Did the Enlightenment Give Rise to Racism?  

Did the Enlightenment Give Rise to Racism?  

Slate chief political correspondent Jamelle Bouie set off a heated online debate with a series of tweets[1] claiming “the concept of race was birthed by the Enlightenment,”[2] which then sparked a full-length article fleshing out his position.[3] His key claim is that colonialism, slavery, imperialism, and racism in general were not “incidental developments or the mere remnants of earlier prejudice.”

Race as we understand it—a biological taxonomy that turns physical difference into relations of domination—is a product of the Enlightenment. Racism as we understand it now, as a socio-political order based on the permanent hierarchy of particular groups, developed as an attempt to resolve the fundamental contradiction between professing liberty and upholding slavery. Those who claim the Enlightenment’s mantle now should grapple with that legacy and what it means for our understanding of the modern world. (Bouie 2018)

Bouie draws on the works of several distinguished scholars on this topic, including George Fredrickson, Ivan Hannaford, Emmanuel Eze, Robert Bernasconi, and Charles Mills.

Nevertheless, these arguments and the support Bouie received from numerous scholars on Twitter was surprising to me. In my research on religious intolerance I’d encountered detailed discussions of racism emerging in 15th century Spain. And I was aware of literatures on ethnocentrism in Song dynasty China, on racialist categorizations in the middle ages and in the classical antiquity.

But given the boldness of Bouie’s claim and the support he received, his challenge to “grapple with” the troubling aspects of the Enlightenment seems worth taking up. If reflection on the long history of racial prejudice, on the diverse legacies of the Enlightenment, and the troubled relationship between the humanities and the sciences today interests you, read on.[4]

The questions to be addressed

What does it mean to say that racism is a “product of the Enlightenment,” or that it was “birthed by,” or had its foundations “laid by key thinkers like Locke and Kant”? It’s clear that Bouie doesn’t simply mean coining the word “racism”. For example, antisemitism is a late 19th century word. No one before the late 19th century identified as an antisemite, but claiming that antisemitism didn’t exist before then is absurd, and clearly not what Bouie is getting at.[5]

The claim made by historians of childhood that modern western notions of childhood became prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries is, to the best of my knowledge, a credible one. In what follows, I will assume that Bouie meant modern racism was a “product” of the Enlightenment in much the same way that historians meant modern childhood is a “product” of the 18th and 19th centuries. Though there is clear continuity with past phenomena, there are also enough distinct characteristics to speak of something singular.

My critique of Bouie will proceed as follows: first, I will establish the universal nature of prejudice against outgroup and advance a speculative hypothesis on the dynamics of how this manifested in complex agrarian societies in general, exploring examples in antiquity, early Islamic history, and Medieval Iberian antisemitism. These sections will seek to lay crucial context rather than directly contradict Bouie, who acknowledges examples such as these.[6]

Once this is established, I will proceed to the key points which undermine the specific culpability of the Enlightenment: the universalism of its main thinkers, and the environmental and institutional theories of racial and ethnic differentiation which made up the bulk of their writings on the matter (with important exceptions such as David Hume and especially Immanuel Kant). And finally, the critique of the Enlightenment passes over the role of the Counter-Enlightenment, which was particularistic and directly involved in the development of a biologically-based “scientific” racism.

Ethnocentrism is pervasive

Society depends on agreements that define ingroups and outgroups. Xenophobia, or hostility to foreigners or outsiders, is ubiquitous across human societies. This is not to say the level or nature of xenophobia is constant in different societies.  More complex agrarian societies had sharper hierarchies and finer divisions of labor than did small-scale societies. In these societies distinctions between insiders and outsiders play a more important role in sustaining the political order.

Who do we deem outsiders?  Linguistic and phenotypic markers are highly salient.  For the Greeks, the most important distinction was whether or not a people spoke a dialect of Greek (βάρβαρος meant “babbler”).  Religion and cultural practices also played an important role in differentiating insiders from outsiders.[7]

The prevalence of linguistic, cultural, and religious signifiers does not however mean that phenotypic differences were unimportant. Linguistic and religious distinctions often map onto ethnic or racial ones. This is why arguments like “society x was not racist because x discriminated on the basis of religion or language” don’t work.

Ethnocentrism is thus extremely common. “Tribe Y have ugly expressions” or “Tribe Z are tall” were likely common ways to differentiate one’s own group from a rival or enemy group. The question is under what conditions do these loose ethnic prejudices harden and become something recognizable as racism?

I don’t believe theorists have developed a comprehensive answer to this question, and I won’t provide one here. Instead, I will point out factors that make the reification of phenotype differences more likely. The existence of sufficiently sharp differences in physical appearance clearly does so. A system of group discrimination would have trouble operating if the differences between members of the two groups are trivial and overlapping. But the existence of such differences is also insufficient for a theory of impermeable group hierarchies to exist.

Several other factors matter. Differences in appearance must overlap with other differences (in culture, language or religion) as this reinforces phenotype differences and imbues them with greater cultural significance.  Another element is that the system of racial hierarchies provides benefits to members of the dominant group for keeping subordinate groups down.  Moreover, these benefits must be easily captured, visible, and outweigh the diffuse gains that could be made from trading and interacting with them as equals.[8] This is likely one reason why racialism often accompanies slavery.[9]

If these points can be granted, it follows that it is highly likely that racism in some form has emerged at various points in history. And indeed, it has many times. We can now investigate some of the more salient examples. Importantly, most of these examples will turn out to rest on environmental theories of racial superiority or inferiority, rather than biological foundations. The sole exception is the case of Iberian antisemitism.

The emergence of ancient racism

Imperial expansion in antiquity involved confrontation with peoples of different ethnicity, language, culture, religion and skin color, meeting several of the conditions specified above. Ancient writers like Herodotus and Tacitus provide abundant details on the physical characteristics of various barbarian peoples they met. To what extent did these resemble a racial classification scheme?

The debate about classical attitudes to race is ongoing and controversial. Nevertheless, Benjamin Isaac argues that racism was “invented” in the classical world. The racism common to the ancient world was not modern racism.[10] In particular, it was often environmental. Hot climates were thought to produce darker skins and lazy, soft national characters.  The harsh north, in contrast, bred toughness and a desire for freedom. The Roman author Vitruvius observed that

those that are nearest to the southern half of the axis, and that lie directly under the sun’s course, are of lower stature, with a swarthy complexion, hair curling, black eyes, [strong legs,] and but little blood on account of the force of the sun. Hence, too this poverty of blood makes them over-timid to stand up against the sword, but great heat and fevers they can endure without timidity, because their frames are bred up in the raging heat. Hence, men that are born in the north are rendered over-timid and weak by fever, but their wealth of blood enables them to stand up against the sword without timidity. (quoted In Isaac 2005, 82)

Such observations were commonplace in the ancient world. They formed the basis for racialist discussions when it came to purchasing slaves or when enlisting non-citizens into auxilia units.

Islamic racialism

Distinctions between ingroups and outgroups, we have argued, were more likely to become important in complex agrarian societies. Thus, it is hardly surprisingly that we find racialist views in the Islamic world, which was one of the most economically advanced and sophisticated parts of the world between 700-1300 CE. Numerous commentators have pointed out racist statements by the great Arab thinker Ibn Kaldun.  According to Kaldun, “the Negro nations are, as a rule, submissive to slavery, because (Negros) have little that is (essentially) human and possess attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals”.  These were not idiosyncratic statements but reflected common beliefs developed by a number of Muslim thinkers including Ibn Battuta. James Sweet summarizes this as follows:

Negative racial stereotypes crystallized . . . over the duration of the trans-Saharan slave trade. As reflected in Arabic linguistic constructions, religious assumptions, and literary records like Ibn Battuta’s diary, blacks, regardless of their legal status, were always viewed as morally and culturally inferior. The Muslim world expected blacks to be slaves. (Sweet 1997, 147)

This is entirely consistent with the framework sketched above. The Arabs ruled a great empire, which possessed a tremendous appetite for slaves. For much of this period the Arabs were both economically more advanced than their neighbors and militarily superior. They enslaved both Europeans and Africans  and like later European colonialists in the Americas distinguished between different kinds of slaves based on their skin color and ethnic characteristics. Sweet observes:

Wherever there was back-breaking work to be done in the Arab world, black slaves were made to do it. From ninth-century Iraqi land reclamation projects to fourteenth-century Saharan salt and copper mines, black Africans toiled under the worst conditions. (Sweet 1997, 145)

It would be surprising if an ideology did not emerge to justify this state of affairs. Given the phenotypical differences between Arabs and sub-Saharan Africans, this ideology of difference centered on skin color; and it was one we would recognize today as racist.

Islamic racial theorizing may seem of less interest because it was not a direct ancestor of modern racism. According to Sweet, however, this would be a mistake: Iberian racial categories were directly influenced by Islamic practice and thought and these Iberian categories are the direct antecedents of colonial-era racial theorizing.

Iberian racialist antisemitism

Another important “invention of racism” occurred in late medieval Spain: racial antisemitism. Medieval antisemitism was, in theory at least, religious rather than racial. It was rooted in Jewish rejection of Christ and alleged guilt for his crucifixion. In practice, it spilled over into prejudice about the appearance, language, and demeanor of Jews. But it was focused on their religious identity. Conversion transformed Jews into Christians.

However, this changed in Spain following the pogroms and forced conversions of Jews in 1391.  Unlike in the rest of Europe, Jews had formed a substantial part of the population in medieval Iberia.  They comprised much of the urban middle class in Aragon and New Castile. Economic conflict undergirded much of the hostility between old Christians and the “Conversos.”

In 1449, a statute was issued against the Conversos by the city of Toledo. Commenting on it, the historian Benzion Netanyahu observes:

Determining the sameness of their hostility to Christianity was, apart from their common Jewish religion, another, more powerful and more crucial factor: their common racial origin.

This view of the authors of the Statute is already implied in their identification of the conversos—those bearers of a deadly hatred for the Christians—as ‘descendants of the Jews.’ “For by saying ‘the conversos, the descendants of the Jew,’ they meant to signify not an extraneous, but an inherent, unalterable relationship. For ‘descent’ is conceived by them not merely as a factor that establishes contact between generations through certain attitudes, beliefs and customs transmitted from one generation to another, but as the very root of the common attitudes, etc., and their related forms of behavior. The identical conduct towards the Christians by both the conversos and the Jews is thus explained by the identical cause of their conduct: the common ‘descent’ or race. (Netanyahu 1995, 381)

Jewish ancestry or descent, not religious belief, came to be seen as inherently corrupting.  The precise relationship between modern notion of race and the contemporary Castilian word “raza” is debated by historians. Nevertheless, the extent to which they overlap is remarkable. David Nirenberg quotes the definition of raza that Sebastian de Covarrubias gives in his Spanish dictionary: “the caste of purebred horses, which are so marked by a brand so that they can be recognized . . . Race in [human] lineages is meant negatively, as in having some race of Moor or Jew” (quoted in Nirenberg 2007, 79).[11]

In the 16th century these arguments became formalized in the statutes of limpeiza de sangre or purity of the blood. Historians like Henry Kamen describe these prejudices as racial in nature. Writing of Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, he notes “Loyola was . . . particularly conscious of the antisemitic attitudes in Castile. From the 1540s he encouraged his clergy in Spain to stand firm against racial prejudice” (Kamen 2007, 105).

The racial contract and the Enlightenments

So in Iberian antisemitism, at least, we have an example of a bloodline-based prejudice against a group differentiated by appearance. If this isn’t full-blown scientific racism, it is certainly a close cousin.

We are now in a position to focus on the relationship between the Enlightenment and racism. What’s at stake is not whether individual Enlightenment thinkers were racist—Hume and Kant were—but the nature of the relationship between Enlightenment thought and modern scientific racism.

Critics of the Enlightenment contend that there was something deeply rooted in Enlightenment thought that led to the exclusion of non-whites, colonial subjects, and women. This critique is brought out in philosopher Charles Mills’s notion of a racial contract.

Mills’s question is simple. How was it that the Enlightenment celebrated liberalism, reason, and autonomy at the same time that chattel slavery, colonialism, and the oppression of non-whites flourished? His answer is that these two facts are reconcilable once one realizes that the liberal social contract was a racial contract, one that explicitly excluded non-whites from consideration.

Racism, racial self-identification, and race thinking are then not in the least ‘surprising,’ ‘anomalous,’ ‘puzzling,’ incongruent with Enlightenment European humanism, but required by the Racial Contract as part of the terms for the European appropriation of the world. (Mills 1997, 122)

The rights of man were the rights of white men; they were built on the oppression of nonwhites. As Mills explains, if one accepts this argument, then racism is not just a blemish on Western liberal society; it is at the rotten core of it. Western societies were, and remain, racially structured. White supremacy is at the historic center of liberalism.

Mills doesn’t provide a detailed account of the relationship between Enlightenment liberalism and modern racism. He simply states that “it would have to be agreed that the ideology of modern racism is far more theoretically developed than ancient or medieval prejudices and is linked (…) to a system of European domination” (Mills 1997, 63).

It is important to note at this point that there was no single Enlightenment. Disagreement between different Enlightenment thinkers was stark.[12] For the sake of conciseness, I’ll stick to a broadly agreed upon definition of the Enlightenment.[13] This definition excludes 19th century thinkers such as John Stuart Mill or Alexis de Tocqueville and 17th century thinkers like Blaise Pascal or Thomas Hobbes.[14]

The other necessary caveat is to reiterate the point that no subsequent development in Western thought escaped the influence of the Enlightenment. Both free-market liberalism and communism trace a lineage to aspects of Enlightenment thought. Therefore, to say that something was influenced by the Enlightenment is a low bar. If every aspect of modern thought bears the imprint of the Enlightenment, then it hardly surprising that modern racial theorizing can trace some of its roots to it. The claim that Enlightenment thought helped give birth to modern racial theorizing requires stronger evidentiary support than this.

In the remainder of this piece, I will defend the universalism of key Enlightenment thinkers against Mills’s charge that it was a sham and address the role of progress in these thinkers’ assessments of non-Western cultures and peoples. Finally, I will discuss the Counter-Enlightenment and romantic nationalism, both of which were huge currents of thought and are neglected by Bouie and Mills. This neglect is particularly egregious in Mills’s Racial Contract, which easily moves from liberalism to the Nazi genocide, but it is also evident in Bouie’s account. If the Enlightenment gave birth to racism, what role do we assign to the Counter-Enlightenment?

A sham universalism?

The charge that the Enlightenment’s universalism was color-coded or racial might be true of an individual Enlightenment thinker like Thomas Jefferson, who was immersed in both the world of Enlightenment intellectual discourse and that of chattel slavery. But Jefferson was hardly representative of Enlightenment thinkers in this regard. We need to ask: was the universalism of Enlightenment thinkers in general reserved for whites?

Enlightenment thinkers from Montesquieu to Adam Smith pioneered an approach that was universalist, not relativistic. In Montesquieu, Smith, and others we find attitudes toward the non-European world that are considerably more subtle and sophisticated than one might think based on reading Edward Said’s Orientalism. They were open to the possibility that non-European societies had much to teach them, but willing to condemn anything that fell short of what they considered civilized norms. This is evident in Voltaire’s praise of Qing China, in Smith’s condemnation of infanticide in the classic world, and in Montesquieu’s implied critique of sex mores in the Islamic world.[15]

Kant marks an exception to this. Kant did not have a full-fledged theory of racial differences, but his hostility to racial mixing and his emphasis on the fixity of race do set him apart from other 18th century writers on race. Recent literature among scholars of racism have highlighted the importance of race in Kant’s anthropology, something that is neglected in most treatments of his political philosophy. The debate on the relationship between Kant’s racial theorizing and his liberal cosmopolitanism is a fascinating one and currently unresolved.[16]

What role did Kant have in influencing the subsequent development of racialist ideas? This is a topic in need of further research. Many of these works on race were not translated from German until recently. Their influence therefore was confined largely to German-speaking circles, and they were unlikely to be a direct influence on the development of racialist ideas in England in the mid-19th century , nor on the “scientific racism” in the English-speaking world that developed later.

On the issue of colonialism, far from providing justifications, the major Enlightenment figures were either skeptical or hostile to Western colonial adventures. Denis Diderot and Edmund Burke in particular pioneered a critique of western imperialism that rests on the universal character of humanity, including colonized peoples, and which was deeply skeptical of self-justifying claims made by colonizers to rule in the interest of the colonized. Kant was a racist but a fierce opponent of all colonial endeavors.

One of the best treatments of this is Jennifer Pitt’s A Turn to Empire, which contrasts Enlightenment skepticism with colonial projects with mid-19th century liberal imperialism. Smith can stand in as an exemplar of this skepticism. Pitt notes that Smith’s analysis of non-western societies is “strikingly non-judgmental” and that he did not believe,

…as many later British writers would, that certain, particularly Asian, cultures threw up barriers to progress, that some peoples’ passivity in the face of their laws, customs, religions, or taboos made them less amenable to progress. (Pitts 2005, 39)

Pitts comments on Smith’s universalist moral language (“the common sentiments of mankind”) and notes that it was used to refer to many different societies. When comparing different cultures, Smith was generous “in the evaluation of others’ aesthetic and moral customs” and aware of “how such customs function in European culture, as elsewhere, to enshrine and legitimate possibly harmful practices” (Pitts 2005, 51).

Nor was Smith unique, even outside of philosophy. These views were widely held and influential. In his recent book Imperial Twilight, Stephen Platt documents the admiring opinion of China held by the majority of British visitors to Canton until the early 19th century.[17]

Jürgen Osterhammel’s Unfabling the East: The Enlightenment’s Encounter With Asia can be read as a paean to the immense literature produced by travelers to Asia in the 17th and 18th centuries. He describes the Enlightenment’s engagement with Asia in the following terms:

Such tensions and contradictions in how Europeans perceived the world came especially to the fore under conditions of a temporarily reduced dogmatism. On the one hand, the seventeenth century’s astonishment at the splendor and wealth of Asiatic courts and cities had given way to a more skeptical view. The spell cast by the old mother culture had been broken. On the other hand, the nineteenth century’s smug assumption of superiority still lay some way off. Asiatic civilizations—at first mainly China, later India—posed intellectual challenges that seemed worthy of discussion and debate. Experimenting with different perspectives, playfully adopting the viewpoint of the non-European Other, and relativizing one’s own criteria of evaluation were more than just literary tricks . . . Few were convinced by simple dichotomies. Before 1790 hardly anyone saw a stark opposition between the cultural macrospheres ‘East’ and ‘West,’ fewer still believed them to be incompatible, and no one posited a ‘clash of civilizations.’ (Osterhammel 2018, loc. 8902-8911)

Osterhammel sees the early 19th century as a European “saddle period” that saw a transition from an inclusive Eurocentrism to an exclusive Eurocentrism. The key driver of this transition: imperialism and the sudden rise of European military power. In the first half of the 19th century, the sudden discovery of the weakness of ancient powers in China, India, the Middle East, and Japan inspired contempt and what Osterhammel calls the “unfabling” of Asia.

Osterhammel brings to life numerous figures such as Alexander Russell and Patrick Russell, whose 18th-century writings about Aleppo he describes as “one of the forgotten founding documents of European sociology” and “far removed from the alienating simplifications of a ‘savage anthropology.’” Another such forgotten Enlightenment thinker, Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron, was a fierce critic of British colonialism in India and demolished the empirical basis of Montesquieu’s theory of oriental despotism.

William Dalrymple’s White Mughals discusses the story of James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the British Resident of Hyderabad who married into a Muslim Indian family. Dalrymple portrays Kirkpatrick as imbued with the Enlightenment belief in Western and Eastern cultures learning from one another. And he discusses how this mode of thought was displaced in the early 19th century by one that erected firm barriers between the English and Indians, prohibited intermarriage, and condemned “Brahminised” British.

The villains of this piece are the Evangelical Christians who denounced Indian culture and the colonial ambitions of men like Arthur Wellesley who did not want an Anglo-Indian settler class arising who might challenge the authority of the East Indian Company as British Americans had done. Dalyrmple depicts a world in which racial distinctions are gaining currency, but it distinctively does not portray one where modern racist theories were established or widely held. The late 18th century was a different world from post-Mutiny India after which “British culture was unapologetically imposed on India”.

Progress as critical standard

Enlightenment thinkers were greatly interested in the question of human progress, what today we might call development or, more narrowly, economic growth. This is often rendered in terms of a belief in progress in a way that makes it appear naive. But the analysis of Montesquieu, Smith, Adam Ferguson, and Edward Gibbon was far from naive.

Today historians worry on social media about condemning the Aztec practice of human sacrifice.[18] To make such judgments one needs to secure grounds upon which one can make such a statement. Enlightenment thinkers accomplished this by developing various notions of “progress.”

Belief in progress meant that Enlightenment thinkers were often confident in denouncing specific practices as barbarous and uncivilized. This shaped their attitudes to both non-Europeans and to Europe’s own past. One example of this is their contempt for the Middle Ages, as evident in Voltaire’s scathing mockery or in Gibbon’s dismissal of the Byzantine empire (“a dead uniformity of abject vices, which are neither softened by the weakness of humanity, nor animated by the vigor of memorable crimes”) or the Crusades (“the triumph of barbarism and religion”).[19]

Today we are quick to interpret such judgements as thinly veiled prejudice—and racial prejudice at that. But if there was one notion characteristic of most Enlightenment thinkers it was that progress was possible given the right institutions and government. As Adam Smith put it “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice; all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things.”[20]

Nor were Smith’s lessons only intended for some nations or peoples. Egalitarianism was a key part of his approach to questions of political economy. In a famous passage he observed that the difference between a philosopher and a street porter stems “not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education.” According to Smith, human differences were at least as much a product as a cause of the division of labor.[21]

The majority of Enlightenment thinkers sought institutional and environmental explanations for the differences they observed between societies. An example is Christian Wilhelm von Dohm’s Ueber die bürgerliche Verbesserung der Juden (On the Civil Improvement of the Jews), a highly influential Enlightenment document. It won Dohm the favor of Germany’s Jewish communities and played a key role in inspiring the emancipation of the Jews in the late 18th century.  Nevertheless, it is possible to selectively quote Dohm and make him appear almost antisemitic. At times he assents to almost every racial stereotypes of Jews as clannish, selfish, and dishonest. But Dohm attributed these purported traits not to the nature of Jews, but to the oppression that the they suffered: “Everything the Jews are blamed for is caused by the political conditions under which they now live, and any other group of men, under such conditions, would be guilty of identical errors.”

This institutional approach taken by both Smith and Dohm is of course characteristic of modern economics. In both its analytical apparatus and policy recommendations, economics is far removed from the type of racial theorizing common in the late 19th century or early 20th century.[22]

Finally, consider a clear example of contempt for non-European societies and peoples: the work of Comte de Buffon, the celebrated 18th century biologist. Besides his unenumerable contributions to classifying different species of animals and plants, Buffon articulated a clear hierarchy of human societies and wrote harshly about “miserable” Australians and Native Americans and Asians with “pig-eyes.”

However, Buffon’s racialism is not modern scientific racism. For Buffon, environmental factors were responsible for the differences we observe between different groups of humans today. He believed skin pigmentation was reversible (even within a single generation). This degeneration theory of racial origins was highly influential and has clearly racialist  overtones. But it is not the lineal antecedent of modern racism.

Buffon was not father of modern racialism.[23] Buffon’s environmental approach put him in the classical tradition that went back to Aristotle and which stressed climate and diet rather than a fixed biological category like race.

Enlightenment universalism and its enemies

This brings us to my third point. Something entirely missing from both Bouie and Mills is the Counter-Enlightenment. The attempt to lay the sins of the modern West on the Enlightenment lets the Counter-Enlightenment off the hook. It was in reaction to the universalizing moral philosophy articulated by Enlightenment thinkers that romantic, nationalist, and indeed ethnocentric ideas sprung: Johann Gottfried Herder, Johann Georg Hamann, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Joseph de Maistre, Thomas Carlyle, and others produced a well-spring of ethnocentric, nationalist, and in some case racialist arguments to bear in opposition to what they conceived to be Enlightenment liberalism.

Hardened racial boundaries, romanticized ethno-nationalist histories, and the notion of national cultural and national spirit evolved in reaction to the Enlightenment. This is brought out clearly by Jennifer Pitt in her contrast between Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham on the one hand and John Stuart Mill on the other. Mill, though a thorough liberal, believed in and made use of the concept of national culture. Indeed, he believed that this concept was a major advance on the thinking of Bentham’s generation.

It was precisely the universalizing ideals of the Enlightenment that its critics reacted against most vehemently. De Maistre denied there was such a thing as man; only “Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, and so on,” writing that “I even know, thanks to Montesquieu, that one can be Persian. But as for man, I declare I’ve never encountered him.” He condemned as hubris the notion of liberal constitutionalism and railed against the Enlightenment faith in reason. For de Maistre: “All known nations have been happy and powerful to the extent that they have more faithfully obeyed this national reason, which is nothing other than the annihilation of individual dogmas and the absolute and general reign of national dogmas, that is to say, of useful prejudices.”[24]

David Levy and Sandra Peart have documented how political economy’s 19th century romantics like Carlyle and John Ruskin were incensed by Smithian assumptions of human equality.[25] To Carlyle, blacks were “two-legged cattle” who needed the beneficent rule of whites; Carlyle condemned economics as the “dismal science” for denying this and for making common cause with abolitionists in asserting that human beings should be treated equally. John Stuart Mill responded to Carlyle, condemning “the vulgar error of imputing every difference which he finds among human beings to an original difference of nature.”

As Levy and Peart document, Carlyle’s doctrines contained the seeds of genocide.  Addressing West Indian blacks who “refuse to work” he wrote:

To each of you I will then say: Here is work for you; strike into it with manlike, soldierlike obedience and heartiness, according to the methods here prescribed,— wages follow for you without difficulty; all manner of just remuneration, and at length emancipation itself follows. Refuse to strike into it; shirk the heavy labour, disobey the rules,—I will admonish and endeavour to incite you; if in vain, I will flog you; if still in vain, I will at last shoot you,—and make God’s Earth, and the forlorn-hope in God’s Battle, free of you.[26]

Carlyle’s arguments won him favor with Ruskin and Charles Dickens among others, thinkers today celebrated as critics of unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism.[27] They represent the triumph of Counter-Enlightenment, romanticism, and explicit rejection of the Enlightenment project associated with Smith.

Some preliminary conclusions

We saw that modern racism had its antecedents in the 15th to 18th century. But if any period saw the birth of modern scientific racism it was the 19th century, not the Enlightenment. My reading of the evidence is consistent with Edward Beasley’s claim that in the 18th century “there was no idea of race as we have come to know it—no widely shared theory of biologically determined, physical, intellectual, and moral differences between human groups” (Beasley 2010, p. 1).

So what changed between the 18th and the 19th centuries? A short essay can’t answer this; it would be the thesis of a book. The best one can say is that a confluence of factors were likely responsible. First, the rise of modern biology made the classical emphasis (restated by Buffon) on environmental factors less attractive. Second, race was a convenient ideology for the new formal empire that Britain had acquired across the world. Third, there was widespread disenchantment with Enlightenment notions of universalism which were associated with the French Revolution. In its place we find, in the writings of Thomas Macaulay, Walter Bagehot, and Carlyle, a new emphasis on national character.

Pitts discusses this transition in the context of James Mill and John Stuart Mill. She contrasts the subtle discourse of Scottish Enlightenment theorists about the stages of societal progress with the elder Mill’s binary distinction between civilized and barbarian peoples. And she documents how the younger Mill wrestled with questions of race even as he argued against Carlyle’s call for slavery to be reintroduced and condemned the extra-judicial killings carried out in Jamaica by Governor Eyre.[28]

Mill was committed to liberalism and egalitarianism. But Pitts shows, unlike his Enlightenment predecessors, his thought was undoubtedly influenced by the racial and nationalism ideas current in mid-19th century England. Another important example is Bagehot, a classical liberal and economist who could nevertheless write:

There are breeds in the animal man just as in the animal dog. When you hunt with greyhounds and course with beagles, then, and not till then, may you expect the inbred habits of a thousand years to pass away, that Hindos can be free, or that Englishmen be slaves. (quoted in Beasley 2010, 75)

By the late 19th century, these ideas were commonplace. An intellectual prosopography is required to trace out the diffusion of these ideas among 19th century thinkers. In continental Europe, Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882) was a crucial figure. Gobineau adhered to a polygenic theory of races. Racial character is fixed. Individuals vary but individual characteristics are not heritable; racial characteristics are. In contrast to previous thinkers, Gobineau associated specific racial groups with “interests” and “objectives” and cultural achievements. While Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels claimed that classes acted in the interest of their class, Gobineau claimed races acted as groups, thereby elevating race to historical importance. Civilization rested on the achievements of the “Aryan” race. Finally, Gobineau was a hereditarian. Hence maintaining the purity of the white race was of critical importance to him.

What is interesting here is that while Bagehot, and to a degree Mill, were able to combine adherence to classical liberalism with a racialized notion of national character, these ideas were clearly in tension.[29] For Gobineau and the scientific racists of the late 19th century, such as Ernst Haeckel or Alfred Ploetz, it was the racial collective that came first. Modern racialism of this kind is collectivist rather than individualist. This was the collectivist ideology that seized the minds of the Nazis and others in the early 20th century.

The key ingredients of modern racism are: a scientific or pseudoscientific theory of fixed differences between human “species”; an emphasis on group or collective identity; a stress on national culture and ephemeral spiritual differences rather than institutions to explain differences in societal outcomes. All of these were products of the 19th century and in many cases emerged in diametrical opposition to Enlightenment ideas of individualism and egalitarianism.

This is not to excuse the racism of any given classical liberal or to deny that racialism and liberalism could coexist. But it does suggest that a Foucauldian attempt to trace back the sins of the modern world to the Enlightenment is hardly the path towards a better understanding of the past.

Selected Bibliography

Beasley, Edward (2010). The Victorian Reinvention of Race. London: Routledge.

Bernasconi, Robert (2002). “Kant as an Unfamiliar Source of Racism.” In Philosophers on Race: Critical Essays, eds. Julie K. Ward and Tommy L. Lott. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

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Israel, Jonathan (2011). Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution and Human Rights 1750–1790. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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[1] The initial tweet ran “racism is an enlightenment idea, whose foundations were laid by key thinkers like Locke and Kant.” A subsequent tweet said “the quasi-scientific categorization of humanity into immutable groups defined primarily by skin color—i.e. race—is a product of the Enlightenment.”

[2] In a reply in the original thread.

[3] Jamelle Bouie, “The Enlightenment’s Dark Side,” Slate, June 5, 2018.

[4] In what follows I rely heavily on block quotations in order to give voice to the historians who have written on these documents without editorializing.

[5] I was once told by a historian not to use the term antisemitism to refer to medieval pogroms. I retorted that medieval violence against Jews and late 19th century violence against Jews was based on the same tropes: claims of a conspiracy against gentiles, and accusations of host desecration or blood libels.

[6] “To say that ‘race’ and ‘racism’ are products of the Enlightenment is not to say that humans never held slaves or otherwise classified each other prior to the 18th century. Recent scholarship shows how proto- and early forms of modern race thinking (you could call them racialism) existed in medieval Europe, with near-modern forms taking shape in the 15th and 16th centuries. In Spain, for example, we see the turn from anti-Judaism to anti-Semitism, where Jewish ancestry itself was grounds for suspicion, versus Jewish practice. And as historian George Fredrickson notes in Racism: A Short History, ‘the prejudice and discrimination directed at the Irish on one side of Europe and certain Slavic peoples on the other foreshadowed the dichotomy between civilization and savagery that would characterize imperial expansion beyond the European continent.’ One can find nascent forms of all of these ideas in antiquity—indeed, early modern thinkers drew from all of these sources to build our notion of race” (Jamelle Bouie, “The Enlightenment’s Dark Side”).

[7] My forthcoming book with Noel D. Johnson, Persecution and Toleration: The Long Road to Religious Freedom (Cambridge University Press, 2018) documents this in detail.

[8] There must also be a way of punishing those who deviate from group based discrimination. The logic here is that of collective action in groups as developed by Mancur Olson (1965).  The difficulties of doing this in a free economy is one reason why economists like Gary Becker argued that market competition can erode racial discrimination.

[9] It may also help to explain why Europeans visitors to Asia were largely free of racial prejudices until the nineteenth century. In the eighteenth century when they came as merchants, missionaries, and diplomats their attitudes were open-minded and often admiring.

[10] For instance, a passage in the Historia Augusta, Septimius Severus, who originated from North Africa, ordered an Ethiopian soldier removed from his sight on the basis of his “ominous color”. Some scholars have interpreted this as a joke on racist attitudes by Severus. But, however this passage is interpreted, it suggests that Romans were not blind to skin color. Isaac doesn’t discuss Roman attitudes to Black Africans. The racialist categories he focuses on do not evolve around skin color.

[11] Nirenberg backs away from claiming that medieval Spanish notions of race were the same as modern racism. But he does note that “Spaniards utilized a vocabulary of race grounded in theories of animal husbandry that posited the biological reproduction of somatic and behavioral traits . . . this vocabulary underwrote a set of strategies that explained and legitimated the creation and perpetuation of certain hierarchies and discriminations” (Nirenberg 2007, 83).

[12] Historians distinguish between a French, a Scottish, and a Neapolitan Enlightenment.  Jonathan Israel divides a Radical Enlightenment associated with Spinoza, with the moderate Enlightenment of Voltaire, Montesquieu and Smith.  See John Robertson, The Case for Enlightenment, (2009). Cambridge University Press for analysis of the Enlightenment in Naples and Scotland. Jonathan Israel’s interpretation of the Enlightenment is contained in his three volumes Radical Enlightenment (2002), Oxford University Press, Enlightenment Contested (2006), Oxford University Press and Democratic Enlightenment (2011), Oxford University Press.

[13] To contemporaries the idea of the Enlightenment as an intellectual movement was the largely invention of the French lumières in the middle years of the 18th century. They retrospectively claimed Newton and Locke as representing the triumph of modern science and knowledge over the ancients.

[14]Chronologically, the French Revolution marks the end of the Enlightenment period. Thinkers like Burke and Herder can be considered as both Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment thinkers. But Hegel, Fichte, Tocqueville, and Mill are not Enlightenment thinkers.

[15] See Voltaire (1756, 1759), An Essay on Universal History: The Manners and Spirit of Nations, translated by J. Nourse, London.  Smith (1790, 1984), The Theory of Moral Sentiments, edited by D.D. Raphael and A.L. Macfie, Liberty Fund, Indianapolis. Montesquieu (1717, 2008), Persian Letters, translated by Margaret Mauldon, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[16] Kant was vehement in condemning colonialism. The key piece making the case for Kant as a source of modern racism is Robert Bernasconi, “Kant as an Unfamiliar Source of Racism,” in Julie K. Ward and Tommy L. Lott, eds., Philosophers on Race: Critical Essays (Blackwell Publishing, 2002), pp. 145-166.  Pauline Kleingeld, however, argues that Kant had second thoughts on race in the 1790s.  He moved away from a strict hierarchy of races and in his later work objected strongly to chattel slavery. Kleingeld, P. (2007). Kant’s second thoughts on race. The Philosophical Quarterly, 57(229), 573-592.

[17] Stephen Platt (2018), Imperial Twilight, Random House.

[18] Which was on display when journalist Lizzie Wade defended the practice (https://twitter.com/lizzie_wade/status/1010178681334050822).

[19] Edward Gibbon (1788, 1879), Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, volumes 4 and 6, Harper & Brothers, New York.

[20] Quoted in Dugald Stewart, Account of the Life and Writings of Adam Smith, LL.D., in Adam Smith (1980), Essays on Philosophical Subjects (New York: Oxford University Press), p. 322.

[21] Adam Smith (1776, 1904), An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. Edwin Cannan (London: Methuen), Book I, Chapter 2.

[22] Despite this scholars conducting institutional analysis are frequently accused of being Eurocentric. See James M. Blaut (2000), Eight Eurocentric Historians, Guilford Press.

[23] Tzventan Todorov in On Human Diversity (1993) seems to make this claim. The evidence is simply not there, however.

[24] Joseph de Maistre (2009), Considerations on France, translated by Richard A. Lebrun, Cambridge University Press.

[25] David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart (2008), The Street Porter and the Philosopher: Conversations on Analytical Egalitarianism, University of Michigan Press. David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart (2005), The ‘Vanity of the Philosopher’: From Equality to Hierarchy in Post-classical Economics, University of Michigan Press.

[26] Quoted in David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart (2001), “The Secret History of the Dismal Science, Part I: Economics, Religion and Race in the 19th Century,” Library of Economics and Liberty (Liberty Fund, Inc., Indianapolis), January 22.

[27] “Against Adam Smith’s doctrine that to be human is to exchange freely, Ruskin juxtaposes a doctrine that to be human is to be improved by our betters, those who can make men the way a potter makes potter” (Levy 2001, 8).

[28] Governor John Eyre brutally suppressed the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865.  He declared martial law and killed hundreds of individuals, imprisoning and flogging many more. In Britain, liberals like John Stuart Mill demanded that he be put on trial for murder.

[29] By the late 19th century, the progressive economists and reformers studied by Thomas Leonard in his Illiberal Reformers were led by their faith in eugenics and race science to abandon liberalism entirely. See Thomas C. Leonard, (2016). Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era. Princeton University Press.

Featured image is Immanuel Kant