prescribing rules of conduct. Nor clearly are they like the First Critique or Quine or even most of Foucault.
There is philosophy as philosophical discussion, but there is also aiming to live wisely, which is to be continually in a reflective state – not on this or that topic, but with regard to one’s own emotions and instincts, and life in general. Kant is perhaps one good breaking point where in Western modernity these two senses of philosophy came apart. I think putting them back together is an important goal of philosophy, which thinkers like Wittgenstein and Heidegger were trying to do in their own ways (with varying degrees of success).
I wish people who want to protest Western philosophy or the curriculum would use their energies to address these kinds of questions instead. There would be a lot more progress that way.
Good for them! If they don’t also include Ecclesiastes and Proverbs, then i would say theres a bit of multicultural pandering going on there, which would not be at all surprising.
Would you consider the Biblical and rabbinical texts I mentioned philosophy?
I don’t know if you took a look at the article I linked to, but there is a section in it about the Upanishads as Philosophy, where they make the case far better than I could that it or at least sections of it should be considered as philosophy.
Job might be philosophy, because as I recall, there is a debate with arguments there between different points of view. Sections of Ecclesiastes could be considered philosophy as just as Marcus Aurelius would be considered philosophy.
I agree it’s borderline. But more importantly, i dont think the question is very important. They are certainly philosophical — as are the other texts i mentioned — which is far more important than a question of genre.
I haven’t read the Ethics of the Fathers. I certainly consider Ecclesiastes and Job, and the Old Testament in general philosophy, in the broader sense in which I consider the Upanishads and Marcus Aurelius and the Tao Te Ching philosophy. Doesn’t mean I don’t skip over Leviticus or Numbers, just as I skip over the more boring parts of the Upanishads or Kant for that matter.
I think they are philosophical literature, like A Clockwork Orange or The Trial. They are not philosophy.
As you say in a comment above: “i dont think the question is very important. They are certainly philosophical…which is far more important than a question of genre.”
That said, it’s interesting what justifies the distinction between “philosophy” and “philosophical literature”. If it is because of habits formed from how academic disciplines were set up in the last 200 years, that doesn’t move me much. Also doubt the distinction is somehow written into nature.
Philosophy, the genre, is argumentative in method.
I believe (correct me if I’m wrong) previously that you consider Montaigne to be philosophy. What’s the difference between Montaigne and Ecclesiastes?
In both cases you have a wise person reflecting on the world, on how life is, on how people are, without referring to divine authority or to tradition.
I am happy to go along with that stipulation. Doesn’t matter any which way to me. But worth noting that ordinarily for many people “philosophy” is used in two ways: as argumentation, and also as the cultivation of wisdom. Would be a pity to lose out on the latter meaning, especially when – I would argue – we need more of that kind of reflection to guide argumentation.
Strictly speaking, Montaigne was a philosophical essayist.
Wisdom is too broad a category. Plenty of literature and other literary genres advance the cause of wisdom.
I’m reading Stanley Cavell’s ‘In Quest of the Ordinary’ which takes Kant as a starting point for examining the idea that the Romanticism of folks like Emerson and Thoreau are worth taking as philosophical responses. Cavell wants us to see as philosophy not just what we commonly take to be philosophical texts but what normally counts as literature. He wonders whether there is an important sense that what we accept as philosophy proper needs to be looked at as a form of literature, even. Could that insight be part of an antidote to what you described as our ‘lack of holism’ in your post in December on ‘The Imperative to Leave Academia’?
In that other context you wrote, “professionalization on its own, without holistic thinking, can’t determine how competing forms of expertise should be reconciled. The result is instead of debating ideas, a lot of effort goes into positioning oneself as the right kind of expert and the other as the wrong kind of expert.” The holism you were exploring there seems a counterpart to the globalism you are exploring here. And if we need to look further afield than our own culture to see what philosophy might be, perhaps we can also look closer at home to where philosophy lives in the daily lives of more than just academics.
I love both these posts of yours! Keep up the great work, and thanks for sharing with us!
Lets move beyond the word “philosophy”. I think it’s a mistake to club the Bible or the Upanishads in the same category as A Clockwork Orange or the Trial or War and Peace. The Bible, the Upanishads, Imitation of Chirst are related to wisdom in a way that modern literary texts are not. Doesn’t mean the Trial doesn’t foster wisdom or isn’t great. Just means it’s important to have wisdom texts as a distinct category aside from, as you are using the terms, “philosophy” and “philosophical literature”.
If I thought religious texts were anything more than mythology, I’d agree with you. However, I do not. They are somewhere in the area of philosophical literary works.
Got it. Right, I think religious texts are much more than mythological texts.
Well, every religious person thinks other peoples’ religious texts are mythology. I just think one more is than you do.
Actually, I think no religious texts are only mythologies. But that’s another topic! 🙂
?? You think the Kalevala isn’t mythology?
Carter, Thanks. I love Cavell’s writings. One of the nice things, personally, for me to turning the corner on this racism issue and letting go of pain I had around that is that now I can reclaim all the philosophers who influenced me so much, and I can identify with them whole heartedly. People like Putnam, Korsgaard, McDowell, Rorty, etc. And Cavell is right up there.
Both your points are right on. Yes, two things need to happen at once: we need to go beyond our local boundaries to see philosophy from a global perspective, and also, we need to see our local philosophical traditions (whichever we are already comfortable with) in a more holistic fashion and explore the diversity already within it. This is one big challenge of global philosophy: how to do both of these at once in a managable way, without getting overwhelmed epistemically and also institutionally with all the things it opens up. It’s like opening up a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle when one is used to only 50 piece puzzles. But over time we will find our way in the new, expanded horizons, global and local.
I think the Kalevala isn’t only mythology, if by that one means that it is false. Religious texts are, on my view, tools for transformation of consciousness. The Truths they speak of are truths of psychic transformation – an alteration in how we see and are attuned to the world. I don’t use the tool that is the Kalevala, but I respect those who don’t. Some tools which people used in the distant past, no one might use any longer, and those are dead texts or traditions. But anyone can revive any such texts and rehabilitate that tool, and I respect that. Even if, I don’t use that tool myself.
This is the difference between wisdom texts like the Bible and literary texts like the Trial. Literary texts function within the parameters of our ordinary modes of discourse, even if they are fantastical. But wisdom texts transform the ordinary in a more deeper way. Again, this is not an issue of the text itself. It’s a matter of what people do with it. Someone can take The Trial and use it like the Bible – that would be a genuinely creative act, of a different kind that Kafka’s own creativity in writing it.
Sorry for typos in last message. Should be “I don’t use the tool that is the Kalevala, but I respect those who do.”
Ok, fair enough. I wouldnt slice things this way, but I see no harm in it.
I’m glad the issue of differences in ways of seeing philosophy has been explicitly addressed here.
Your view incorporates what looks to me like a kind of spiritual commitment or orientation. An implication seems to be that, if you lack this kind of commitment or orientation, you are excluded from philosophy as you see it. I, for example, would probably be excluded.
Now, in a sense, this doesn’t worry me because we could see our discussions in terms of the history of ideas or politics, say, rather than philosophy. And there is a lot we agree on.
On one level, this is a simple semantic question. The word ‘philosophy’ is used in different ways. Problems arise in an institutional context however.
Take Bertrand Russell. He was a pioneer of modern logic who (like many others of his time) stood for a more scientifically-oriented philosophy than you would be happy with. But in his History of Western Philosophy he discusses medieval Christian thinkers, for example. He could hardly ignore them. Western philosophy grew out of medieval thought. But his attitude to these thinkers was, I think, subtly different from your general attitude to religious thinkers of the past. (He sees these thinkers in largely historical terms.)
One last point. Russell wrote explicitly about Western philosophy. The very phrase implies the existence of other philosophical traditions and so a broad view of the concept of philosophy, not only in terms of what philosophy was in the West but also in terms of what it was or might be in the context of other cultural traditions.
I am happy with this broad view. What we have is a kind of panorama (your giant jigsaw). This is fine.
Problems arise however when you try to give some kind of coherence to this set of possibilities, as you need to, in fact, if you want to see it as a meaningful whole or to institutionalize it in some way. Whichever way you cut it, you are going to exclude some of the possibilities.
[…] At The Electric Agora. […]
Agree with much of what you say. One clarification: philosophy for me does have a spiritual component, but I am not excluding any form of philosophy. There is no sense in which you would be excluded if you don’t think of philosophy as I do. I am for letting all different modes of philosophy being acknowledged, than saying it is “in essence” just this or that. I don’t believe philosophy has an essence in that sense.
Yes, Russell’s philosophy is more scientifically-oriented than I prefer. But I certainly don’t think Russell is any less a philosopher than Wittgenstein or Levinas or Aquinas. For me the significant contrast isn’t between religious vs atheist, but wisdom-infused philosophy vs non-wisdom-infused philosophy. Many atheist thinkers are much wiser than theistic thinkers. I find reading Nietzsche, Russell or Sam Harris much more interesting, and infused with wisdom, than many theistic or spiritual authors who are boring and pedantic.
This is the giant jigsaw puzzle issue. The deep challenge of global philosophy isn’t racism but the fact that philosophical traditions are not monolithic. They contain vast diversity within themselves (including the European philosophical tradition). So it’s not like “Ok, we have the European tradition because we teach Plato and Descartes, and now we just need to add some Confucius, etc.” Once we look at the Indian or Chinese traditions, what jumps out is just the variety of ways they did philosophy. Just like if we looked at the Western tradition and saw Plato, Boethius, Ockham, Kierkegaard and Quine.
The challenge isn’t which lines to draw for who to let in to philosophy and who to leave out. It’s how to deal with the fact that there are no lines really, or at most the lines are blurry and fluid. Like most words, “philosophy” is a family resemblance term, and usually cultural history and practice guides us in how to use the term without making it too chaotic. But when we are faced, as with global philosophy, creating new cultural practices at a very big scale, dealing with the sense of open endedness – the sense of chaos – is the challenge.
HI Bharat. Consider the following argument.
“Soccer is the greatest game ever invented, and it was invented by Europeans and first played by Europeans. Therefore, it will never be played well by non-Europeans.”
I’m not sure what Kant was thinking, but it does look something like this, with “science, etc” substituted for “soccer”. I’m not sure if this argument form should be called “racist”, but it is a truly terrible piece of reasoning.
Given that Kant was not a terrible reasoner, this strikes me as a poor analysis.
The argument becomes more reasonable if the conclusion is slightly altered: “…Therefore, it will never be played AS well by non-Europeans”. This is still racist and still false, but it is more understandable; for if soccer is the best sport, and Europeans were the first to develop it, one might think they will always be best at it.
The argument is wrong along several dimensions. Europeans weren’t the first to invent science or philosophy as such. Even supposing science means modern science, and philosophy means Kantian critical philosophy, it doesn’t follow that non-Europeans can’t do it as well, or better, than Europeans. After all, in the middle ages it was the Chinese who first had big ships and gun powder, but by 1800 it was the Europeans who assimilated those technologies to attack China. Or in reverse, how now the Chinese are taking computer and scientific technology developed in Europe and America, and using it to change the balances of power.
Still, I wouldn’t dismiss Kant’s thinking as dumb. Very understandably, Kant thought something world historical happened with the protestant reformation and the scientific revolution, which resulted in self-critical philosophy for the first time. The reformation separated religion from dogma, and the scientific revolution separated empirical truths from metaphysics, and both implied a new philosophy which was neither dogmatic nor metaphysical. Whatever criticisms Kant would have had of the Upanishads, he had similar criticisms of Catholic philosophy or Jewish philosophy.
I think Kant was right that with him (and Western Enlightenment in general) philosophy enters a new critical phase. The problem with Kant’s dismissal of non-European philosophical traditions is it is really pre-critical: dogmatic and metaphysical akin to what he thought was problematic with the ontological argument, modern skepticism, etc. Kant is just such an interesting thinker that the more open we are to interesting interpretations of his errors, the more progress we will make.
You seem to think the soccer argument is “understandable” — whereas I think it is an obvious non-sequitur. To put it in general form, the fact that Culture A invented and first engaged in Practice P tells us nothing about whether Culture B will or will not be good at that practice. The only thing it tells us is merely that Culture B did not invent and first engage in that practice.
Or, possibly, Kant was sometimes (rarely, almost never) a terrible reasoner?
Good reasoning alandtapper1950.
No body is perfect and Kant was also not perfect. But still I think that he was the greatest and the most meaningful thinker of modern times.
I agree it is an obvious non-sequitur. What I find understandable is that Kant in the 18th century didn’t realize that.
My worry about your comment is I am not sure what kind of engine for change now it provides. If Kant only made an obvious error, where do we go from there? There are now still many, many people – much less smart than Kant – who still fall for the non-sequitur Kant fell for. If Kant made a silly error, then the only attitude we can take to those making the mistake now is one of condescension and annoyance. I just don’t believe that is productive.
I prefer reading Kant as charitably as I can and cultivate a thoughtful debate I can have with him re global philosophy. Then I can use that as traction to productively engage with people now who still think the way Kant thought then. This is one thing which makes great philosophers great – their works are malleable so that they can enable ever new conversations. Kant was an obvious racist, but that doesn’t mean on the topic of global philosophy, he was no different from an ordinary racist. Thinkers like Kant and Hegel provide an opening into the deeper levels of our collective unconscious on these topics, and it’s a pity to not make use of that.
You say in your original post that so-called scientific racism is a product of the late 18th century. It certainly becomes worse in the 19th century.
I’m not aware of any major 19th century figure who was not a racist in today’s terms. Schopenhauer had fewer prejudices about Indian philosophy than Kant, but he makes anti-semitic remarks from time to time and I doubt that he saw Africans as his equals. Nietzsche, although he declares himself to be an “anti-anti-semite”, says a lot of things that seem anti-semitic to today’s reader. In fact, many of the great 19th novelists are explicitly anti-semitic: among them, Dickens and Dostoyevsky. Major figures on the 19th century left such as Mill and Marx justified British imperialism in India because they saw the colonized Indians as being “backward” and “inferior”. Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, which is supposedly a denunciation of Belgian imperialism in the Congo, seems racist about Africans to many contemporary readers.
It seems that almost no one in Europe escaped the illusion of the superiority of the White Man (a category which excluded Jews then). We’re all products of our time and it would be ridiculous to throw out Kant and Nietzsche because they don’t conform to the standards of contemporary political correctness, which in 50 years will undoubtedly be seen as impossibly politically incorrect and reactionary.
And this isn’t a purely Western phenomenon. The Japanese are notoriously racist. As are the Chinese. It is a human, not a Western trait.
I agree completely. Every society has its own forms of racism and bigotry. If a modern global awareness associated with colonialism, capitalism, modern science, etc. had started in any other part of the world, we would now be talking about the false assumptions of Chinese or Indian or Mexican superiority, and so on.
In fact, if, as some predict, economic power shifts more to asia in this century, we can fully expect even in the 21st century dealing with many assumptions of Chinese, Japanese, Indian superiority, etc. and all sorts of nonsense about how the spirituality of the east is helping it move beyond the materialism of the west. I don’t believe the west is any less spiritual or the east any less materialistic, but the grip of these kinds of ideas and essentializing cultures is just too instinctive to people. As is also obvious in essentializing such as how the west is racist, or materialistic, etc.
“To move beyond Kant on global philosophy, we can’t get stuck moralizing about racism. That’s the easy part.”
Calling it “the easy part” seems a bit too harsh in the opposite direction. I agree that there is a move from racism-as-description to racism-as-explanation that is often unwarranted & unhelpful, but still, it is only relatively recently that we, as a society, have started to unpack all ways in which racism (as a structure of beliefs and power) manifests itself.
I.e, maybe similar to how Kant was immature in thinking about certain kinds of global philosophy, we are now at a similarly immature stage in thinking & talking about in-group/out-groupness, what is praiseworthy and what is blameworthy. what is excusable, what is inexcusable, etc. This is an enormous sea-change in social discourse that hasn’t run its course.
God I hope it runs its course soon. I don’t think we’ll survive it much longer, the way it’s going.
I haven’t had much to say on topics like this lately. The problem is that the development of racism in the West, and its entanglements with the history of intellection, is complicated, so difficult to unravel that pin-pointing individuals – especially individuals who have made major contributions to history having nothing to do with their racism – seems to miss the point and fail to grasp the bloody mud that is history itself.
Modern racism (for their are many pre-modern variants) seems to begin in a certain kind of religious historicism and eschatology that developed in the Reformation. That continued to have some sway, and was a contributor to the disagreements leading up to the American Civil War (for, as often happens with religion, the same historicism /eschatology can be interpreted against itself, depending on the hope to anxiety of the interpreters).
By the end of the 18th century the main lines of this thought were being interpreted in secular ways, possibly to help explain the development of colonialism, but more charitably because it seemed to help explain how Europe suddenly found itself with the knowledge by which natural forces could be controlled, and new political forms successfully instituted (albeit occasionally only after great violence). The re-narration of this historicism, as a process of competing ideas, and of the corresponding eschatology, as a progress toward some social utopia or other, found explicit expression in the writings of Hegel and Spencer, and in a different way in the writings of Marx and others, and continued into the 20th century, becoming some of the fuel powering the Second World War. It lingers on today, both on the right and left, encouraging rhetoric vaguely but undeniably drawing from it. Yes, the same fuel that energizes racism can energize counter-racism as well.
By the early 19th century, in the natural sciences, especially with Darwin’s decisive development of evolutionary theory – things quickly went from bad to worse. The old historicism/eschatology took on new meaning as a description – and prescription – for the very future of the human species. Biologists initially rushed to find the decisive evidence that only one ‘race’ could be considered fully human. (Thirty years ago, I happened on a letter from Alfred Wallace to Darwin, worrying that if a black man could learn mathematics, wouldn’t this disprove the theory of evolution? Darwin patiently explained that evolution didn’t quiet work that way; but he nonetheless interjected some of his own brand of ‘social Darwinism’ in The Descent of Man.) Yet in the 20th century, science came to regard such primitive evolutionary historicism with skepticism bordering on disdain; which doesn’t mean it hasn’t left its trace in unsettling ways.
Religion, philosophy, science – and of course overt political and even military action. If we mean “politics” in the broadest sense, as the attempt to establish shared values and ideas, and to find a means of developing ways of life out of these – then yes everything is political, or at least has its political side or component. But if we strip this of its legacy historicism or any implicit or explicit eschatology, then we begin to see a history that is a river of (too oft bloody) mud, streams flowing over accumulated debris, eddies and waves splashing against each other, puddles and unrecognized depths nestled side by side. There are no innocents, all are responsible, yet all shake their heads in wonder: ‘For what are we responsible? what is it we are not innocent of?’
John Brown was a prophet of freedom and a murderous terrorist, a saint and a madman. Mohandas Gandhi beat his wife.
We all hope to be ‘on the right side of history.’ None of us can be. There are certain ideas we accept as making life a little better, a little more reasonable, a little less painful. The progress of these ideas has been toward greater inclusion, greater acceptance.
But in that sentence, I expose myself for the Modernist I am – the very notion of “progress!” What a dream….
I think what some progressives don’t realise is that a self-loathing civilisation cannot flourish any more than a self-loathing individual can. The same goes for civilisations and persons that lack self-criticism and self-awareness entirely, so there needs to be some Aristotelian mean. Sadly there is a tendency for the pendulum of discourse to swing between mindless chauvinism and a leftist self-flagelation that would seem beyond the pale to a Catholic monk. I’m not terribly optimistic, I must say.
Also, regarding the OP’s claim that intellectuals from other civilisations would likely have made similar errors were they in the same position, it’s worth pointing out that Ibn Khaldoun had already articulated quite systematic views about racial hierarchy centuries before the heyday of Western colonialism.
Agree we are only at the beginning of thinking about in-group/out-group dynamics. This is related to us only in the last 150 years or so, and esp in 20th century, really starting to get an embodied theory of cognition, which integrates brain, body and environment. Many things which we might intuitively categorize as “individual” or “conscious” are really much more institutional, habitual and communal. So there is a lot here to unpack.
But mixing this with racism is I think just confused. The idea of “institutional racism” is a good example. There is something quite right in that concept. But the way people use it often is just confused and confusing, and devolves into a kind of unverifiable or intangible way of holding the higher moral ground. To actually make head way on how we as humans are susceptible to in-group/out-group dynamics, in both healthy and very problematic ways, we need to disassociate it from the moralizing tendency.
I think we’ve all just had about enough of “in-group”/”out-group” dynamics. If we want to survive as a democratic society, we’d better start re-articulating and reaffirming liberal principles.
We’ve chased these other rabbit-holes enough and are almost dead from it.
Of course, I want us to survive as a democratic society. And affirming liberal principles is crucial to that. But that is not all that is required. Part of the point of saying that racism was rampant among the very philosophers who developed those liberal principles is we still need to do further creative, intellectual further work to have liberal principles in a explicitly diverse society. The kind of stuff Charles Taylor and others explore. I don’t think the multiculturalism stuff works, but that doesn’t mean that we all just need to read Mill and all will be fine. Mill, et al had the easier version a liberal society problem, since they ruled out by fiat a great many of the society from public discussion. But still, their liberal principles were brilliant. So we need to figure out how to make those principles speak to us now. And one of those complications is dealing with the human psychology of in-group/out-group stuff. This is not to affirm in-group/out-group, but to say we need to tackle that within us. I think venting about how “we’ve all just had about enough” is not a solution, but actually ends up adding to the in-group/out-group mindset.
I think it is the current discourse that is making it impossible for them to speak to us now. So, yes, at this point, I think what we need to do is reintroduce everyone to the liberal classics and remind them that these are in fact the philosophical building blocks of the societies we in fact live in. And yes, I do think they are sufficient, if we would just stop resisting and undermining them as our current “in-group/out-group” discourse is doing.
“The current discourse” includes people of all sides. I agree with you about reintroducing everyone to the liberal classics. How do you propose to do that, when identity politics on the left and the right is making that impossible? I don’t think Steve Bannon wants to read Mill or Kant, anymore than AOC it seems. Yes, we do need to stop resisting the liberal classics. How should those of us who appreciate the liberal classics do that? You seem to be taking a “we just need to get people to respect it!” approach. Not sure that is good pegagogy, or intellectual leadership. Frankly, it strikes me a bit of how a professor would talk to his students. We need rather how we can talk to each other as fellow citizens, and have some sympathy for the people, on the right and left, who are not getting it in order to help them get it.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what is needed. I don’t think it’s possible in the current, wildly narcissistic climate, and so I think things will remain terrible for a while. I think they will need to get quite a bit worse, before people will be willing to reconsider the path we are on. The fight between transgender activists and feminists is a perfect microcosm of this. Until women’s sports are destroyed or some comparable big-ticket, highly valued thing is wrecked, I don’t think the crazy march is stoppable. I think the same about us as a whole. I don’t think it is fixable at this point. My aim, now, is largely pointed at the future — for after the storm. Like a tiny-scale Harry Seldon (see Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation.”)
I feel the same way about being pointed towards after the storm. But I don’t think even after the storm we are just going to read Mill and be like, “Oh my god, he figured it all out!” I think it will be more like, “Hey, Mill figured out a part of the foundations we need, and we need to fill in the rest.” I see filling in the rest and making it contemporary as the creative work that is needed.
I think the “filling in the rest” is where all the mischief starts. I don’t really think there is any “rest.” Any large, pluralistic society is going to have to give up on any substantially widespread shared conceptions of the good, and so a kind of minimalistic, procedural liberalism is what is needed to protect everyone’s capacity to pursue their own conceptions of the good.
We are complicating it in a way that not only is unnecessary, but disfiguring; one that simply provides excuses for those who are opposed to liberal society and favor some form of collectivist authoritarianism.
One of the greatest difficulties with reintroducing liberal principles is that for diverse civilisations, they have to rest on some kind of instrumental rationality, but certain sorts of fervent commitments to ideology or to group identities can make you stubbornly unwilling to accept these sorts of prudential considerations that lead to liberal conclusions. So it seems as though you’d have to have already reintroduced liberal values in order to weaken the sorts of commitments that make people resistant to them! So given the catch 22 that we’re in, I fear that you’re right about the likelihood of things getting much worse.
Yes. My point to Bharath is essentially the one that I made in this essay:
What surprises me is the extent to which peoples’ commitments can completely obliterate their rational self-interest. It is something that really should be talked about more: the extent to which ideology and especially religious ideology, literally drives people mad.
Dan, nice comment. It brings out where perhaps we disagree. I think a “minimalistc, procedural liberalism” is a regulative ideal, but not something that at any given time we can simply implement. A cohesive society requires substantive conceptions of the good, and so there are bound to be clashes about that between people with different visions. Minimal liberalism is a good ideal, but the hard issues are when minimalism is being neutral and when it is entrenching deep injustice. What minimal liberalism looks like in 1850s or 1930s or 1960s in America looks very different, based on subtantive conceptions of the good re slavery, exploiting labor, etc.
I will go a step further. Pushing for this minimal liberalism is only going to add to the coming firestorm, because if there is one thing the far right and far left agree on, it is what they see as the hollowed out prodecural society devoid of shared substantive conceptions of the good. In fact, after the fire storm, there is no guarantee that government will be playing the same role as it did in 19th century England or 20th century America. I suspect it will be playing a much smaller role – or that is my hope. But there will always be the questions which issues goverment should be quiet on, and which it shouldn’t. I don’t see carrying around “On liberty” is going to resolve that.
I believe that everyone or almost everyone distinguishes between out and in groups. I can’t recall ever meeting anyone who didn’t believe that their group was in and that groups with other principles were out and somehow morally or intellectually or otherwise inferior. Whether people have read Mill or not, they all or almost all seem to think that way.
I agree that we should be more tolerant of other groups insofar as that is possible and to try to understand why they think like they do, but I don’t see that we are ever going to do away with in and out-groups distinctions. It’s part of the way almost everyone, if not everyone, constructs their sense of identity.
A cohesive society requires substantive conceptions of the good, and so there are bound to be clashes about that between people with different visions.
= = =
That is simply not possible in large, pluralistic societies. Sorry.
Yep. Which is why procedural liberalism is the best we are going to get.
Rousseau, in a footnote to the Social Contract, indicated that he didn’t think the Social Contract would work at all in a country much bigger than Cyprus? Or was it Corsica? I can’t remember, but the point remains.
Procedural liberalism arose in good part because of the wars of religion *and* because of the emergence of larger, pluralistic nation states. What you hope for is only possible small, homogenous societies.
Of course it’s not possible. That doesn’t stop people from trying to move fellow citizens to their substantial conception of the good and have that guide society. I think what you are suggesting seems a fantasy: people, once they recognize that we are all not going to agree on substantial issues, then do what? In Mill’s time the disagreements people had were underwritten by the fact that the people having the debates broadly speaking had shared cultural backgrounds, esp re race, etc. We don’t have that anymore. So not at all clear what it is to emulate Mill. If you have a view on that, great; lead society to embrace that. But I think you are underplaying just how much Mill’s liberalism in his time worked because of the racism of that time. How to make it work without the racism is a big question, which you seem to be side stepping.
I’m sorry, but it is my view that is realistic and yours that is fantastical. And I think the point at the end about Mill and racism is just ridiculous. As I pointed out, liberal political philosophy was developed as the *antidote* to the Catholic/Protestant religious wars that almost destroyed Europe. It is the *solution* to sectarianism and tribalism, not the cause of it. This is a basic matter of Western history; well-known; and not invented by me.
You ask: “people, once they recognize that we are all not going to agree on substantial issues, then do what?” The answer, if one is even moderately rational and self-interested is “live and let live.” Unfortunately, it is precisely this sort of clarity that ideology and dogmatic commitment undermine.
We likely are never going to agree on this, so we should probably let it drop.
‘As I pointed out, liberal political philosophy was developed as the *antidote* to the Catholic/Protestant religious wars that almost destroyed Europe. It is the *solution* to sectarianism and tribalism, not the cause of it.”
This strikes me as giant non-sequitur. Just because liberalism as it developed was a response to one kind of sectarianism and tribalism doesn’t mean that it is the solution to overcoming sectarianism as such. Obviously during the 1800s it was perfectly seen as compatible with racial tribalism. As I see it, you are pitching liberal political philosophy as it was developed as the solution simplicitar. Contary to identity politics folk, who want to ditch it all together, I am saying “no, liberalism is a great foundation and let’s build on it.” Sounds like you are saying, “Sorry, nothing to build on. It’s perfect!” Will just say good luck getting many people, left or right, white or brown, to buy that. I am the moderate who loves Kant and Mill. And you are pushing me away and saying I just need to better accept what you like and which doesn’t have to change.
Am happy to let it drop.
Kant was an obvious racist, indeed, but unlike the usual such, he apparently did have a complete change of heart after 1792. Still, his initial errors were egregious and they show that even the most rigorous of thinkers are hamstrung by implicit and explicit biases.
Inspired by your OP and suspecting that it could have been and an ‘honest mistake’, I sought more info and found some apropos reviews by Pauline Kleingeld on this issue. She addressed whether Kant had changed his views about ‘cultures’ and ‘races’ and persuasively argues that he did. It is surmised that this came about as he was developing a system of cosmopolitan rights – the individual rights of the citizens of the world. (https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/bitstream/handle/1887/13887/Kant%20on%20race%20PQ%20Kleingeld.pdf?sequence=1)(https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/files/27982978/Kleingeld_Kant_s_second_thoughts_on_colonialism.pdf)
Apparently Kant does not got into why he had made such grievous errors, or what were the factors that made him change his mind. My guess is that his effective cultural exposure when young primed his initial views, but as evidence accumulated and society evolved, his personal theories kept pace, even advancing ‘progress’ from our perspective.
Very true. Indeed, while today it is increasingly fashionable to portray liberals as fence sitters who don’t stand for anything, it really seems to me that it requires a lot of maturity and humility to be able to say ‘the best way to run society doesn’t involve the implementation of my personal values or ideals.’ I’m not entirely sure why now of all times, this sort of restraint has been eroded. Any thoughts on the explanation?
You can characterize it as “pushing away” if you like. I think it is a mistake. And I don’t think peoples’ skin-color has anything to do with anything.
Consider it dropped.
One more thing. It is beyond the scope of this piece, of course, but I think you should do another essay explaining what you think, if not procedural liberalism, is going to make it possible for Israelis to live with Palestinians, Hindus with Buddhists and Muslims, Marxists with Capitalists, white conservatives with black progressives, traditional feminists with trans activists, etc., etc., etc. Especially as you have suggested that liberalism is dependent on racism, which I take as a flat-out slander, not to mention a serious misunderstanding. I think you owe us *your* proposed solution, instead of the liberal one.
I didn’t say liberalism the idea is dependent on racism. I believe the implementation of liberalism in modern Europe and America depended on racism. I also believe the ideas of liberalism have to be modified into liberalism 2.0 in order to implement liberalism in ways which doesn’t depend on racism. Racism wasn’t the only problem with how liberalism was implemented in the two centuries. I also think it depended on mistaken views of religion and what kind of a secular society will enable liberalism.
I am happy to layout my version of liberalism. And yes, in a different post.
Great! I think it will be an important development of your view. I feel like it’s all promissory notes at this point.
I agree with Dan K here that the best we’re going to get in contemporary society is procedural liberalism.
Society is not only composed of different viewpoints and ideologies, but also of differing interests which are often reflected in those viewpoints and ideologies. Workers want high wagers; capitalists want to keep wages down and profits high. The poor want social programs and free healthcare, yet the only way to finance social programs and free healthcare is to tax the rich and the rich don’t want to pay higher taxes.
The best way to deal with these conflicts, to avoid violence and social disorder, is negotiate them in a climate of mutual respect and tolerance, without disqualifying the other party. That seems to call for some kind of procedural liberalism.
Dan Kaufman noted: ‘You ask: “people, once they recognize that we are all not going to agree on substantial issues, then do what?” The answer, if one is even moderately rational and self-interested is “live and let live.”’
I like procedural liberalism, but I think there are emotional factors at play here — basically, the question is “live and let live **on what terms** ?” Does “I don’t care if you are gay, just don’t mention it in the workplace where I can hear it” satisfy the Live and Let Live criterion? How about, “I don’t want to live in a neighborhood that is mostly Trump supporters”?
I’m not trying to argue for one or other answers to the above questions, just that they are valid questions that arise in a multicultural society and there isn’t an immediate obvious answer. The debate between transgender activists and feminists is a great case in point — how *should* we think about it (what should be our framework for adjudicating the debate)?
– Transgender identity => it seems reasonable that a person should be able to choose how to present themselves to the world in a way that is deeply meaningful to them. A male-to-female trans person may feel that a femme self-presentation is central to their identity as a woman.
– Feminism => it seems reasonable that lots of aspects of “femininity” are socially constructed (and used to limit the range of options available to women), and hence, it is important to push back against imputations of essentialism.
In a way, it is like the debate between anti-vaxxers (expression of personal beliefs) and “vaxxers” (people who see vaccination as having general social value that would be subverted by carving out exceptions, however well-intentioned).
How does procedural liberalism guide me here (as a non-philosopher, just a regular citizen)? Note — I fully endorse that it CAN guide me … my point here is that there is no consensus answer as yet.
The answer to this lies in Mill’s harm principle. So, using your example, yes, trans-women should be able to live as they like. But they should not be given access to women’s shelters, restrooms, or sports.
Kripkensteinsmonster303, Here is my take on the explanation: it is easier to have an attitude of “society doesn’t have to implement my personal values” when one feels that others in society nonetheless share deep values with us. So in time of segregation, when blacks and generally non-whites didn’t have positions of power, the people who were disagreeing nonetheless shared racial, cultural and religious norms for the most part (even as they different in many ways even culturally and religiously).
Post 1960s in America, this is no longer true. Now people see others in positions of power with whom it is not clear what they have in common in terms of deep values. Obviously in a religious society, even in a liberal state which is culturally religious as America has always been, the shared religion plays this shared common value role. In communist countries, communism plays that role. In pre-modern societies, adherence to king played that role. In a multi-cultural liberal democracy, this is frayed.
So I think the alt right are right in this sense: diversity has ruined the kind of cohesion American society used to have, and which enabled public discourse. But I disagree with the alt right in thinking somehow we can turn the clock back. Our only option it seems to me is to find some new cultural cohesion which can underpin liberalism. And certainly not the kind of cultural cohesion articulated by the far left, Bernie or AOC types, which is basically to substitute a socialist cohesion for racial or religious cohesion.
Granted cultural cohesion can’t simply be concocted out of thin air. Not everyone will agree. Not everyone will even agree liberalism is good. Where to go from here in this space of diversity is the challenge.
Thanks for link to interesting article! Looking forward to reading it.
Along the lines of your second paragraph, I’ve just started reading Arun Bala’s The Dialogue of Civilizations in the Birth of Modern Science. It’s not some tendentious attempt to deny that the scientific revolution happened or that it happened largely in early modern Europe. Instead it tracks the various streams of ideas that had flowed into Europe to make the scientific revolution possible (e.g., how Hindu numerals were adopted by the Arabs and combined with Greek geometry to give the trigonometric methods that made the development of perspective painting in Renaissance Europe possible). It makes a good pairing with David Wooton’s The Invention of Science.
It would be nice to see the teaching of the history of science take an approach more like Bala’s, but given the current environment, I wonder if there’s any way such a project could avoid simply becoming grist for the culture wars.
Thanks! Another great link. I agree that, sadly, currently a book like Bala’s might become engulfed in the culture wars.
I think the current phase of progressive identity politics is the inevitable after effect of the racial identity politics of the centuries of colonialism. In fact, that’s why I have come to distance myself from this mania of protesting. Not clear there is much new thought happening in it, as it is taking the old categories of racial essentialism and just flipping it around in the clothing of cultural pride. But in time I think we will move beyond it, in a way which leaves behind the racial essentialism and it’s after effects, and incorporates the insights of the Enlightenment.
From the preface, Bala seems to be coming from an interesting place. He’s concerned that the presentation of modern science as having a unique origin in the West is making it easier for reactionaries in non-Western countries to push nonsense into the educational curriculum in the name of some sort of misguided ethnic pride. He’s also very much not impressed with the various “postmodernist” – for lack of a better term – critiques of science and how they (sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly) provide aid and comfort to the reactionary movements he’s worried about. He seems to be coming from a position similar to that of Meera Nanda.
So his explicit goal is the opposite of challenging the universality of modern science or casting as having no firmer support than “other ways of knowing”. Instead, his goal is to put the claim for modern science as a universal human project on a sounder basis by telling the more complete story instead of the partial one that jumps straight from ancient Greece to renaissance Europe.
It shows how strange the times are that I think this project would make him suspect not just to the “every good idea came from Europe” right, but also to the identity politics left.
Good stuff. I was reading the preface on the book preview on Amazon, and liked that he was contrasting his approach to both the kind of views associated with Fukuyama and Huntington in the political domain. Unfortunately, much of our current discourse misses the nuance required to be able to both (a) give credit to modern Europe for the rise of modern science, and (b) see how (a) was enabled by the flux of scientific influences on Europe of other parts of the world. Much the same can be said of the insights of modern European philosophy.
For example, Jonardan Ganeri’s book “The Lost Age of Reason: Philosophy in Early Modern India 1450-1700” is eye opening in terms of how much cosmopolitan philosophy, with a mixture of Indian, Islamic and European philosophy was happening in India already in the 16th and 17th centuries. The simple narrative that Indians were not engaging with Europe until the British East India Company showed up is quite off. This is a nice example of political-history narrative being superimposed onto every domain, as if until one nation conquers another, there could not be mutual influence.
Discovering all this mutual intellectual influence is like discovering blood vessels in the body – a whole realm behind what we normally perceive. As we explore this hidden realm, many of the hard categories the right and left identity politics people presuppose will disintegrate.