Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Positivism and Progress in Firmin's Equality of the Human Races

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Positivism and Progress in Firmin's Equality of the Human Races

Article excerpt


As fundamental as progress is for Firmin, it remains more an assumption of his text than a proven result, more a motivating ideal than a scientific fact, putting Firmin's faith in progress into tension with his own exhortation that science must free itself from all prejudices. Because Firmin's science was shaped by what can only be described as a positivist philosophy or a philosophy of progress, Firmin's book belongs not only to the history of the study of race but to the history of the philosophy of race as well.

With The Equality of Human Races, Haitian intellectual Antenor Firmin offered the world its first sustained, philosophical, book-length response to scientific European racism. Unfortunately, the volume, first published in Paris in 1885, quickly disappeared and was out of print even in Haiti until 1968. With the publication of the English translation in 2000 (following an additional reprint of the original French in Haiti in 1985), we in the Anglophone world finally have the opportunity to reclaim Firmin and his work as a part of Black intellectual history. (1) Composed in a single year, if Firmin's own preface is to be believed, De I'Egalite des Races Humaines is the work of a man possessed, not by joy or enthusiasm for his subject, but by a desperate need to speak out against the pervasive racism of the field he believed held the key to the intellectual progress of humanity--anthropology.

What is perhaps most immediately striking for the modern day reader of the work is Firmin's critical project. Firmin proceeds systematically through the key "scientific arguments" in favor of racial inequality, casting doubt on the methodologies, countering what passes for evidence, and revealing the underlying assumptions, prejudices and ideologies that drive the people behind it all. Along with this critical project, however, comes a positive one. In his effort to create a new "Positivist Anthropology" (a term included in the full title of the work), Firmin puts forward an original thesis about the origin, development, advancement, and ultimate equality of the human races. In "recovering" this work for the intellectual history of the struggle against racism, it seems equally as important to understand this positive thesis and what drives it as it is to appreciate his debunking of various racial scientific myths against which, in spite of their insidious persistence, we already have ample evidence. In this essay, I discuss Firmin's notion of progress, the idea at the heart of that positive thesis. In so doing, I situate him relative to several key figures including Arthur de Gobineau (against whom he appears to be arguing), Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer (whose faith in progress he shares), Charles Darwin (whose theory Firmin interprets as supporting his own), and Clemence Royer (whose own framing of Darwin was likely a powerful influence on Firmin's interpretation).

Since the publication of the English translation in 2000, needed attention has been given to Firmin as a "pioneering anthropologist" of the nineteenth century (2) and as an early theoretician of the Pan-Africanist movement. (3) Robert Bernasconi, however, argues that Firmin's positivism constitutes not simply a method, but a philosophy. (4) Here, then, I hope to shed light on Firmin's philosophical commitments, situating him also as a pioneering nineteenth-century philosopher of race.

Argument and Counter Arguments

The extent to which Firmin actually engages with and successfully argues against Gobineau's thesis in The Inequality of the Human Races is an open question and not one that I intend to pursue here. Certain passages suggest that Firmin is simply using Gobineau's work as a place from which to launch criticisms more suited to other opponents. (5) Yet Firmin no doubt took deep exception to Gobineau's use of Haiti as an example of the unsuitability of the Black race for civilization, (6) and both the title and content of Firmin's own work clearly seek to counteract that basic claim. …

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