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Enlightened racism? European philosophy entanglements with racism and colonial practices – then and now

ANALYSIS Silvia Donzelli 31 May 2022

Debates in the wake of Black Lives Matter movement are contributing to the disclosure of multilayered patterns of racist thought and practices hitherto concealed behind the respectable curtain of Western traditions and normative institutions. Among the pillars of Western cultural legacy that are being profoundly shaken in this process, stands out European history of philosophy, and rightly so. Indeed, the involvement of European philosophers with racism and with the crimes of colonialism and slavery was deep, prolonged and articulated. Perhaps surprisingly, even the self-named Enlightenment philosophy – one flagship of European history of thought – was not detached from involvement in racism and colonial violence. On the contrary, within the pages written by the prominent philosophers of the Enlightenment, one can find plenty of passages steeped in racist views about non-European peoples, along with arguments allegedly justifying colonial domination and slavery. The fact that these – to put it mildly, embarrassing – parts of philosophical production are in striking contradiction with the ideals propagated by the very same philosophers, such as self-determination, freedom, equal rights, critical thought and cosmopolitanism, may appear puzzling. In the face of such inconsistency, the traditional reaction of European academic philosophy has mostly been to ignore, or at the best, to deem marginal and set aside, those disturbing aspects of the works of prominent philosophers such as Hume, Kant and Hegel (among many others). Only recently has Western philosophy begun to reflect on its own entanglements with racist thought patterns and practices. Nevertheless, in Western academia, the idea of a systematic engagement with the explicitly racist contents of the great thinkers of European philosophical history seems to evoke a diffuse unease and, if conceded at all, then with reservations.

In contrast, the confrontation with racist thought patterns and their political and epistemic implications is a fundamental issue for philosophy in and from Africa. The very fact that African critical voices on philosophical racism – and African philosophy more generally – are still hardly included in European academic curricula is revealing about the pervasive tendency to selective epistemic blindness informing European philosophy. Some ways in which this western-centric tendency is being manifested – historically, in the form of philosophical support of racism and colonial practices, and presently, by avoiding self-critical engagement with own traditions – are the object of analysis of this short contribution.

The fig leaf of European barbarity

In Western historiography, the Enlightenment is traditionally described as the Age of Reason, pursuing scientific standards of knowledge, liberal political ideals and the moral value of freedom. However, at the time in which the Enlightenment philosophers were developing their theoretical projects, European expansion overseas was booming, steadily improving its own patterns of colonial trade. Consequently, the use of forced labor in the colonies and the practices of enslavement, slave trade, political and cultural domination were intensifying precisely as European philosophy was celebrating the progress of mankind towards reason and freedom. At that time, “Africa experienced its entry into the modern world, not as a liberation or enlightenment, but as the painful process of colonial subjugation”[1].

It is reasonable to ask how the crimes of racist subjugation and colonial exploitation, being in blatant contrast with the ideals and values proudly declared by the intellectual elite, could be systematically committed, in the form of organized policies and practices, in enlightened Europe. Moreover, it is legitimate to ask what the Enlightenment philosopher’s stance on these practices was, since they were certainly well aware of what was going on.

As mentioned above, the philosophical production of personalities such as Locke, Hume, Kant and Hegel provide a wide variety of passages supporting or justifying racism, colonialism and slavery. I will not indulge in quoting these texts here. Rather, I would like to outline one peculiar aspect emerging from the analysis of those passages, especially if one considers them in relation with the broader work of their respective authors: namely, they do not provide throughout coherent models of racist ideology or colonial defense. Or more carefully, Enlightenment philosophical disputes about race, imperialistic conquest and domination are mostly informed by multifarious inconsistencies.

Such inconsistencies can occur between theory and practice. This is the case of English philosopher John Locke. In his view, only one form of slavery can be legitimate, namely the captivity of enemies and the imposition to them of forced labor in the context of a just war. Locke deemed other forms of slavery illegitimate, because they deny natural rights.

However, as is often the case, in practice things looked differently. John Locke was deeply involved in colonial practices of subjugation and exploitation, which according to his theory are clearly illegitimate: he was a stock owner of slave trading by the Royal African Company, and by the Company of merchant Adventurers in the Bahamas; moreover, he was Secretary of the Lords Proprietors of the Carolinas, where slavery was constitutionally allowed.

In other philosophers’ works, the contradictions are not between theoretical speculation and practical reality, rather they are embedded within the theory. Thus, the most shameful racist speculations can coexist in the work of one and the same philosopher together with theories of tolerance, equality and cosmopolitanism. This is the case of Kant’s philosophy, where writings providing the most awkward examples of trite prejudices against black people and other non-Europeans give way to texts delivering critics of colonial violence and a defense of cosmopolitan peace.

Unlike Kant, Hegel did not support an essentialist, that is, an unescapably determined, version of racist hierarchies. He was undoubtedly a racist, as abundant evidences in his works show. Though, he believed in the possibility of development, in the maturation of peoples towards the goal of history, namely, the progression to freedom. In his view, since African peoples are not able to autonomously reach consciousness of freedom, they should be educated, made “mature” by European colonization. Thus, Hegel seriously pretends that in order to be free, African people need first to be subjugated. In his view, slavery is not only justified, it is necessary and in the best interest of the enslaved peoples.[2]

One of the most disquieting aspects of such “enlightened” theories is that they appear to be blind against the most obvious facts: that they are deeply inconsistent and that they are concealing, behind the self-celebrating ideas of European superiority and its civilizing mission spreading knowledge and freedom, the miserable reality of systemic crimes against human beings. Sadly, philosophy has long been the fig leaf of European barbarity.[3]

Philosophical racism today?

How should we deal today with the historical entanglements of philosophy with racism? Surely, one should become aware that these aspects of European history of philosophy have been long excluded by Western academic discussion, and that this is per se a revealing move about selective epistemic blindness in the service of the ongoing construction of respectable Eurocentric (fictional) realities. Now that the disturbing sides of Enlightenment philosophy cannot be easily hidden anymore, a variety of strategies are being put in place by academic researcher in order to downplay and relativize the involvement of prominent philosophers with racism and colonial practices: they were “kids of their time”, their racist remarks were marginal, Kant later changed his mind[4] (incidentally, there is no evidence that Kant ever changed his racist mind; on the contrary, he let publish his racist works again and again until he retired).

Are racist remarks and arguments in favor of colonialism and slavery really marginal to prominent philosophers’ ouvre, meaning that they do not affect their main work’s substance?[5] In my view, this seems to suggest that these aspects should not affect students’ perception of Enlightenment philosophy. And this is questionable, since taking racist remarks seriously, whoever their author may be and especially in case of authors with great epistemic authority, is undoubtedly a promising exercise in critical thinking, for philosophy students and beyond.

Philosophers’ entanglements with racism and colonialism were not marginal. Certainly, they have been marginalized by Western academic discourse. One should seriously reflect on Enlightenment philosophers’ Eurocentric inconsistencies, since they are revealing of the dynamics of construction and establishment of practices of discrimination, not just historically, but also in current neocolonial realities. With the words of Joseph Conrad: “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems is the idea only”.[6] European philosophy developed a plenty of such “redeeming” ideas – the superiority of whites, the civilizing mission, the progress towards freedom. It is up to today’s Western philosophers to fairly recognize and critically engage with past and present Eurocentric patterns of thought and practices. A confrontation with philosophical debates in and from African would surely be instructive.

[1] Tsenay Serequeberhan, Colonialism and the Colonized: Violence and Counter-Violence”, in: Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze (ed.) African Philosophy. An Anthology. Malden 1998, 240.

[2] See Alison Stone 2017, Hegel and Colonialism, Hegel Bulletin 41(2) 1-24.

[3] Tsenay Serequeberhan 2003, The Critique of Eurocentrism and the practice of African Philosophy, in: Pieter Coetzee, Abraham Roux (eds.) The African Philosophy Reader, London, 68.

[4] Pauline Kleingeld, 2007 Kant second thoughts on Race. Philosophical Quarterly 57(229) 573-592.

[5] See for instance the remarks of Kathrin Flickschuh and Lea Ypi in their introduction to “Kant and Colonialism: Historical and Critical Perspectives”, (Oxford 2014), strongly downplaying the importance of Kant’s (copious) racist passages.

[6] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness. New York: Pocket Books, 1972:7.


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