26 Δεκεμβρίου 2014

I) The Enlightenment and ‘Race’: Kant and II) Immanuel Kant and Natural Law: How Racism Became Scientific.

The Enlightenment and ‘Race’: Kant

Reading: Kant, I. [1777] (2000) ‘Of the Different Human Races’ in Bernasconi, R. & Lott, T. (Eds.) The Idea of Race, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company

Kant & the Idea of ‘Race’
The question of the genesis of the idea of ‘race’ is a difficult one which hinges on what one means both by ‘race’ and by its birth. Justifications for the enslavement or slaughter of enemies and of those with distinct physiognomies or national cultures predate now long-familiar concepts of ‘race’ and systems of racial categorisation. The introduction of the scientific category of ‘race’ provided such practices with both a contemporary and retrospective legitimacy. This category was one which emerged from philosophical debate in the eighteenth century Enlightenment. This ‘invention’ and rise of ‘race’ is the topic of this week’s discussion, and a central character in the debates is Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).

The earliest known reference to ‘race’ in a recognisably modern sense predates the enlightenment and can be found in a 1684 essay attributed to François Bernier. Bernier’s particular interest was the identification of ‘beauty’ among women of different ‘races’. His conflation of racial categorisation with sexual desire foreshadows much later European writing on ‘race’.

The kind of questions in play during the Eighteenth Century were
· Might measurement of skulls provide evidence of ‘racial’ divergence?
· Could hair texture or skin tone serve to differentiate ‘racial’ groups?
· Could members of different ‘races’ have offspring with each other? (The difficulty for scientists of persuading type specimens of the various ‘races’ to have sex made this an impractical criterion by which to establish racial difference)
This last questions arises in connection with the rule established by the French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon which stated that individuals can mate together only if they are of the same species, a rule which led those who believed that humanity was indeed divided into different species to speculate on the separate origin of these strains. For these so called ‘polygenists’, including most famously François-Marie Voltaire, a way had to be found to square their account with the Biblical one which identified a common pair of ancestors for all humans. The most obvious way around this was to declare that non-Europeans were not human (Bernasconi, 2001, p.20). Voltaire’s hierarchical model, for instance, placed Africans as a species below Whites but above apes and oysters (ibid., p.21). For Kant, on the other hand, there is only one, common origin for all humans, who “have been able, beginning from one line of descent which originally concealed in itself the predispositions… to divide themselves into so many races through procreation.” (Kant, 2001, p.41)

In contrast with the Marxist theorists of ‘race’ which we will meet next week, Bernasconi (2001, p.21) argues that the fact that the category of ‘race’ was developed in Germany rather than the main slave-trading nations, suggests that the motivation for its development was not as a justification for slavery, but in the interests of scientific classification. (This is not to say that the slave trade did not serve to strengthen and develop the concept of ‘race’, nor to deny that economic factors did not allow for its dissemination and its later embedding in popular culture.)

The significance of Kant’s particular contribution to the establishment of the scientific category of race is well established by historians but remains little remarked upon by philosophers. During the eighteenth century scientific classification – the devising and tabulating of ‘types’ – was really taking off. Along with physical descriptions of varieties of humans, researchers such as Carl Linnaeus drew on the emerging travel literature to cluster temperamental and character differences into the taxonomies of type. For instance homo Europaeus is gentle, acute, inventive and religious, whereas homo Africanaus is crafty, indolent, negligent, and capricious. What was missing at this stage is a worked-through account of what is actually being described (Bernasconi, 2001, p.15). There is still no ‘race’ as a category. Buffon comes a little closer than Linnaeus with his suggestion that stock can change as a result of climate geography and especially food (ibid. p.16). It is interesting to note that alongside Buffon’s characterisation of Blacks, Whites, Laplanders and Patagonians as his main types appear Dwarfs and Giants; Linnaeus’ taxonomy includes not only Europeans, Asians, Americans and Africans, but also Troglodytes and ‘homo monstrosus’ (ibid.)!

It was Kant who first established the difference between ‘races’ and the more non-specific ‘varieties’ or ‘types’. ‘Races’, Kant said, are marked by hereditary characteristics which must be passed on to offspring, whereas the characteristics of ‘varieties’ are not necessarily transmitted across generations: “race… is an inevitable hereditary peculiarity which certainly justifies division into classes” (Kant, 2001, p.41). For Kant, the ‘races’ of humanity are clearly not distinct species, as they are capable of “producing fertile offspring through interbreeding.” (Kant, 2001, p.41) They are, rather, “deviate forms, even though they are still so distinct and persistent that they are justifiably distinguishable as classes.” (Kant, 2001, p.40)

Kant adopts Buffon’s rule to deny polygenesis. He then goes further to clarify that ‘races’ are subcategories or deviations within a species which maintain themselves, even when displaced in different regions, but which are capable of fertile copulation, giving rise to hybrids having characteristics of both ‘races’.

Kant’s aim was to demonstrate the reason for deviation of races from a common genus. This he called ‘natural history’. This is to be distinguished from ‘natural description’. The scientific investigation of ‘race’, as placed in the former category, so takes on the question of the purposive causes of ‘racial’ deviation. Had it been placed in the latter, it would have been a matter merely of natural deviation.
“the origin of the Negro certainly does not belong to the description of nature, but instead only to natural history. This distinction lies in the nature of things; and in making this distinction I am demanding nothing new but instead only the careful separation of one activity from the other, because they are totally heterogeneous… [N]atural history can only offer us fragments or shaky hypothesis. But even if natural history can, at the present time (and perhaps for ever), only be presented more in outline than in a work of practicable science…such efforts are not, I hope, without value.” (Kant, 2001, p.39)
It is important to note that when Kant speaks of ‘race’ as a phenomenon of ‘natural history’, he intends a specific meaning to be understood, one which should not be confused with narrative description, but one pertaining to teleology, or purposiveness. His conception of ‘race’, then, requires “an unavoidable departure from classical expressions.” (Kant, 2001, p.40)

For Kant, humans are equipped with predetermined potentials to adapt, which he describes as ‘seeds’ which are developed or held back by climatic conditions. However, this is not merely a question of chance. Whilst seeds were latent in all ‘races’, the appropriate seeds were actualised to serve purposes arising from circumstances. Remember, Kant’s is not an evolutionary theory but a teleological one, recognising the realisation by climatic conditions of a set of preordained possibilities. This does not mean that humans were ‘predestined’ to the geographical distribution that the world has seen, but rather, that given any distribution, humans would, over the long passage of generations, have realised their preformed adaptive potential. Adam and Eve represent a kind of stem-cell couple, a neutral (white) and undifferentiated pure potentiality:
“the descendents of this first human couple, for whom the complete predisposition is still undivided for all future deviate forms, were (potentially) fitted for all climates. Their seed could, in other words, have developed in such a way that would make them fitted for that one region of the earth into which they or their early offspring might have wandered. A special, wise act of Providence is not, therefore, required to bring them to such places to which their predispositions are fitted.” (Kant, 2001, pp.47-8)
In their ‘finished’ state of realisation, ‘races’ are, on Kant’s account, disinclined to migrate outside of their respective climatic zones, and when they do, are unable to thrive:
“nature has prevented human beings from mistakenly exchanging one climate for another – especially the warm for the cold – through their established fitness to a specific climate. For nature, working on her own, checks this calamitous adaptation to a new region by those inhabitants of an old region whose natural dispositions have already become adapted to the old region. Where, for example, have Asian-Indians or Negroes ever attempted to spread out into northern lands?” (Kant, 2001, p.47)
This, as we will see, is not merely a matter of skin-colour adaptation, but of dispositional fitness to particular environments. ‘Negroes’ were not unfit for European life merely on account of their skin colour, but because of their inability to work or think as the European does (Bernasconi, 2001, p.48).

‘Race’ as the realisation of divine purpose means that ‘races’ should not be undone. We have, on Kant’s account reached the final forms of ‘racial’ distinctiveness, expressing the ‘infinitely diverse purposes’ of creating the greatest possible diversity among peoples, a diversity which “prevails, so that the final predispositions – after they have once developed (which must have occurred already in the most ancient times) – does not allow any new forms of this kind to emerge, nor the old forms to be extinguished.” (Kant, 2001, p.42) Kant’s view was that, races having become established, for instance, whites living in hot climates could not now become ‘negro’. Through his development of the concept of ‘race’, Kant lent the prohibition on ‘race’-mixing a kind of scientific legitimacy (Bernasconi, 2002, pp.155). Bernasconi (2002, pp.154-5) is able to provide ample evidence of Kant’s opposition to ‘race’-mixing for its tendency to degrade the “good race” without lifting the “bad”. To avoid ‘race’-mixing, then, is really just to act in conformity with nature. That is, one should let nature run its course “without the effects of migration or foreign interbreeding” (Kant, in Bernasconi, 2002, p.157) After all, why would nature have produced (on Kant’s count) four distinct ‘races’ from an original pair if these were eventually to be reduced back to a mixture thereby undoing its work of ages?

For Kant, not only skin colour but also those dispositions characteristic of the established ‘races’ were fixed and permanent. Thus the inherited and inevitable laziness and savagery of ‘the negro’ rendered the attempts of some well-meaning whites at civilising Africans futile. Their current character is how they must be: “The Negro can be disciplined and cultivated, but is never genuinely civilized. He falls of his own accord into savagery.” (Kant, in Bernasconi, 2002, p.158) ‘Negroes’, Native Americans and Indians cannot develop rationality as Europeans can, and must thus remain imitators of Western civilisation rather than sharing in it. Kant’s opposition to ‘race’-mixing was informed also by his belief that this would dilute the ability of the ‘good race’ to exercise their rationality as the embodiment of their capacity for civility: “Should one propose that the races be fused or not? They do not fuse and it is also not desirable that they should. The Whites would be degraded.” (Kant, in Bernasconi, 2002, p.158) Bernasconi goes so far as to claim that Kant’s “belief that race mixing would lead to a weakening of the White race… is at the heart of his racial theory” (Bernasconi, 2002, p.159).

From a twenty first century perspective does Kant’s message of “no immigration; no ‘interracial’ sex” sound like anybody we recognise?

And whilst we’re exploring questions, let’s try this one: Why are black people black? This question obsessed eighteenth century scientists. But why did they not start with the question, why are white people white? Kant’s central distinguishing criterion of ‘race’ was “necessarily heritable skin colour” (Kant, 2001, p.46), something which inevitably soon led him into entirely unsupportable assertion – attempting to create dividing lines by colour where no such hard and fast divisions actually exist. Whilst the concept of ‘race’ required intellectual coherence, ‘colour’ was clearly not the rule by which such stability could be established. Nevertheless, it was ‘colour’ which Kant regarded as most useful in distinguishing ‘races’. For Kant, the purposive nature of colour is most evident in ‘the negro’. Given that neither chance nor mechanical laws could have brought about such features, they must be developed from the preformed seeds.

We need to make reference here to a rather subtle and difficult distinction between ‘race’ as reality and ‘race’ as necessity. For Kant, looking for order in nature was an important principle of reason. ‘Race’, as opposed to variety, does not actually belong to things in the world. It is an essential organising device: that is, the term ‘race’ corresponds to phenomena (of colour and inheritance) in the world and is absolutely necessary to ‘natural history’:
“What is a race? The word certainly does not belong to a systematic description of nature, so presumably the thing in itself is nowhere to be found in nature. However, the concept which this expression designates is nevertheless well established in the reason of every observer of nature who supposes a conjunction of causes placed originally in the line of descent of the genus itself in order to account for a self-transmitted peculiarity that appears in different interbreeding animals but which does not lie in the concept of their genus” (Kant, 2001, p.40)
Does ‘race’ still impose itself on us according to a regulative principle of reason?
Do our current views about ‘race’ represent a residue of older patterns of thinking?

Kant and Racism
Kant’s crucial role in the development of the scientific concept of ‘race’ cannot be separated from his equally significant contribution to the history of racism.

Probably Kant’s most well known excursion into racist characterisations occurs in his 1764 Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime where he describes and attempts to account for the tastes and moral sensibilities of different national groups. He is yet to clarify his strictly ‘racial’ concept here, but the sense of hierarchy with which he deals with different nationalities is clear, with Africans assigned the lowest place in terms of their capacities and characters:
“The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling. Mr Hume challenges anyone to cite a single example in which a Negro has shown talents, and asserts that among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who are transported elsewhere from their countries, although many of them have even been set free, still not a single one was ever found who presented anything great in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality, even though among the whites some continually rise aloft from the lowest rabble, and through superior gifts earn respect in the world. So fundamental is the difference between theses two races of man, and it appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in colour… The blacks are very vain but in the Negro’s way, and so talkative that they must be driven apart with thrashings.” (Kant, 1997a, p.55-6)
Kant continued to expound and develop his racism until his retirement from lecturing in 1797. His lectures on Physical Geography had been delivered over many years and were published in the year of his death, 1804. By the time the following passage was written, Kant had clearly worked out more specifically his hierarchy of ‘races’, assigning a position below that even of the ‘Negro’ to native American people: he writes,
“In the hot countries the human being matures in all aspects earlier, but does not, however, reach the perfection of those in the temperate zones. Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites. The yellow Indians do have a meagre talent. The Negroes are far below them and at the lowest point are a part of the American peoples.” (Kant, 1997b, p.63)
Bernasconi also draws from an unpublished manuscript in which Kant notes that Whites “contain all the impulses of nature in affects and passions, all talents, all dispositions to culture and civilization and can as readily obey as govern. They are the only ones who always advance to perfection.” (Kant, in Bernasconi, 2002, pp.148-9) In The Use of Teleological Principles, too, Kant clearly advocates a hierarchy of ‘races’ with the native American (“too weak for hard labour, too indifferent for diligence, and unfit for any culture” (Kant, 2001, p.48)) on the bottom rung, below the ‘negro’ “who undoubtedly holds the lowest of all remaining levels by which we designate the different races.” (Ibid.)
Furthermore, Kant selected pro-slavery sources (Bernasconi, 2002, p.148) which he approvingly cited as authoritative on the characteristics of ‘negroes’, who, he asserts are unable to work if left to their own devices. That is, for Kant, ‘negroes’ are better suited to slavery than to free labour, a point he extends to Indians and gypsies who also inherit a predisposition against work (ibid., pp.148-9). Kant nowhere condemns slavery, “[i]ndeed, the fact that Kant, for example, in his lectures on Physical Geography, confines himself to statements about the best way to whip Moors, leaves one wondering if, like some of his contemporaries, he had apparently failed to see the application of the principle to this particular case.” (Bernasconi, 2002, p.151) Such a reading, proposed by Bernasconi is supported by several of Kant’s unpublished papers, wherein he refers to blacks as “born slaves” (Kant in Bernasconi, 2002, p.152) who, like native Americans “cannot govern themselves. They thus serve only for slaves” (ibid.). From a twenty first century perspective there would appear to be a marked contrast here between Kant’s anthropological speculation and his ethical writing, a contradiction which we touched upon in Year One (Principles) and which we will not revisit at length in this week’s session.

Note, we do not make reference here to Kant’s views on Colonialism, a subject which we will pick up next week in relation to Marx & Engels, noting merely that he largely opposed any right of peoples or nations to settle on or take land inhabited by others, even if this might be in the long term interests of the world (Bernasconi, pp.153-4). Here at least Kant is consistent in his application of the universal principle never to regard others as means to an end, only as an end in themselves.

Do positions on ‘race’ such as those espoused by Kant make any difference to our thinking about his philosophy? Does this matter? Do we think differently of people in general if they express such views?

When ‘ordinary people’ (!) think or talk about ‘race’, do they think of it as a idea having a definite history?


Bernasconi, R. (2001) ‘Who Invented the Concept of Race? Kant’s Role in the Enlightenment Construction of Race’ in Bernasconi, R. (Ed.) Race, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers
Bernasconi, R. (2002) ‘Kant as an Unfamiliar Source of Racism’ in Ward, J. & Lott, T. (Eds.) Philosophers on Race: Critical Essays, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers
Kant, I. [1764] (1997a) ‘On National Characteristics, so far as they Depend upon the Distinct Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime’, in Eze, E. (Ed.) Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader, Oxford: Blackwell
Kant, I. [1804] (1997b) ‘From Physical Geography’, in Eze, E. (Ed.) Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader, Oxford: Blackwell
Kant, I. [1777] (2000) ‘Of the Different Human Races’ in Bernasconu, R. & Lott, T. (Eds.) The Idea of Race, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company
Kant, I. [1788](2001) ‘On the Use of Teleological Principles in Philosophy’, in Bernasconi, R. (Ed.) Race, Oxford: Blackwell

Immanuel Kant and Natural Law: How Racism Became Scientific

An unfortunate reality of global history and present day social structures is the institutionalization of racism. Whether it has been to justify slavery, segregate black people in America, rationalize the Holocaust or, more recently, dictate the faces of terrorism, racist motivations have always been present. In more subtle ways, racist tactics influence who has access to political and economic resources within a state, who can get the best jobs, who is systematically marginalized within society, and most importantly, what kind of identity constitutes the ruling classes.

Prominent figures in history such as Immanuel Kant have provided considerable influence on the philosophical and anthropological theories that have been presented as knowledge and truth since the onset of the Enlightenment period. Kant’s construction of race as a fixed category of human identity followed the reason and scientific phenomenon of his time and was constructed through what he defined as taxonomy. Taxonomy is the science of identifying and naming living organisms while further arranging them into a classification system. Kant’s taxonomy illustrates that race is perpetuated through socio-biological dispositions developed through variations that follow what he believes to be natural law. Kant used natural taxonomy to essentialize humans, marking racial appearance as the defining characteristic in which he uses to construct a hierarchical division of race. He assumes race to be a set of biological and environmental factors, delegated by natural order, that relate physical racial differences with the perpetuation of social, mental and physical traits.

Kant developed his taxonomy of the origins of race and racial identity according to a set of natural rules that follow the history of mankind. He cites racial difference as reduced to the fact that there are sets of natural biological deviations that spawn from a single human genus that constitute the entire human race. These deviations are varied through hereditary traits which are perpetuated and ascertainable on first sight. He groups these distinctions as following a set of universal qualities that maintain difference. In doing so, he arranges the races of humans into four groups: White, Negro, Hunnic and Hindu, and demonstrates that geographical location, climate and diet are factors of natural order that create the social and physical differences among each of these four races. He cites air and sun to be the most extensive foundation of how predispositions of physical characteristics are perpetuated. For example, Kant demonstrates that skin colour is consistent with environmental climates and presents this fact as universal truth by adapting his understanding of race to be applicable to any grouping of people. He goes further to apply this truth to explain the differences in physical body types, believing they are caused by biological development that follows natural law. Kant presumes that racial understandings are based on scientific categories that constitute hereditary difference, emphasizing too greatly the relationship between climate and environment as the consequence of biological structure.

The way in which Kant was able to organize his assumptions of biology and environment as a construction of racial identity rationalized his knowledge of how and why social dispositions are developed among humans. He argued that social characteristics are represented as distinctions of hereditary difference subject to where the being lives. For example, when speaking of the predispositions of a black person he allocates that black people are unintelligent, indolent and lacking moral and aesthetic beauty due to the hot climates of their environment, whereas a white man, born to cold northern climates, are strong, clever and rational beings, able to effectively contribute to the progression of civil society.

The illustration of taxonomy presented by Kant assumes that there is a hierarchical structure that is apparent to the human races with his most profound argument following the idea of the white male being the superior race and the black male being one of the most inferior races. He believes that a white male (preferably a German) has the social predisposition of aesthetic and moral beauty as a consequence of his environment, while a black male, due to his respective environment, is destined to be the one of the worst races of the natural deviations, having no sense of moral and aesthetic beauty and being an unimportant social being. This presumes a linear sense of natural hierarchy based on a system of law that essentializes the ideal race as a white person, while all other races lack the natural dispositions of moral and aesthetic beauty. Kant justifies his knowledge of racial identity by grouping differences to be obvious biological traits allowing for generalizations to be accepted as taken for granted truths which seek to emphasize superiority. The assumptions of fixed racial identities perpetuate the hierarchical classification of social, physical and mental capacities and cite racial superiority to be a given fact that follows a system of natural law.

Through this classification system of race, the historical implications posed from the explicit power relations of Enlightenment knowledge was used to justify attitudes of superiority and to create the assumptions of racial identity. Kant poses an anthropological argument and establishes that classification and racialization are linked to exemplify a hierarchical construction of race. So we really need to ask ourselves, are black people in fact lazy because of sweltering hot African climates? Is the lack of growing national economies, limited access to jobs and non-existent middle class due to meteorological data? Is the blame not on European colonial ventures of the past two hundred years and of outrageous debt to global financial corporations in more recent years? Do we as Canadians not become sluggish and hole up in the warmth of our heated homes during the cold winter months? It’s funny because in Spain where the weather is relatively mild, for nearly four hours each day its citizens partake in ‘siestas.’ Right in the middle of the day, people will close up their businesses, stores, restaurants and civil offices to break from a supposed hard day’s work. Yet, because of the overwhelming whiteness of Spanish society, no one would dare say that Spaniards are indolent, with no sense of moral and aesthetic beauty and are overall unimportant social beings. For the record, race is not the only classifying and marginalizing factor of social relations. Gender, sexuality, class and physical/mental disabilities are also intersections of isolation. But is one more stratifying than the other? If we can’t point out differences at point of contact – visible minorities are obviously different due to appearance, whereas homosexuality is often not as evident – can one conclude that racism is most detrimental?

Although today one can understand that race and biology are not linked in constructing racial identity and that race is a cultural construct, it is still necessary to be sceptical of present day knowledge that surrounds racial thinking. To this day, generalizations surrounding race and identity affect popular discourse, and have continued to perpetuate racial hierarchy as a subtle reoccurrence in our society.


Works Cited: Eze, E.C. Race and enlightenment: “this fellow was quite black…a clear proof that what he said was stupid.” Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers LTD. 1997.