by Justin E. H. Smith
In 1734, Anton Wilhelm Amo, a West African student and former chamber slave of Duke Anton Ulrich of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, defended a philosophy dissertation at the University of Halle in Saxony, written in Latin and entitled “On the Impassivity of the Human Mind.” A dedicatory letter was appended from the rector of the University of Wittenberg, Johannes Gottfried Kraus, who praised “the natural genius” of Africa, its “appreciation for learning,” and its “inestimable contribution to the knowledge of human affairs” and of “divine things.” Kraus placed Amo in a lineage that includes many North African Latin authors of antiquity, such as Terence, Tertullian and St. Augustine.
Why have we chosen to go with Hume and Kant, rather than with the pre-racial conception of humanity?
In the following decade, the Scottish philosopher David Hume would write: “I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was any civilized nation of any other complection than white, nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation.”
Hume had not heard of Amo, that much is clear. But we can also detect a tremendous difference between Hume’s understanding of human capacities and that of Kraus: the author of Amo’s dedicatory letter doesn’t even consider the possibility of anchoring what individual human beings are capable of doing to something as arbitrary as “complection.” For Kraus, Amo represents a continent and its long and distinguished history; he does not represent a “race.”
Another two decades on, Immanuel Kant, considered by many to be the greatest philosopher of the modern period, would manage to let slip what is surely the greatest non-sequitur in the history of philosophy: describing a report of something seemingly intelligent that had once been said by an African, Kant dismisses it on the grounds that “this fellow was quite black from head to toe, a clear proof that what he said was stupid.”
Kraus, the rector of Wittenberg, had been expressing an understanding of the nature of human diversity that was, in 1734, already in decline, soon to be thoroughly drowned out by the fundamentally racist view of human populations as dividing into a fixed set of supposedly natural, species-like kinds. This is the view lazily echoed by Hume, Kant, and so many of their contemporaries.
In his lifetime, Amo was principally known as a legal theorist. His first publication, in 1729, which has since been lost (or, one might suspect, intentionally purged), was a jurisprudential treatise, “On the Right of Moors in Europe.” Here he argues, on the basis of a reading of Roman history and law, that in antiquity “the kings of the Moors were enfeoffed by the Roman Emperor” Justinian, and that “every one of them had to obtain a royal patent from him.” This meant, in Amo’s view, that African kingdoms were all recognized under Roman law, and therefore all Africans in Europe have the status of visiting royal subjects with a legal protection that precludes their enslavement.
Historically, this is highly implausible, since much of the continent of Africa was unknown to Europeans at the time of Justinian. Still, Amo’s understanding is remarkably different from, say, Kant’s account of global history, on which black Africans stood, from the very beginning and as if by definition, beyond the pale of history, and therefore led lives of no intrinsic value, lives that could only be given value through absorption into a global system dominated by Europe.
Scholars have been aware for a long time of the curious paradox of Enlightenment thought, that the supposedly universal aspiration to liberty, equality and fraternity in fact only operated within a very circumscribed universe. Equality was only ever conceived as equality among people presumed in advance to be equal, and if some person or group fell by definition outside of the circle of equality, then it was no failure to live up to this political ideal to treat them as unequal.
It would take explicitly counter-Enlightenment thinkers in the 18th century, such as Johann Gottfried Herder, to formulate anti-racist views of human diversity. In response to Kant and other contemporaries who were positively obsessed with finding a scientific explanation for the causes of black skin, Herder pointed out that there is nothing inherently more in need of explanation here than in the case of white skin: it is an analytic mistake to presume that whiteness amounts to the default setting, so to speak, of the human species.
The category of race continues to be deployed, not just by racists, but by anti-racists as well.
The question for us today is why we have chosen to stick with categories inherited from the 18th century, the century of the so-called Enlightenment, which witnessed the development of the slave trade into the very foundation of the global economy, and at the same time saw racial classifications congeal into pseudo-biological kinds, piggy-backing on the divisions folk science had always made across the natural world of plants and animals. Why, that is, have we chosen to go with Hume and Kant, rather than with the pre-racial conception of humanity espoused by Kraus, or the anti-racial picture that Herder offered in opposition to his contemporaries?
Many who are fully prepared to acknowledge that there are no significant natural differences between races nonetheless argue that there are certain respects in which it is worth retaining the concept of race: for instance in talking about issues like social inequality or access to health care. There is, they argue, a certain pragmatic utility in retaining it, even if they acknowledge that racial categories result from social and historical legacies, rather than being dictated by nature. In this respect “race” has turned out to be a very different sort of social construction than, say, “witch” or “lunatic.” While generally there is a presumption that to catch out some entity or category as socially constructed is at the same time to condemn it, many thinkers are prepared to simultaneously acknowledge both the non-naturalness of race as well as a certain pragmatic utility in retaining it.
Since the mid-20th century no mainstream scientist has considered race a biologically significant category; no scientist believes any longer that “negroid,” “caucasoid” and so on represent real natural kinds or categories.  For several decades it has been well established that there is as much genetic variation between two members of any supposed race, as between two members of supposedly distinct races. This is not to say that there are no real differences, some of which are externally observable, between different human populations. It is only to say, as Lawrence Hirschfeld wrote in his 1996 book, “Race in the Making: Cognition, Culture, and the Child’s Construction of Human Kinds,” that “races as socially defined do not (even loosely) capture interesting clusters of these differences.”
Yet the category of race continues to be deployed in a vast number of contexts, and certainly not just by racists, but by ardent anti-racists as well, and by everyone in between. The history of race, then, is not like the history of, say, witches: a group that is shown not to exist and that accordingly proceeds to go away. Why is this?
Philosophers disagree. Anthony Appiah identifies himself as a racial skeptic to the extent that the biological categories to which racial terms refer have been shown not to exist. Yet at the same time he acknowledges that the adoption of “racial identities” may often be socially expedient, and even unavoidable, for members of perceived racial minorities. Ron Mallon has in turn distinguished between metaphysical views of race on the one hand, which make it out to describe really existent kinds, and normative views on the other, which take race to be useful in some way or other, but not real. Malon divides the latter into “eliminativist” and “conservationist” camps, supposing, variously, that the concept can only be put to bad uses, and must be got rid of, or that some of its uses are worth holding onto. On his scheme, one may very well coherently remain metaphysically anti-realist about race but still defend the conservation of the concept on normative grounds.
But given that we now know that the identity groups in modern multicultural states are plainly constituted on ethno-linguistic and cultural grounds, rather than on biological-essential grounds, it remains unclear why we should not allow a concept such as “culture” or “ethnie” to do the semantic work for us that until now we have allowed the historically tainted and misleading concept of “race” to do. We have alternative ways of speaking of human diversity available to us, some of which are on vivid display in Amo’s early life and work, and which focus on rather more interesting features of different human groups than their superficial phenotypic traits.
It is American culture that is principally responsible for the perpetuation of the concept of race well after its loss of scientific respectability by the mid-20th century. Even the most well-meaning attempts to grapple with the persistence of inequality between “blacks” and “whites” in American society take it for granted at the outset that racial categories adequately capture the relevant differences under investigation (see, for example: Thomas B. Edsall’s recent column, “The Persistence of Racial Resentment“) . This may have something to do with the fact that the two broad cultural-historical groupings of people in this country, which we call “white” and “black” and which have been constituted through the complicated histories of slavery, immigration, assimilation, and exclusion, tend at their extremes to correlate with noticeably different phenotypic traits.
An African-American is likely to look more different from an American of exclusively European descent than, say, an Orthodox Serb is likely to look from a Bosnian Muslim. This creates the illusion that it is the phenotypic difference that is causing the perception of cultural-historical distinctness, along with the injustice and inequality that has gone along with this distinctness. This also creates the illusion of American uniqueness: that our history of ethnic conflict cannot be understood comparatively or in a global context, because it, unlike conflict between Serbs and Bosnian Muslims or between Tutsi and Hutu, is supposedly based on “race” rather than history, politics, and culture. But where people are living with a different historical legacy, as in much of European history prior to the high modern period hailed in by Hume and Kant, the supposedly manifest phenotypic differences between “blacks” and “whites” can easily recede into the background as irrelevant.
Amo did not meet a happy end in Germany. His original manumission and education appear to have been a strategy on the part of Duke Anton Ulrich to impress Tsar Peter the Great of Russia, who had recently adopted his own chamber slave, Abram Petrovich Gannibal, as his own son. Gannibal would go on to a career as a brilliant engineer, military strategist, and politician; Amo, for his part, would be largely abandoned by his sponsors when the geopolitical winds shifted, and Russia fell off the duke’s list of priorities.
For a while the African philosopher eked out a living as a tutor in Jena and Wittenberg, and in 1747, after being made the butt of a libelous broadside accusing him of falling in love with a woman beyond his station, he returned to West Africa in disgrace. A French seafarer, David-Henri Gallandat, finds him there a few years later, and writes of meeting a man who “was very learned in astrology and astronomy, and was a great philosopher. At that time he was around 50 years old… He had a brother who was a slave in the colony of Suriname.”
The hopefulness of the 1734 dissertation was now long behind him. It is not known when Amo died, or under what circumstances. What we can say for certain is that he would not spend his final years as a successor to Augustine and Terence, but rather in the degraded position where someone like Kant supposed he belonged: outside of history, philosophically disenfranchised and entirely defined by something as trivial as skin color.
As long as we go on speaking as if racial categories captured something real about human diversity, we are allowing the 18th-century legacy of Kant and Hume, which was never really anything more than an ad hoc rationalization of slavery, to define our terms for us. We are turning our back on the legacy of Anton Wilhelm Amo, and of his European contemporaries who were prepared to judge him on his merits.
 This is not to deny that there are limited contexts in which self-reporting of “racial” identity may be informative in a local or regional context. It is indeed helpful for a doctor to know, within the context of the American health-care system, the “race” of a patient. What it does mean to say that race is no longer a legitimate scientific category is that this limited, contextual helpfulness tells us nothing about a natural kind or real subdivision of the human species. The category of “race” can be useful in a local, medical context to the extent that it often correlates with other, useful information about tendencies within a given population. But this population need not be conceptualized in terms of race. Race is a dummy variable here, but not of interest as such.
Justin E. H. Smith teaches philosophy at Concordia University in Montreal.This piece appeared in the New York Times