Excerpt: 'Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference' by Justin E. H. Smith



It was in large part the systematization of nature, in generally avowedly artificial classifications, that led to the emergence of racial realism in the modern period. It was quite enough to devise complicated schemata or groupings-together of all natural beings, including human beings and their purported subtypes, to reify the categories of race that so many modern people have taken for granted. It was not necessary, in addition, to produce philosophical arguments in defense of racial essentialism. Race, then, as an entity on a par with phlogiston, cosmic radiation, or gluons, is not invented in the modern period. What is invented is a system of racial typology, which in turn promotes a new way of talking about human diversity –a discourse, if you will–, and which supervenes on the prior and parallel project of biological taxonomy, even as it explicitly and repeatedly denies that the divisions it is making are actually given in nature. This new typology, finally, may be said to be the result of an increasing concern in the modern period to understand the human being as a thoroughly natural being, as exhaustively comprehensible within the terms of a system of nature that also includes primates, quadrupeds, molluscs, and plants. The insertion of the human being into such a system of nature, as we have attempted to show here, had profound implications for philosophical anthropology in the widest sense: for the understanding of human nature, and of the nature of human difference.

There is a certain responsibility, in addressing a subject as contemporary and unresolved as race, to not treat it from a dusty and antiquarian point of view, but also to seek to bring something to current discussions that might help to lessen this idea’s harmful effects. We began this book with an epigram from W. E. B. DuBois, identifying ‘color prejudice’ in the Southern United States as a ‘curious kink of the human mind’, and then proceeded to investigate the concept of race as it unfolds from the Spanish Renaissance to the German Enlightenment, thus in a chapter of history that plays out mostly before the institutions of prejudice that interest DuBois had taken shape. This may seem an avoidance of the pressing matter at hand, but the approach here has been motivated by the conviction that these curious kinks of US history, which in the end is the history of utmost concern to the present author, may best be seen as a local inflection of a deep global history. This history must be uncovered and analyzed in order for the seemingly intractable local pathologies, the ‘kinks’ to which DuBois refers, to be properly diagnosed and remediated. There can be no easy division between the antiquarian and the contemporary, since the way we talk about race is in large part an accrual, a distillation of history. There may be transhistorical and innate predispositions to divide human society into a fixed number of essentialized subgroups, but it would be extremely hasty to suppose that these kinks of the human mind are somehow etched into the human brain. Between any possible predisposition and the actual modern history of thinking about race, there is a tremendous amount of room for conceptualizing alternative paths our deepseated propensities for thinking about human diversity might have taken, and could still yet take.

Recent work in the ‘philosophy of race’, particularly in the Anglo-American tradition, has provided remarkable insight, borrowing much from empirical psychology, into the way implicit bias functions to heighten and perpetuate racial prejudice in society.[1] This is valuable work, but so far it has not offered much in the way of positive prescriptions for correcting those false beliefs we evidently harbor unknowingly. One possible path towards correction might be discovered in the project of improved historical awareness. Our perception of social reality, our implicit biases, and our explicit beliefs are all historically conditioned. For this reason, the categories that come into play in much of our effort to make sense of social reality are much better understood not as natural kinds, or even as candidates for natural kindhood, but as historical kinds, to be questioned and challenged not only in clinical experiment and conceptual analysis, but also in the archives: the open record of our wrongs, conceptual and moral at once.

Excerpted from Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophyby Justin E. H. Smith, Princeton University Press, 2015.

Crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website.


[1] In addition to the titles cited in chapter 1, see Lawrence Blum, “Stereotypes and Stereotyping: A Moral Analysis,” in Philosophical Papers 33, 3 (2004): 251-290; Daniel Kelly and Erica Roedder, “Racial Cognition and the Ethics of Implicit Bias,” in Philosophy Compass 3, 3 (2008): 522-540; Daniel Kelly, Luc Faucher, and Edouard Machery, “Getting Rid of Racism: Assessing Three Proposals in Light of Empirical Evidence,” in Journal of Social Philosophy 41 (2010): 293-322; Eric Schwitzgebel, “Acting Contrary to Our Professed Beliefs, Or, The Gulf Between Occurrent Judgment and Dispositional Belief,” in Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 91, 4 (2010): 531-553; Nilanjana Dasgupta, “Implicit Attitudes and Beliefs Adapt to Situations: A Decade of Research on the Malleability of Implicit Prejudice, Stereotypes, and the Self-Concept,” inAdvances in Experimental Social Psychology 47 (2013): 233-279.