Of Kant and many other things
September 6, 2014 1:19 AM   Subscribe

The Enlightenment’s ‘Race’ Problem, and Ours. Why have we chosen to go with Hume and Kant, rather than with the pre-racial conception of humanity?
posted by infini (53 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
The author has a blog dedicated to Anton Wilhelm Amo: http://www.theamoproject.org/.
posted by XMLicious at 2:04 AM on September 6, 2014 [4 favorites]


Of course we understand that entire line of thought is intellectually and morally bankrupt.
But, hey, it's easier to go with the flow.
posted by Pudhoho at 3:30 AM on September 6, 2014


How can one have the erudition and education necessary to write this article without having ever been exposed to the concept of things being socially real but biologically or physically false?
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:39 AM on September 6, 2014 [13 favorites]


The Academy, tra la la
posted by Pudhoho at 3:52 AM on September 6, 2014


I found his blog and, once again, I wish I still possessed the ability to distinguish between satire and œuvres sérieux:
Every man carries his 'I.D.' at all times... upon his very face!

The arc of life: desire gives way to deadlines. The word that rides this arc all the way is 'determination', but its meaning shifts as we advance: from 'drive, vigor, spiritedness', to 'the order of things can be no other way'.

Nothing makes me angrier than when I hear someone ask, after a respectable dinner, 'Can I get you some dessert?' Do I look like I am five years old, that I should want a cup of pudding? A cream tart with berries? I am a grown man! No, no, I say, bring me some more salt!

Once I found myself at high table at Trinity College in Cambridge. I was sitting next to an ancient robed man, who wished to tell me what meals were like there before the war. 'It used to be they brought you two savories before your sweet', he offered. 'Now it's your savory, then your sweet, just like that'. This man had likely won all sorts of prizes; at the time I had still barely escaped juvenile delinquency. I didn't know what the word 'savory' meant, but I found the word 'sweet' obscenely undignified, and wondered why I had pushed so hard to gain a place at that table.

Benevolent community members can carve out 'safe spaces' here and there, but this will not prevent you from rupturing on the inside.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:15 AM on September 6, 2014 [7 favorites]


Jesus, Joe, that's hilarisad.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:36 AM on September 6, 2014


Pope Guilty:
You missed the few paragraphs where he discusses that, I guess. Look for the word "normative".
posted by ServSci at 4:43 AM on September 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


MeFites have an amazing ability to mock articles they haven't read.
posted by nangar at 4:48 AM on September 6, 2014 [7 favorites]


He mentions it, but he immediately dismisses it in a way that suggests he doesn't understand it in the least.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:58 AM on September 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


Pope Guilty:

I think he deals with it in most of the article. I mean, even the fate of Amo is a testament to the social reality of race, and the power of the oppressor to enforce that reality.
posted by allthinky at 5:11 AM on September 6, 2014


I find it a little weird that the author praises Kraus' remark about the "natural genius of Africa," which places Amo in the company of writers who lived some two millennia before his life, some two thousand miles away (across the entire Sahara!) in a radically different culture---all because Amo is from the same enormous continent as them.

Kraus' support of Amo is wonderful, of course, but the remark seems like a poorly chosen quote to cite in this context.
posted by Bromius at 5:15 AM on September 6, 2014


Sweeping generalizations about anything are apt to be wrong, no?
posted by Benny Andajetz at 5:31 AM on September 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


I find it a little weird that the author praises Kraus' remark about the "natural genius of Africa,"

I think the point is that he was praising Amo by comparing him to famous writers from the same continent, without making a racial distinction between North Africans like St. Augustine, and darker complectioned sub-Saharan Africans like Amo. It's the absence of this now common-place distinction that makes the comparison sound weird to us.

(Genii were a type of Roman nature spirit. I think Kraus was just using a flowery metaphor here.)
posted by nangar at 5:56 AM on September 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


That quote puts Amo in a long line of respected and well known African theologians, a context in which it is understood without mentioning that the classical concept of Africa is meant, rather than the actually existing continent as it was understood then. It's extending and embracing that tradition of intellectual heavyweights to pay a compliment and give strength to an argument about the intellectual worth of "Africa".
posted by MartinWisse at 5:59 AM on September 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


is the author attacking Kant's idea of categories in the Critique... which has nothing to do with categorizing people by race as a category? I honestly don't understand what his argument here is viz. the "Enlightenment."
posted by ennui.bz at 6:22 AM on September 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


is he really arguing that slavery was a product of ontology? Because, when you cut through it, that's what's going on when you talk about race and africa.
posted by ennui.bz at 6:25 AM on September 6, 2014


Without discounting the intellectuals altogether I think racism is generally more cant than Kant.
posted by Segundus at 6:34 AM on September 6, 2014


is the author attacking Kant's idea of categories in the Critique

No, I don't think so, but Kant's Anthropology is probably representative of other threads in his thought and/or problems with Enlightenment social thought, and it takes a pretty strong view not just of race but of national character, race, miscegenation, etc. Googling a bit, this article seems to provide much more info on where Kant stood, but I haven't actually read it--only passages from the source--so maybe it undermines my own brief look at this. I think Foucault's introduction tries to make connections to the Critiques, but again, I've only glanced at it. Just incidentally, citing Herder as a more interesting starting point has been common for much of the history of the modern discipline of anthropology.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 6:49 AM on September 6, 2014 [4 favorites]


is he really arguing that slavery was a product of ontology? Because, when you cut through it, that's what's going on when you talk about race and africa.

Most versions of this critique work the other way around: as the argument goes, in a society that relies on slavery, even the philosophers have a set of default assumptions that worm their way into seemingly neutral, abstract ideas like "ontology." So, for example, making "reason" the foundation of subjectivity is not really about some imagined neutral category like "rationality," but rather about maintaining a boundary between "irrational savages" and "rational citizens" and so on.

Kant does a hell of a lot of that in the Critique of Judgment and other texts. There's the whole bit about New Hollanders, for example, which is a major part of his argument about the "raw man" and the civilized man's ability to perceive the sublime, and ultimately what separates the raw man from any kind of full subjectivity (i.e., membership in rationality) and thus full humanity. Kant spends a lot of time tying stuff like citizenship and legal rights to rationality; if some people lack rationality, they don't get those things. And his examples are the aboriginal peoples of "New Holland," who were busily being denied such rights and such status at the time.

So in its time period, Kantian ontology conveniently helps with the work of dehumanizing those folks over there you're colonizing or enslaving. It's built from the ground up to do that. And after it becomes "high philosophy," it can be a justification, not just a product of its time and of Kant's limited perspective.
posted by kewb at 6:52 AM on September 6, 2014 [9 favorites]


Joe in Australia & Pope Guilty: The clue that it's not serious is in the last paragraph of that post:
Academic philosophers are now in the habit of mocking the unwashed masses for asking us, when seated next to us on airplanes and informed of our line of work, what our 'sayings' are. Well I think sayings are a fine thing to have, and am currently working on some of my own.
He's presumably referring to discussions like this one. (That's a bit old, now, but this sort of interaction apparently happens frequently; I've heard several other philosophers report it as well.)
posted by voltairemodern at 7:01 AM on September 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


Pope Guilty: "He mentions [the possibility that race is socially real], but he immediately dismisses it in a way that suggests he doesn't understand it in the least."

I don't see that in the article. I read him as arguing: If race is merely a social construction, then the only reason to keep it around is if it uniquely serves some useful purpose. And race is merely a social construction, but it doesn't seem uniquely to serve any useful purpose -- i.e., it serves no purpose that couldn't be equally well served by non-racial concepts. So, we have no reason to keep using the concept of race when, for example, we're trying to analyze crime rates (or graduation rates or whatever other social phenomenon).

It seems that there are several good objections to be raised against this argument. I'm not convinced that every fruitful use to which we put the concept of race could really be handled with other concepts. But the main thrust of the argument absolutely takes seriously the fact that race is socially real. It's just that, if something is merely socially constructed, then it's up to us to collectively determine -- intentionally or not -- whether it continues to exist.
posted by voltairemodern at 7:18 AM on September 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


How can one have the erudition and education necessary to write this article without having ever been exposed to the concept of things being socially real but biologically or physically false?

Smith is clearly familiar with the concept of things being socially really but biologically false and explicitly discusses why this distinction is problematic in terms of race.

Many who are fully prepared to acknowledge that there are no significant natural differences between races nonetheless argue that there are certain respects in which it is worth retaining the concept of race: for instance in talking about issues like social inequality or access to health care. There is, they argue, a certain pragmatic utility in retaining it, even if they acknowledge that racial categories result from social and historical legacies, rather than being dictated by nature. In this respect “race” has turned out to be a very different sort of social construction than, say, “witch” or “lunatic.” While generally there is a presumption that to catch out some entity or category as socially constructed is at the same time to condemn it, many thinkers are prepared to simultaneously acknowledge both the non-naturalness of race as well as a certain pragmatic utility in retaining it.

He's not denying the claim that race is a category that's socially constructed, but challenging the argument, advanced by anti-racists as well as racists, that it's useful to employ that category to guide our thinking. I think his challenge to that argument, as well as his discussion of why the argument has so far proved persuasive, is interesting and insightful.

I'm not sure I agree with his conclusions, but I don't think you can dismiss his thesis as the product of ignorance of race as a social, rather than biological, category.
posted by layceepee at 7:25 AM on September 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


Very interesting and thought-provoking piece (if one is interested in having thoughts provoked rather than looking for something to snark about, of course)—thanks for posting it.

> How can one have the erudition and education necessary to write this article without having ever been exposed to the concept of things being socially real but biologically or physically false?

How can one have the erudition and education necessary to write that comment without bothering to read the (not very long) linked piece, or if one has read it, done so so poorly as to say such a pointless and incorrect thing about it?
posted by languagehat at 7:32 AM on September 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


is the author attacking Kant's idea of categories in the Critique... which has nothing to do with categorizing people by race as a category? I honestly don't understand what his argument here is viz. the "Enlightenment."

The piece doesn't at all argue that Kant's racial ideas are connected to his transcendental deduction of categories, as far as I can see.
posted by thelonius at 7:36 AM on September 6, 2014


I don't see that in the article. I read him as arguing: If race is merely a social construction, then the only reason to keep it around is if it uniquely serves some useful purpose. And race is merely a social construction, but it doesn't seem uniquely to serve any useful purpose -- i.e., it serves no purpose that couldn't be equally well served by non-racial concepts.

It serves the purpose of racism, is why it's kept around. It's a component of domination and will be kept around until oppression is dissolved or it like many tools over time becomes unsuitable to the task and is discarded by the ruling class.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:47 AM on September 6, 2014 [4 favorites]


It serves the purpose of racism, is why it's kept around. It's a component of domination and will be kept around until oppression is dissolved or it like many tools over time becomes unsuitable to the task and is discarded by the ruling class.

Smith's argument is that the use of race as a category is not limited to attempts to preserve racism, but is also used in explicitly anti-racists discourse, as well as analysis that's ostensibly neutral on the subject of race, such as the review of voting patterns in an article he links to.

Unless you think, for example, the use of "race" as an indicator of lack of diversity in the Ferguson, MO police force is being used to serve the purpose of race, it's hard to challenge Smith's claim. As voltairemodern points out, that does not prove his larger claim the the "race" category serves no purpose that couldn't be equally well served by non-racial concepts.

But against your assertion that race is a component of domination and will be kept around until oppression is dissolved, Smith seems to say that eschewing race as catgegory for understanding human diversity might hasten the dissolution of oppression.
posted by layceepee at 8:03 AM on September 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


The piece doesn't at all argue that Kant's racial ideas are connected to his transcendental deduction of categories, as far as I can see.

No it doesn't, but it does traffic the idea that the racist side of the Enlightenment is a deliberate product of Kant and Hume's philosophies, by asking leading questions of how their legacies have come to us. What I recall, like Monsieur Caution, is that Enlightenment thinking in general provided tools for the bigotries of the day to be given intellectual blessing--much the way statistics is abused today in the service of scientific racism. Like Abraham Lincoln, it's not hard to find totally racist things being said by almost any significant name from the period, but they're usually justified, if at all, with some cocktail party level reasoning that's more clever conversation than philosophical program.

The way Smith writes, and the way his blog sounds, is like some other philosophers who try to sound like Derrida in writing in a deliberately "playful" way that makes you work a bit, unpack a bit, struggle a bit to figure out the details of his point. Depending on how you feel about this strategy, it's either forcing you to understand his meaning, or dishonestly co-opting you.
posted by fatbird at 8:09 AM on September 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


If you can get past the trolly title Liberalism: A Counter-History by Domenico Losurdo is a nice anthology of embarrassments, such as John Locke owning stock in the Royal African Company.
posted by gorbweaver at 8:20 AM on September 6, 2014


No it doesn't, but it does traffic the idea that the racist side of the Enlightenment is a deliberate product of Kant and Hume's philosophies, by asking leading questions of how their legacies have come to us. What I recall, like Monsieur Caution, is that Enlightenment thinking in general provided tools for the bigotries of the day to be given intellectual blessing--much the way statistics is abused today in the service of scientific racism.

Part of the problem is that you don't have to go outside the philosophical texts to find Hume and Kant going on and on about the "savage." Locke goes further and explicitly goes after Catholics and Turks in his treatises. It isn't just about race and empire; Enlightenment philosophy does really poorly in explicitly denying humanity to people with certain terms of cognitive and even some kinds of physical disability, too.
posted by kewb at 8:40 AM on September 6, 2014


It serves the purpose of racism, is why it's kept around.

I don't think that's a good reason to keep using it.
posted by nangar at 8:42 AM on September 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


Part of the problem is that you don't have to go outside the philosophical texts to find Hume and Kant going on and on about the "savage."

It would have improved the piece, in my opinion, if he had cited where the quote "this fellow was quite black from head to toe, a clear proof that what he said was stupid”, and where Kant's "obsession" with finding the scientific cause of black skin, are to be found in his writings.
posted by thelonius at 8:52 AM on September 6, 2014


Part of the problem is that you don't have to go outside the philosophical texts to find Hume and Kant going on and on about the "savage."

True, but when you organize their output, you continually find foundations that are not racist or built around racism, and those foundations are their most explicit and careful work and why they continue to be philosophically interesting. Even when presented as careful considerations, their racist parts are derivative branches that are fairly obviously a failure to intellectually escape their time and place, and if you prune those branches the foundations remain untouched, while the reverse isn't true. Their racist bits look, in retrospect, like errors of application, not fundamental tensions in the core.
posted by fatbird at 8:57 AM on September 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: cocktail party level reasoning that's more clever conversation than philosophical program.
posted by No Robots at 8:59 AM on September 6, 2014 [6 favorites]


The interesting counterpoint that support's Smith's intimations is Heidegger: the connection between his philosophy and his nazism was pretty conclusively settled by Heidegger himself in a post-war interview where he said "I was a nazi because Being and Time forced me there."
posted by fatbird at 8:59 AM on September 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


For a while the African philosopher eked out a living as a tutor in Jena and Wittenberg, and in 1747, after being made the butt of a libelous broadside accusing him of falling in love with a woman beyond his station, he returned to West Africa in disgrace.

Sex, sex -- again sex; why does racism so often come down to sex?

Against black Africans, anyway; if sex fear is a prominent feature of racism against Native Americans I've missed that, though I think I've seen it in anti-Semitism quite a bit.
posted by jamjam at 10:57 AM on September 6, 2014


Smith's argument is that the use of race as a category is not limited to attempts to preserve racism, but is also used in explicitly anti-racists discourse, as well as analysis that's ostensibly neutral on the subject of race, such as the review of voting patterns in an article he links to.

If you think there's any kind of equivalence between the use of race as a category in racist and anti-racist narratives, you're completely disconnected from reality. I mean seriously, criticizing anti-racists for addressing racism instead of the weird "like race but not quite" conception this doofus has of ethnicity and culture? Slamming on people who have to operate in the real world for not just redefining terms and nopeing on out of reality? That's a perfect example of a psuedointellectual who's more interested in finding ways that he's smarter than everybody else, and some sort of electric fence should be erected between him and literally anything that could allow him any impact or audience in reality.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:24 PM on September 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


From the article:
It would take explicitly counter-Enlightenment thinkers in the 18th century, such as Johann Gottfried Herder, to formulate anti-racist views of human diversity.

Uhhh...? Well, Herder might not been have been a racist in terms of "ranking" different "races," but he was profoundly particularist. For Herder, individuals could only acheive fullest happiness in the heart of their own "people," each of which had its own language. He attacked universalism (including, for example, castigating Germans who had a taste for French language and culture).

TLDR: Herder is perhaps not the best philosophical role model for a multicultural society.
posted by dhens at 1:46 PM on September 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


While generally there is a presumption that to catch out some entity or category as socially constructed is at the same time to condemn it…

This is the part – a "general presumption" he seems to endorse – that suggests his understanding of social construction is, at the very least, utterly different from mine.

From the fact that race is a social construct, it hardly follows that it would be easy, effective, or even possible for anti-racists to achieve a non-racist society faster by just ignoring it or pretending it's not (socially) real. On that argument, shouldn't proponents of equal marriage just act as if non-equal marriage laws didn't exist? They're social constructs, too.
posted by oliverburkeman at 2:16 PM on September 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


I mean, racism just is people going around with a socially constructed category in their heads and behaving differently as a result of the values they attach to different people on the basis of that category. So it's hard for me to see why the argument here doesn't collapse into "fight racism by pretending racism doesn't exist."
posted by oliverburkeman at 2:20 PM on September 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


As some kind of penance for the sins of my student years, I read "Critique Of Pure Reason", in 2013 and 2014, and I've been reading some secondary sources on it. One of them, a guy named Sebastian Gardner, I think, spends a lot of effort situating Kant's project in the context of what you might call a counter-Enlightenment, as expressed in the Jacobi letter. Kant wanted to defend the Enlightenment idea of reason against this belief that it leads inevitably to materialism and nihilism and pantheism and atheism.

Did this anti-Enlightenment movement really carry with it a more acceptable concept of race than Kant or Hume had? I kind of doubt that it did. I'm not even really sure that those philosophers were really all that influential in social thought, and I think the connection in the piece is pretty thin. It just kind of takes for granted that Kant and Hume somehow shaped the idea of race in major ways. What about Rousseau? Was he more important to the Enlightenment discourse about race? I honestly do not know.

Kant's concept of freedom is autonomy, being subject only to a self-given law. This has to be a rational law, that any rational being can accept. The naked contradiction between this ideal, and the conditions that were imposed on non-Europeans by wars and colonialism and slavery, is something that one would wish that Kant had noticed and remarked on. But did he? Did he actually think that only Europeans could be rational in the way that is required for autonomy, or something as explicitly racist as that? I'd be surprised if he defended that view directly, but it may be there in the culture, influencing his whole outlook.

I know it's just a short column, but I felt that it raised a lot more questions than it answered.
posted by thelonius at 4:51 PM on September 6, 2014


It's probably all of a piece with the desperate anti/counter-Enlightenment narrative certain interests are desperate to see take hold lately. I'm not sure I see a point to this exercise. All Western intellectuals had problematic views of race. Even Darwin didn't transcend the cultural biases of his day entirely, so what, does that make the foundations of biology suspect too? Should we reject Newtonian Physics because Newton was also an alchemist crank in his spare time?
posted by saulgoodman at 5:22 PM on September 6, 2014


I'll give him this, I was glad to see that he at least mentioned medical reasons for thinking in terms of "race", even if only in a footnote:

The category of “race” can be useful in a local, medical context to the extent that it often correlates with other, useful information about tendencies within a given population. But this population need not be conceptualized in terms of race. Race is a dummy variable here, but not of interest as such.

[I'm not sure what significance the word "local" is supposed to have there.]

It's fair to point out that "there is as much genetic variation between two members of any supposed race, as between two members of supposedly distinct races", but if the 30 genes out of a zillion that two members of the same "race" have in common predispose them to endometriosis or lactose intolerance then it's still at least marginally useful for doctors to take "race" into account until something better comes along. And I think he's acknowledging that. (Maybe doctors should be asking "what population are you from?")

I have to admit that a lot of times when I see people saying "race isn't even a biological reality, it's nothing!", I wonder if they're just trying to dismiss the "reality" of race so they can dismiss the existence of racism. I don't quite get that vibe off this guy, but I still get the sense that he wants racism to go away by just getting us all to reconceptualize some stuff.

Look, *the country you're living in* is at least as much an imaginary construct as the race of the people you see on the street. People wind up dying because of both things, and that's real enough for me. Blaming Kant and Hume, either of whom could philosophize this guy into a pink mist without having to re-ink their quill pens, seems like clickbait.

In summary, the NY Times' column "The Stone" is a land of contrast...mainly between those who write for it and decent philosophers.

*drops mic*
posted by uosuaq at 5:59 PM on September 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


fatbird wrote...
the connection between [Heidegger's] philosophy and his nazism was pretty conclusively settled by Heidegger himself in a post-war interview where he said "I was a nazi because Being and Time forced me there."
Maybe it's age wearing away at my memories, but I thought I knew this area reasonably well, and have absolutely no idea what you might be referring to here. Pointer please?
posted by pjm at 7:19 PM on September 6, 2014


Pointer please?

I'm also working with age-worn memories, but what I recall is a characterization of the 1966 interview Heidegger gave to Der Spiegel, published posthumously by agreement (in 1976). IIRC, it was a response to Rorty's "Essays on Heidegger". The author pointed to the interview as Heidegger's admission that his Nazism originated in his philosophy; presumably the details of this are what the wikipedia page characterizes as
In the interview, Heidegger defends his involvement with the Nazi party on two points.... Second, he saw in the historic moment the possibility for an "awakening" (Aufbruch) which might help to find a "new national and social approach" to the problem of Germany's future
posted by fatbird at 8:31 PM on September 6, 2014


Maybe it's age wearing away at my memories, but I thought I knew this area reasonably well, and have absolutely no idea what you might be referring to here.

I suspect fatbird has simply conflated the TV interview, in which the one mention of Being and Time that I can see is unremarkable (*), and the Der Spiegel interview, which makes the (fairly obvious) connection between Being and Time and the rectoral address. On preview, I see that guess was correct. It's an easy mistake to make, although it doesn't quite establish the point made with the misremembered quote.

My cocktail-party level comment on all that would be that I think you can hear in the rectoral address several themes of Being and Time being put forward sidewise where the message is we should be Nazis, but if you're extremely attuned to the language, you can also hear themes from Being and Time in a few of the letters to Hannah Arendt where the message is we should be lovers. I don't think Heidegger was too picky about appropriating his own work, and he wasn't an awesome character on a personal level.

More cocktail party points of possible relevance to this thread: Being and Time did intentionally shy away from talking about 'human beings' or 'human nature' in order to avoid the reader's premature interpretations about what they would be or could be, and I think that became even more important to Heidegger by the time of the "Letter on Humanism," in part because one aspect of B&T's failure was to more or less identify human being phenomenologically with having temporality in a particular way.

It's fair to criticize Heidegger for being oblique about 'human being' as a very impractical, academic sort of maneuver that is to a significant extent responsible for making him impenetrable to most readers, but intellectually, it's more or less comparable to what TFA's take on 'race,' which is that it would be cool if at least a few more folks wouldn't grant that it's anything in particular, because instead of having any natural referent it's actually a lot of different things constituted differently in different social domains (different social segments, different points in time, different societies, etc.). So I can see Heidegger being vaguely relevant here.

However, it's also fair to criticize TFA for not covering how some of those different things that race is include a ton of smart anti-racist points of view and extremely important personal experiences of people who deal with it.

(*) "... I find that, starting with Aristotle, the essence of time is determined by an already determined being. Therefore the traditional concept of time cannot be used. And that is why in Being and Time I tried to develop a new concept of time and temporality in the sense of ecstatic openness." The reader should be aware that like a half-dozen of the words in those three sentences have special meaning in Heideggerese, but in an early lecture called the "The Concept of Time," Heidegger offers his own Cliff's Notes with less obscure questions like "What is time? became the question: Who is time? More closely: are we ourselves time? Or closer still: am I my time?" which is plainly not a path on which Nazism is assured.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 8:39 PM on September 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


The *the country you're living in* most likely has better-defined borders, and there isn't so much pretense among philosophers that those are anything but arbitrary and temporary lines drawn on the map. Although there is some, sadly.

Other popular socially constructed consensus concepts of reality that may be less than perfectly aligned with what science and reason tell us include Buddha, the Easter Bunny, and Chuck Norris. They bring so much joy and happiness to people that many of us choose, consciously or otherwise, to stick with them and thereby make the world a better place through the power of collective belief. Why would anyone object to that, when they cause no socially significant problems or misunderstandings whatsoever?
posted by sfenders at 9:12 PM on September 6, 2014


After doing some more reading I can't help but feel that Smith is mischaracterising Johann Gottfried Herder. There's a pretty clear line between Herder's views and the development of the German Völkisch movement, which inspired the "Blood and Soil" ideology that Nazism was based on.

It's all very well to say that Herder acknowledged the value of different cultures, but his desire for a purely-German sensibility and culture led inexorably to a process of cultural redefinition through the elimination of (what were perceived as) non-German influences. We sometimes forget that "anti-Semitism" originally meant a rejection of Semitism, which was an imaginary cultural force identified with Jews. These ideas of "Semitism", "Germanicism", and so forth are clearly congruent with Herder's ideology, and quite opposed to Kant's.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:37 PM on September 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


I think Smith's gloss of Herder is very likely based on this one famous quote from Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man, which I'm taking from Marvin Harris's The Rise of Anthropological Theory:
It is but just when we proceed to the country of the blacks that we lay aside our proud prejudices, and consider the organization of this quarter of the globe with as much impartiality, as if there were no other. Since whiteness is a mark of degeneracy in many animals near the pole, the Negro has as much right to term his savage robbers albinoes and white devils, as we have to deem him the emblem of evil, and a descendant of Ham, branded by his father's curse. [Well] might he say, I, the black, am the original man. I have taken the deepest draughts of the force of life, the Sun: on me, and on everything around me, it has acted with the greatest energy and vivacity. Behold my country: How fertile in fruits, how rich in gold! Behold the height of my trees! the strength of my animals . . . let us enter the country appropriate to him with modesty
There are all kinds of things you could say about that, about Herder in general [not a great source], or about Herder and anthropology [review of a great source], but I think TFA is at least accurate as far as it goes. But if you give Herder credit for influencing the ideological roots of Nazism, also give him credit for influencing interesting figures like W. von Humboldt, Dilthey, or Wundt (who trained Boas, who led the fight against 'scientific'/academic racism).
posted by Monsieur Caution at 11:07 PM on September 6, 2014 [5 favorites]


Well, digging deeper and reading that key quote from Herder in its original context, I see that Smith actually is mistaken about him. Where Smith says, "In response to Kant and other contemporaries who were positively obsessed with finding a scientific explanation for the causes of black skin, Herder [...]" that sentence should really be completed with something like 'came up with the idea that the sun draws out some sort of bilious natural oil to color the skin.'

And I wouldn't call the wider context of it an "anti-racial picture" as Smith does, but rather a very mildly relativist picture that characterizes Europeans as "savage robbers" while considering other negative judgments to be a matter of perspective and noting that this "oil" is the minor difference between different groups of people who can both be proud for different reasons. Anyway, there's more, but to boil it down, Herder's thoughts about race will strike a modern reader as several kinds of bad--not a picture to hold up today. If Smith had read more of it, I think he could only have made a weaker albeit related point.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 1:05 AM on September 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


I mean, racism just is people going around with a socially constructed category in their heads and behaving differently as a result of the values they attach to different people on the basis of that category. So it's hard for me to see why the argument here doesn't collapse into "fight racism by pretending racism doesn't exist."

That's pretty much my reading of the piece.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:15 AM on September 7, 2014


Reading Smith’s academic blog, I came across a synopsis of one of his forthcoming books. This synopsis gives a clear picture of Smith’s position:
It is my hypothesis that a crucial feature of the emergence of the modern race concept was the collapse of a certain universalism about human nature, which had been sustained by a belief in the transcendent essence of the human soul, and this belief's gradual but steady replacement over the course of the early modern period by a conception of human beings as natural beings, and thus as no less susceptible to classification in terms of a naturalistic taxonomy than any other natural being, plant or animal or mineral. The peculiarly modern ontologization of human difference, then, was made possible by the rejection of human nature, and the parallel insertion of humans into nature.
Apparently, then, Smith blames Kant for the disappearance of universal human nature, and sees in Herder an attempt to maintain this principle. This is fair ball, although rather involved for a news article. For further reading, see Herder’s Metacritique of the Critique of Pure Reason (I have an unpublished English translation that I can make available to anyone interested), John Dewey’s German philosophy and politics and Constantin Brunner’s Spinoza contra Kant (I worked on this unpublished translation of the Brunner work).
posted by No Robots at 11:11 AM on September 7, 2014 [5 favorites]


"Equality is only....among people...presumed to be equal..."

This is a useful template. It can be used not only by racists, but by we who are enlightened to distinguish between us and the nimrods around us.

I am intrigued by the notion that knowing a person's race (though race doesn't really exist0, has certain significant medical applications. Medical work, goes the theory, notices how chemistry affects us all in different ways without making a judgment on our worth as a human. Good enough, I suppose.

The flaming racist, though, seems to be working on another level. The passive racist simply bangs the gong at whatever tempo matches the drum to which he marches. Where's the bright line? Must we invent a new concept, or is there something right under our noses that we just can't find the word to express? The shifting markers that have come and gone since the 60s seem to indicate that we are orbiting a new understanding of humans. The technical negro became the technical Black, became the technical African American. All of these labels seem to express the desire to be respectful of...what? It's still us and them. I am aware that we have no clear notions of what the technical American might be.

Now that we've done away with Kant's myopia regarding race, what sort of thing would indicate a distinction without a difference?
posted by mule98J at 11:23 AM on September 7, 2014


This thread deserves a Nobel. I just barely got the hang of the OP but the conversation has been entirely worth the peanuts I paid for server upkeep. Thank you the internets.
posted by infini at 11:31 AM on September 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


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