In Search of a Rational Anti-Racist, part 1: Greek Doctors, Arabs, and Early Modern Philosophers

A while ago, I was irritated enough by the Derbyshire affair that I decided to start writing about race. There are many other fine blogs writing on this topic, so I’d like to something different, and rather than focusing on the news, or on the foolishness of certain contemporary ideas about race, I plan on taking a historical look at beliefs concerning race. This examination will likely sprawl out over several months of posts. In particular I’d like to determine how and on what grounds modern politically correct opinions about race took their shape.

Derbyshire generated controversy through two sets of assertions, about intelligence, and about crime. I will focus on the first, although the second may come up from time to time.

I previously critiqued a philosophy website’s take on the Derbyshire affair, and asked where a logical “anti-racist” might be found. Since none such has yet been located, I’ll have to study the matter myself. Aristotle advises that in any search for truth, one begin (but not necessarily end) from common opinions, either the opinions of the many, or of the wise, living or dead. Hence it is worthwhile to make a survey of what the philosophers have thought of the question of whether there are differences in the abilities (in particular the intellectual abilities) and the behaviors of the different races.

Among intellectual men whose writings survive, the first to write about blacks were the Arabs. They generally took a negative view of black intelligence, as seen in the following quotations:

“As for the Zanj (blacks), they are people of black color, flat noses, kinky hair, and little understanding or intelligence.” –Al-Muqaddasi

“We know that the Zanj are the least intelligent and the least discerning of mankind, and the least capable of understanding the consequences of actions.” –Al-Jahiz

“Galen says that merriment dominates the black man because of his defective brain, whence also the weakness of his intelligence.” –Al-Masudi

This last quotation is of interest because Al-Masudi is quoting Galen, the greatest physician of the ancient world. That Galen held this view suggests that similar opinions may have been widely held in Greco-Roman antiquity, although to my knowledge they have not survived in writing.

While Arab writers were often critical of other peoples whom they met, they do not seem to have consistently thought that the Persians, for instance, were unintelligent. That opinion seems to cluster around black Africans.

The great philosopher David Hume was of a similar opinion concerning the intelligence of the negro. In his essay Of National Characters Hume is generally skeptical of claims that the different characters of nations have physical causes, such as climate. He does allow that extremes of climate may be enough to prevent the creation of a higher civilization:

If the characters of men depended on the air and climate, the degrees of heat and cold should naturally be expected to have a mighty influence; since nothing has a greater effect on all plants and irrational animals. And indeed there is some reason to think, that all the nations, which live beyond the polar circles or between the tropics, are inferior to the rest of the species, and are incapable of all the higher attainments of the human mind. The poverty and misery of the northern inhabitants of the globe, and the indolence of the southern, from their few necessities, may, perhaps, account for this remarkable difference, without our having recourse to physical causes. This however is certain, that the characters of nations are very promiscuous in the temperate climates, and that almost all the general observations, which have been formed of the more southern or more northern people in these climates, are found to be uncertain and fallacious.

Hume then adds in a footnote that he is inclined to admit at least one generalization:

I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient GERMANS, the present TARTARS, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are NEGROE slaves dispersed all over EUROPE, of whom none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; though low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In JAMAICA, indeed, they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.

Incidentally, Hume was an opponent of slavery, so his opinion of negroes cannot be the result of a desire to defend Britain’s slave trade.

Immanuel Kant commented on this remark of Hume’s in his Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, writing that

The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling. Mr. Hume challenges anyone to cite a single example in which a Negro has shown talents, and asserts that among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who are transported elsewhere from their countries, although many of them have even been set free, still not a single one was every found who presented anything great in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality, even though among the whites some continually rise aloft from the lowest rabble, and through superior gifts earn respect in the world. So fundamental is the difference between these two races of man, and it appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in colour. The religion of fetishes so widespread among them is perhaps a sort of idolatry that sinks as deeply into the trifling as appears to be possible to human nature. A bird’s feather, a cow’s horn, a conch shell, or any other common object, as soon as it becomes consecrated by a few words, is an object of veneration and of invocation in swearing oaths. The blacks are very vain but in the Negro’s way, and so talkative that they must be driven apart from each other with thrashings.

Kant, it should be noted, was forced to rely on second hand information on such questions, as he never travelled outside his native Prussia. Like Hume, Kant was an opponent of the institution of chattel slavery.

In summary: the view that racial differences in intelligence exist appears to have been common up through early modernity. We’ll see more examples in upcoming posts.


About Pechorin

A Hero of Our Time
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One Response to In Search of a Rational Anti-Racist, part 1: Greek Doctors, Arabs, and Early Modern Philosophers

  1. Pingback: Second Assignment: ‘In what ways does Kant’s transcendental critique answer sceptical problems posed by Hume, e.g. about space & time, cause and effect, and distinct and continued existence?’ « Loftier Musings

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