The History of Racism in Philosophy


Christoph Meiners (1747-1810), a philosophy professor at the University of Göttingen and prolific scholar, initiated “a successful campaign to exclude Africa and Asia from the history of philosophy.” In turn, Wilhelm Tennemann (1761-1819), the most important Kantian historian at the turn of the 19th century, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (who observed that “real philosophy begins in Greece”) carried the campaign forward. They channeled elements of Meiners in almost identical language, leading to “the formation within German philosophy of an exclusionary, Eurocentric canon of philosophy.”

That’s an excerpt from a review in the Chronicle of Higher Education of Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy: Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon, 1780-1830 by Peter K.J. Park (University of Texas at Dallas) (via Samantha Brennan). It is an important topic and it is helpful to get an “outside” perspective on it (Park is an historian).

At one point in the review, author Carlin Romano draws attention to how Jacob Brucker (1696-1770), “the foremost German historian of philosophy of the late 18th century” argued “that ideas be put forward apart from any connection to their authors’ or proponents’ lives.” This separation of the person from the ideas the person puts forward seems central to the method of philosophy as we know it. I am curious whether other historians agree with the suggestion here that its emergence was a historical accident, and that it happened when it did. (Did Socrates care, in any more than an incidental way, who he was arguing with?) I am also curious about the connection between this idea and racism in the formation of the philosophical canon, but I suppose I will just have to read the book.

At the end of the piece, Romano accuses philosophy of failing to “investigate its own past, and change in ways that keep it vibrant, challenging, and relevant.” Yet such an investigation and various changes are ongoing and have been for quite some time, with philosophy branching out into new areas while also turning its history inside out to bring neglected figures to the fore. Of course, that is not to say that further investigation and change is not needed, as various discussions here at Daily Nous and elsewhere attest.

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