The Routledge Companion to Nineteenth Century Philosophy

By Dean Moyar | Go to book overview

17
THE PHILOSOPHY
OF RACE IN THE
NINETEENTH CENTURY

Robert Bernasconi


The task of a philosophical history of race

Even though a number of major philosophers have contributed to writing the history of race in the nineteenth century – Eric Voegelin in The History of the Race Idea, Georg Lukács in The Destruction of Reason, Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1979), and Michel Foucault in “Society Must Be Defended” – this history is still not well known among philosophers today. Nevertheless, the study of the history of the concept of race is indispensable for all those pursuing the philosophical task of a critique of racism in all its myriad forms, and the nineteenth century in particular was the age when race came of age. In mid-century Benjamin Disraeli, who would become Prime Minister of Britain in 1868, could write: “All is race. In the structure, the decay, and the development of the various families of man, the vicissitudes of history find their main solution” (Disraeli 1852: 331). This was not an isolated claim. It was a view shared by others, such as Robert Knox, an anatomist who had also studied the transcendental philosophy of Immanuel Kant and the Naturphilosophie of Lorenz Oken, and who wrote “Race is everything: literature, science, art – in a word, civilization, depends on it” (Knox 1850: v).

Any account of the history of the concept of race needs to be broad. A critical philosophy of race cannot confine its historical component to listing what the canonical philosophers have had to say about race: their contributions can only be assessed if they are seen in their context, that is to say, as interventions in ongoing scientific debates and responses – or failures to respond – to the social movements of the day: such as calls for the abolition of slavery, the pursuit of Empire, and demands for segregation.

Another reason why any such study cannot limit itself to those who are now regarded as canonical philosophers is because the boundary line between philosophers and scientists was a great deal less clear in the nineteenth century than it became later. The nineteenth century was a time of growing specialization in philosophy as a result

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