Modern Philosophy & Racism I




Historically, the modern era is the time between 1500 and 1900. In addition to being seen as an age of enlightenment, it also saw the invention of racism. Most philosophy departments, including mine, have a Modern Philosophy class. In recent years, whether a modern philosopher is racist has become a matter of concern for professional philosophers, students, and the public.  Answering this question requires both a definition of the concept of racism and determining when racism was invented.

While the dictionary provides a simple enough definition of “racism”, the philosophical concept is much more complicated. For example, one must distinguish between passive and active racism. Active racism involves acting in ways to perpetuate and spread racism as well as engaging in racist activities. There are various degrees of active racism. A politician who encourages their base to embrace racism and who works to pass racist laws would be engaged in active racism, but so would someone who limited their activities to posting racist memes on social media. Passive racism also comes in degrees. A person might benefit from racism but do nothing significant to support it. Some even claim that failing to actively oppose racism would be a form of passive racism.

One must also sort out individual, systematic institutional and structural racism.  As a final example, there is even the matter of distinguishing between “sincere” racism and opportunistic racism. A sincere racist believes in racism while an opportunistic racist merely uses racism to their advantage. Knowing what is in a person’s mind is difficult (see the problem of other minds) and thus distinguishing between a true believer and an opportunist can be difficult. In practical terms, the difference matters very little (if at all). After all, if your business was being robbed, you would not be overly concerned with whether the robbers were true believers in robbery as a way of life or engaged in robbery for pragmatic reasons.

As with any good definition, a definition of racism should not be too narrow (exclude things that should be included) or too broad (include things that should be excluded). It should also match our intuitions (although these can differ considerably). As you would expect, there is considerable debate over defining this concept, even among people who are debating in good faith.

One challenge particular to discussing racism during the Modern era is sorting out when the notions of race and racism were invented. While humans have obviously had cultural, regional, religious, and other prejudices since the dawn of humanity, what we would recognize as a concept of race is a relatively recent creation.  Determining when racism was invented is relevant to sorting out whether a philosopher could be a racist in today’s sense of the term. After all, a philosopher could express biases and prejudices that resemble racism, but unless they did so after the invention of racism, then they would not be a racist in the current sense of the term. They could, of course, still be criticized for their prejudices and biases.

Some point to the Systema Naturae (1735) by the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus as the first academic use of this term. Linnaeus proposed the existence of four distinct human races. Since academics usually lag behind the times, people were certainly using this concept well before it appeared in an academic text. What might be the earliest application of “white” as a word referring to race in English law occurred as a response to Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. In the American colonies, long standing Common Law precedents were overturned to distinguish white population from everyone else. This is also  key part of the backstory of white supremacy in the United States.

In the 1500s, terms such as “white”, “race”, and “slave” were used by Europeans, but there is debate about whether these terms indicated racism in the current sense. One must be careful to avoid assigning current meanings to terms that had different meanings in the past. For example, the term “gay” has undergone radical changes in meaning since its origin in the 12th century when it meant “joyful” or “carefree.” If you read a passage about a “gay woman” in the 1600s, this might mean that she is (or was alleged to be) a prostitute. To say a man was gay during that time might be an accusation that they were a womanizer. As such, if a Modern philosopher said something critical about a “gay man” in the 1600s, they would be criticizing his womanizing and not his sexual orientation.

That said, it is reasonable to believe that the conceptual foundations of racism were growing in that time, even if the current language and concepts were not yet then in place. After all, racism did not simply spring forth fully developed one awful day. While it might seem reasonable to point to the start of the Atlantic slave trade as the beginning of racism, it should be remembered that slavery is an ancient practice. While racism became a key part of the justification of slavery in the modern era, racism and slavery are distinct as a matter of historical fact. To illustrate, Aristotle contended that slavery was both expedient and necessary but did so in a context in which slavery was not based on race.  Aristotle can be justly criticized for defending slavery, but it would be anachronistic to accuse him of racism.  So, it cannot simply be assumed that the current notion of racism was created at the start of the horrible evil known as the Atlantic Slave Trade. But one can certainly argue that it did.

Based on the above discussion, a European philosopher could certainly be a racist after 1676 and most likely even earlier. But, again, we need to be careful when attributing racism to someone based on the words they use; we must consider what the words meant or implied at the time.

Some might assume that all the white European philosophers were racists simply because they were white. But to assume that a white person must be racist because they are white would be both unreasonable and prejudiced. If a philosopher is to be justly accused of racism, there must be evidence for that accusation. To infer that a philosopher must be racist because there is no evidence they were not racist would be the fallacy of Appeal to Ignorance (a variant of the Burden of Proof fallacy).  As with settling guilt or innocence in the context of crime, what is needed is evidence of that crime and not evidence of innocence.

One defense that is often used when an historical figure is accused of racism is to argue that while they were racist, they are to be excused because racism and slavery were accepted at the time. That is, they were shaped by their time and thus cannot be expected to question its dominant values.

But, while people are influenced by their time and it can be difficult to question the dominant values of one’s time, this is a weak defense for philosophers. Philosophical arguments against slavery and prejudice existed long before the modern era, philosophers routinely question the dominant values of their time, and there was moral opposition to racism and slavery during this era. As such, this is not much of an excuse. That said, if we think about how we might be condemned and criticized by future generations, we might feel some sympathy toward historical figures (if they were not too bad).

While this is anecdotal evidence from my own experience, I have seen values change significantly over the course of my life. Behavior and language that was acceptable in my youth are condemned today and I recall, with embarrassment, some of the things I did and said in my youth. These were all things well within the social norms of the time and usually things that I had been taught as correct behavior.  I did not do anything that would be considered awful by today’s standards, but they would certainly be justly criticized today. As such, I do understand how people can be shaped by their times and how challenging it is to question the values one is raised and enmeshed in. I also understand how values can change over time so that what was once acceptable becomes condemned.

For example, imagine that future humans broadly embrace the ethics of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation and reject the exploitation of animals. They look back on the 21st century with disgust, condemning the widely accepted practices of eating meat, wearing leather, testing on animals, and other misdeeds. Arguments against exploiting animals are well known and anyone reading this cannot claim ignorance of the existence of these arguments. If you are now a meat eater, you probably think that this is morally acceptable. But, in this hypothetical future, most people would see this behavior as monstrous and wicked.

We can also imagine future generations who look at our treatment of the environment, our economic systems, and our political systems as wicked and worthy only of condemnation. Even those who were not actively involved in these activities could, of course, be condemned as complicit. For example, (unless you are Jeff Bezos) you did not create the working conditions under which Amazon employees had to urinate in bottles. But if you have not been fighting against this abusive situation, then you might be considered complicit in this horrific system. Also, there are a vast number of evils in the world that you and I do not actively fight because we cannot: we do not have enough time or resources to fight or condemn every evil or wrong. The same was certainly true of people in the past.

Among the many people who might be condemned by future generations would be philosophers, including myself. As such, a future professor might need to research me and assess whether I should be condemned as a meat-eater, an owner of leather shoes and belts, and someone who not only purchased on Amazon but sold books through the company. This leads to the question of what should be done about modern era philosophers who prove to have been racists (or otherwise morally defective, such as being sexists). This should, perhaps, be tempered by thoughts about what future generations should do about us should they find us morally problematic.

One option is to purge works by racists and racist works from philosophy. In practical terms, this would mean that these philosophers would not be mentioned, and their works would not be taught. Another option is to keep these works but to be honest and straightforward about any racism or racist content. My approach is the second one and I offer the following defense of my approach.

First, we need to distinguish between the non-racist ideas of a philosopher and their racist ideas or personal racism. To reject their philosophical claims and arguments because of alleged racism would be to fall for the ad hominem fallacy. To reject all philosophy by white Europeans from this time on the grounds that the philosophy originated in a racist time and place would be to fall for the genetic fallacy. If their works have merit, then this merit exists independent of their racism and thus they can be worth studying. Naturally, the racist elements should not be hidden away and should be subject to due criticism.

Second, the major philosophical figures are historically important, and their ideas also shaped the world today (for good or bad). Engaging with these ideas is essential if we are going to criticize them and the world views that they shaped. Ironically, if a philosopher’s views are racist and help form the basis of white supremacy, then it would be even more important to know their works to get to the roots of the matter.

Third. While inclusion in the canon could be seen as honoring these thinkers, they are included not because they are right or we agree with them, but because of their importance and influence. To use an extreme example, when one studies Hitler or Stalin, one is not endorsing their views.  Philosophy is , in part, about criticizing ideas and to study a philosophical view is not to praise it or honor the philosopher who created it.

But there are reasonable concerns about why thinkers are seen as important enough to include or unimportant enough to exclude. For example, many modern philosophy classes focus entirely on the usual dead white guys and exclude women and people of color, perhaps only mentioning them in passing.  One can raise the criticism that by including a racist in a modern philosophy class, one is excluding a non-racist who should be included. That is a reasonable point and the matter of who should be included and who should be excluded from the course content is a matter that should be discussed and re-assessed on a regular basis. I now turn to the philosophers I have included in my modern class.

Originally appeared on A Philosopher’s Blog Read More



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