Joris van Gorkom has published numerous articles on Immanuel Kant, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, and Jean-Luc Nancy. At the moment, he is working on Kant’s racial thinking and on the topic of evil. He recently spoke with JHI Blog editor Luna Sarti about his article “Immanuel Kant on Race Mixing: The Gypsies, the Black Portuguese, and the Jews on St. Thomas,” which has appeared in the most recent issue (81.3, July 2020) of the Journal of the History of Ideas.
Luna Sarti: In your article, you describe how Immanuel Kant’s “unsettling endorsement of racial hierarchies” was inseparable from his commitment to defend monogenism as a theory accounting for the origin of the human species. Monogenism is often associated with both the Christian creation myth espoused in the Bible and scientific racism. Can you describe what kind of monogenism Kant defended, particularly in relation to the growing tendency in 18th-century natural sciences to view humans as one species among other organisms?
Joris van Gorkom: References to the Christian tradition are also present in Kant’s views on monogenesis but, unsurprisingly, he did not want to base his conception of the physiological unity of mankind on a religious foundation. If we don’t consider polygenic theories and the idea that multiple local creations would explain human differences, one can say that there were two dominant scientific views on the unity of species. The first relied heavily on a principle that had often been associated with the famous French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon: a species is a group of animals that can produce fertile offspring. The great advantage of this rule was that a specific unity resulted from organic nature itself. The other position was more interested in morphological characteristics: the unity of species had to be determined on the basis of the appearance of organisms. Kant defended the first position, probably because of its law-like character. It seemed to abandon all contingencies in the determination or formation of a species.
However, Kant must have noticed that there were good reasons to question this principle. Buffon had already expressed some doubts regarding this rule, for he had observed exceptional cases where two organisms that allegedly belonged to different species were able to have fertile offspring. Not all mules are infertile. Kant ignored these reservations, and some of his contemporaries who would adopt important aspects of his racial theory were just as uncritical regarding this principle. But this does not mean that Kant’s racial theory had eventually gained popularity because of his reliance on Buffon’s rule. The position of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach is also important in this regard. He not only managed to popularize Kant’s concept of race, but also had a clear interest in a more morphological comprehension of the notion of species. Thus, he thought that the invariable inheritance of racial characteristics did not demand Buffon’s interfertility criterion for the determination of the unity of a species. And yet, he adopted Kant’s notion of race as of the late 1790s.
LS: You describe how Kant relied on three cases that he viewed as examples of “race mixing” to argue for a natural history of humans that was unaffected by empirical complexities and that could support a theory of knowledge based on “knowing in advance what to look for.” Recently, in debates on networks of knowledge such as the Republic of Letters, scholarly research has demonstrated how exclusion from access to empirical knowledge on a broad scale might influence the decision to support theories that could bypass not only the complexity of the world but also the perception of European absurd claims of universalism. Could Kant’s position be linked to a similar sense of uneasiness with the limits of (his own) knowledge?
JvG: It seems to me that Kant’s case is a little bit different or at least more complex. Access to certain sources of information must have been more difficult than it is today, but the point that I try to make in my article is that Kant had enough opportunities to come to a different opinion of non-white populations. Too often Kant insisted on his ideas when others questioned his notion of invariable racial traits or his disturbing conceptualization of race. What is even more problematic and needs to be stressed is that Kant was not merely a passive recipient of information. This becomes very clear in his emphasis on race instead of language in the study of the Romani people. Although others were studying their origin on the basis of their language, Kant expressly wanted to shift the focus to skin color. He encouraged his contemporaries to view them as belonging to a certain race. Others who expressed very questionable opinions about the Romani people also searched for possibilities for them to integrate in European communities. Their solutions were often morally reprehensible, but for Kant this attempted integration marked an impossible task. Since the Romani people should, according to Kant, be categorized as a non-white race, one could not reasonably expect them to integrate into European societies. Even when Kant’s colleague Johann Daniel Metzger expressed his concern about this racialization of the Romani people, Kant held on to this view.
And Kant was to a certain extent successful in shifting the attention of contemporaries to his notion of race. Although there are some studies that deal with Kant’s views on the Romani people, they primarily focus on the influence of others on his work. However, these studies often ignore Kant’s impact on his contemporaries. So, to come back to the question, the study of Kant’s racism should not focus merely on certain limitations of his knowledge. He had access to other views, and others certainly expressed their doubts about the consequences of his racial theory. However, he not only insisted on his views but managed to shape the ideas of others. Their study of Kant allowed them to express their questionable views of, for instance, the Romani people in terms of race.
LS: Most debates on the origin and diversity of the human species as reported in the article reveal that the concept of climate had a crucial role in theories accounting for variance in elements of human physiology. You describe how Kant opposed the view that external conditions had a role in shaping human characteristics. Can you comment on Kant’s understanding of climate, particularly in relation to the newly forming disciplinary boundaries that characterized the separation between biological and cultural approaches to human history? In other words, was Kant’s climate a set of material or cultural conditions—or both?
JvG: Kant indeed objected to the idea that climatic conditions alone accounted for human differences. But this does not mean that he saw no role for the climate in his ideas on race. His view was more nuanced. A specific climate did not bring about a certain racial trait but formed, he argued, the occasion for the development of predetermined possibilities in an organism. He believed that the first human beings had the conditions to adapt to the climate in which they lived. But, according to Kant, this adaptability ceased as soon as human beings developed their racial characteristics. And since Kant distinguished four different climates (humid cold, dry cold, humid heat, and dry heat), he thought that there had to be four races. This allowed him to account for an essential aspect of his concept of race: that a racial trait is invariable. Kant thought that once a race formed, it could not be altered by climate, diet, ways of life, or other “artificial modifications”. In Kant’s view, the only possibility left for changing racial traits was thus intermixture.
Accordingly, in the context of his racial theory, Kant considered the climate primarily as a set of material conditions. However, in his view, the climate had consequences for the moral, cultural, and mental characteristics of people. For instance, he believed that laziness was a racial trait associated with climates and thus one could not expect it to change. Thus, he also linked the idea of racial differences to that of a racial hierarchy. The assumption of a hierarchy was not new, but Kant provided a new explanation for it. His racial theory allowed him to argue that nature itself determined racial differences and a racial hierarchy.
One aspect that I want to stress in this regard is the following: many contemporary readers of Kant think that in his late work he (radically) changed his view on racial hierarchy. He supposedly abandoned his opposition to what he called “race mixing.” He allegedly opposed slavery. However, there is no support for these interpretations. Kant never explicitly and unambiguously objected to the institution of slavery as such. He never explicitly retracted his earlier views on what he perceived as “the dangers of race mixing.” In fact, as I try to show in the article, Kant influenced the views of contemporaries on race. He even explicitly endorsed the work of one of the main advocates of his theory, Christoph Girtanner, without expressing any reservations about the adoption of his own disquieting theorization of race.
Featured Image: Immanuel Kant. Stipple engraving by J. Chapman, 1814. Wellcome Library no. 4962i.