By Kevin Currie-Knight
Like so much else, the Enlightenment seems to be a flash point in the contemporary culture wars. Some, like Douglas Murray and Stephen Pinker, suggest that we are moving too far away from “enlightenment values” like liberty, equality, and the idea of a universal human nature (to which they oppose the idea of identity politics). To others, like Domenico Losurdo and Gregory Elliott, or (philosopher) John Gray, whatever good there is to the enlightenment and the values it produced have probably been oversold, especially at the expense of its darker elements like racial taxonomies and colonialism, that these thinkers say are probably features more than bugs.
The Enlightenment, then, has a contested legacy, and while the contest has revved up in recent years, it isn’t new, going back many decades. Should we remember the Enlightenment primarily or exclusively as the movement that freed the West from dogmatic superstition, ushering in an age of science and individual liberty? Or should we instead (or additionally) remember it as an age where we found new ways to justify inequalities through scientific (-sounding) taxonomies and create the conditions for rampant imperialism and population control?
As some know, I have a substantial familiarity with the literature on race and its history. This is where, at least for me, this contested legacy of the Enlightenment gets interesting. Most of the literature seems to suggest that race comes through the enlightenment (though the stories of how differs by author). These folks put it the way historian Tyler Stovall does in his recent book White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea:
[T]he relationship between liberty and racism is not necessarily contradictory but rather has its own internal consistency. In short, I reject the idea of a paradoxical relationship between the two; to my mind there is no contradiction. The central theme of this study is that to an important extent, although certainly not always, ideas of freedom in the modern world have been racialized (p. 5).
For Stovall, you can hardly talk about Enlightenment conceptions of individual liberty without talking about racial assumptions behind them. As evidence, he and philosopher Charles Mills point to the very many examples of enlightenment thinkers – Locke, Kant, Hume, and Mill most popularly – who centered the value of freedom in their philosophy while making at least occasional caveats about freedom and the capabilities it demands should not be extended to various types of (non-white) savages.
On the other side, you have thinkers who argue that properly understood, Enlightenment ideas laid the necessary groundwork for combatting ideas of racial difference and the inequality it justifies. Stephen Pinker nods in this direction in his appropriately-titled book Enlightenment Now, when he maintains that it is actually the Enlightenment’s critics who see “people as expendable cells of a superorganism – a clan, tribe, ethnic group, religion, race, class, or nation” rather than, as with the Enlightenment tradition, individuals who share a common human nature (p. 30). Pinker worries that it was so-called counter-enlightenment thinkers, like the cultural relativist Giambattista Vico who, by denying this common human nature, inadvertently justify the emphasis on human difference that can lead to race and racism.
What to make of these contrasting stories of the Enlightenment? Which is correct?. As readers can probably see, a lot has to do with whether you focus on the purely theoretical thought-worlds Enlightenment thinkers erected or whether you focus on how that rubber met the road of actual practice. This is what Kenan Malik argues. He writes that in theory, there is hardly grounds for racism in most Enlightenment thought, and that racism only got added when trying to apply universalistic and egalitarian theorizing to a world of difference and existing inequality.)
It also has to do with how you interpret some of the major Enlightenment thinkers when they qualify their talk of universal human nature and liberty with asides (or more) about those lowly brutes and savages. Let me quote Malik here again, for his handling of this is instructive of the “pro-Enlightenment” side.
The Enlightenment belief in a common, universal human nature tended to undermine any proclivity for a racial categorisation of humanity. There were of course exceptions. Voltaire, for instance, claimed that ‘Only a blind man could doubt that the whites, Negroes, albinos, Hottentots, Laplanders, Chinese are entirely different races.’ David Hume, even though he argued that ‘it is universally acknowledged that there is great uniformity among the acts of men, in all nations and ages, and human nature remains still the same in its principles and operations’, nevertheless also wrote that ‘I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites’ (53).
“There are exceptions.” A lot stands, then, on how significant those exceptions are. Voltaire and Hume are quite canonical to Enlightenment thought, and their statements here seem pretty direct. Malik notes, though, that Hume’s statement was made in a footnote and is quite hard to square with the thought surrounding it. A footnote, okay, but if it is so insignificant to the rest of his thought, why even bother to include it? After all, footnotes are there for reasons. Malik also follows this passage by a chain of citations from other enlightenment figures like Rousseau – and he could have included Montesquieu – who clearly undermine the idea of race and racism.
On the anti-Enlightenment side, Charles Mills has been tough on Immanuel Kant for his simultaneous praise for autonomy and treating people as ends rather than means and his writings on race and financial enmeshment in race-based slavery. Because this has been a hot-button area among Enlightenment scholars thinking about race, some try to exonerate Kant by noting that his writings on racial taxonomy are entirely separate from his moral writings. Mills, however, suggests that it is quite possible to read these views as consistent with one another, and that it is simply too hard to believe that a thinker who cared as much about theoretical consistency as Kant would not notice and try to reconcile such dissonance.
How to make Kant’s statements consistent? Mills argues that Kant may be thinking about liberty and treating others as ends as, in some sense, requiring certain prerequisite abilities: the ability to think rationally, exercise responsibility, in a way he didn’t think applied to all (groups of) people. Black people may have been people in Kant’s eyes, but not quite the kind of people we are talking about when constructing our deontological theory. This is also what Stovall, the historian quoted above, had in mind when he said that a close look at how the Enlightenment played out in Europe and America tells us that it was always “white freedom” being conceptualized.
I generally find Mills and Stovall pretty persuasive on this point. Even if Mills doesn’t get Kant’s intention right, he and Stovall offer a very plausible story of how the Enlightenment could at the very same time sincerely work for individual freedom and be at least accepting enough of racial ideas and the slavery based on it that it took as long as it did for the practices to end. How could America – a strange blend of Christian and Enlightenment individualism – proclaim itself the Land of the Free while keeping so many in bondage, even importing people specifically for the purpose of bondage? Maybe Nikole Hannah-Jones overshot when she wrote that America was founded on a lie; maybe it was founded on a more nuanced and more loaded idea of freedom than we often appreciate.
But that doesn’t put me in the “anti-Enlightenment” camp either. One problem, I think, is that too many folks talk about the enlightenment as a single tradition, which at very least leads us to overlook the diversity of thought therein. Sometimes, it even leads us – and by ‘us’, I mean Stephen Pinker primarily – to cherry-pick which thinkers and strains of Enlightenment thought we want to acknowledge or downplay. (John Gray deservedly busted Pinker up on this point in a scathing review of Enlightenment Now.)
This brings me to my last point, about some contradictions within Enlightenment thought that I am not sure are sufficiently appreciated. The Enlightenment brought us the hopes of a new science that promised liberty, and the very techniques of classification, measurement, and science, that allowed for more efficient subjugation and control of each other. As one of its most central themes, it postulated a universal human nature, but also had to grapple with the realities of human difference made more evident by advances in travel technology. This idea of a universal human nature also coexisted with newly emerging ideas about and fascinations with classifying and taxonomizing the natural world. Belief in the value of human liberty could either be an argument against empire or for it depending on whether the way you and yours practiced freedom was a human apex that others should be liberated to pursue.
These are all inheritances from the period we call the Enlightenment. My suspicion is that it only looks clean in retrospect, the same way classic rock appears a coherent body of work only decades after we’ve decided what was signal and what was noise. Nor am I sure what value there is in depicting the Enlightenment as so coherent a movement that we can reconstruct what “it” contributed to race in order to decide whether it is on our side or not. Even if we could show, with Stovall, that Enlightenment conceptions of liberty have always been racialized, that need not mean that those traditions cannot be divested of race going forward. Similarly, one could acknowledge that Enlightenment science and taxonomizing aided racialist causes, but other Enlightenment ideas about liberty and dignity played a role in denouncing those causes. Even your favorite record probably has a bad song on it.