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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9 years ago

I’m not an ancient philosophy scholar, but it has always seemed to me decidedly *non-incidental* — indeed, crucial — who Socrates is arguing with. In many/most cases, Socrates is engaging with influential people (Gorgias) or people of otherwise of privilege (Thrasymachus, etc.). He then engages these people using premises they seem quite sure of, and leads them into contradictions, etc., in ways that publicly embarrass them. He tends, in other words, to challenge the status quo, and seems plainly interested in showing people that Athenian culture has been overcome with incoherent and/or vicious doctrines. Thus, the people he engages with do not seem incidental to his purposes. He is on something of a public, moral-political mission to dispel incoherence, falsehood, and viciousness.

Reply to  Anonymous
9 years ago

Thanks, Anonynmous. I agree with dikaioslin, below, about the nature of our disagreement. I agree with you that Socrates typically seemed intent on showing that people don’t know all that think they do and that he often chose influential or privileged people to make examples of (whether he focused his efforts on certain people because they were influential or privileged or because they were just available and visible targets I don’t know). But nonetheless I think Socrates and many other pre-18th Century philosophers would agree that ideas could be put forward and assessed “apart from any connection to their authors’ or proponents’ lives.”

And perhaps this is naive, but I think that this approach–call it “impersonal”–can sometimes be a corrective to racism, as it suggests that ideas should be considered on their merits, not on the basis of whose ideas they are, and so a racist’s dismissal of a people cannot be the basis of a dismissal of their ideas. That is why I raised the question in the OP about it. I hasten to add that saying this is not to deny the obvious point that paying attention to authors’ lives and circumstances can also be a corrective to racism in philosophy.

9 years ago

It seems to me that Anonymous and Justin are using “incidental” in two different senses. Justin seems to be asking whether (Socrates thought) the validity of philosophical ideas and arguments can be appraised independently of the identity of their interlocutors. The answer seems to me to be yes.
I haven’t read the full book, but given the previewed pages available on Amazon as well as the review, my sense is that some wider contexts may be missing from the author’s account of this change in attitude toward non-Western philosophy during this period.
Take Chinese philosophy for example. The favorable attitude of many Enlightenment thinkers (e.g. Voltaire) towards Chinese thought was a largely result of earlier accounts by, say, Matteo Ricci, Jesuit missionary who went to China in late-16th and early-17th centuries (when the Ming Dynasty in China was at its zenith) and documented vigorous and fruitful philosophical exchanges. But when it came to the next wave of Sino-Europe encounters beginning in the late-18th century, China had fallen to the hands of Manchurian Qing emperors for more than a century, and the “literary inquisition” (the official persecution of intellectuals as well as the systematic destruction or malicious revision of philosophical texts) had been carried on for decades, in order to stabilize and justify the Manchurian rule. As a result when George Macartney visited China on a diplomatic mission in 1792 he documented a submissive, indoctrinated, stagnant nation that seemed to have no past or future of philosophizing. It was this new image of philosophical and political stagnation that was received by the turn-of-the-century European philosophers (and later accumulated in Hegel’s “world history”). Little wonder why they had a different (understandably ignorant) take on Chinese philosophy than Voltaire and his generation.