Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Bruce Buchan & Silvia Sebastiani on Race in the European Enlightenment

by contributing editor Nuala P. Caomhánach

Bruce Buchan is an intellectual historian whose work traces European political thought through the experience of empire and colonization in the era of Enlightenment. His recent publications include, An Intellectual History of Political Corruption (2014), and Sound, Space and Civility in the British World, 1700-1850 (2019), as well as special issues of Cultural Studies Review (2018), Republics of Letters (2018), and History of the Human Sciences (2019). His most recent papers appear in the Journal of the History of IdeasIntellectual History ReviewModern Intellectual History, and Cultural History. Bruce has held visiting professorships at the University of Copenhagen (2015-16), the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (2017), and most recently was a Fernand Braudel Senior Research Fellow at the European University Institute in 2021. His forthcoming books include a new edited collection, Piracy in World History (Amsterdam University Press, 2021), and a monograph with Linda Andersson Burnett entitled, Racing Humanity: Education, Empire and Ethnography in Scotland’s Global Enlightenment, c. 1770-1820 (in late 2022).

Silvia Sebastiani is associate professor at the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris, where she teaches research seminars on Enlightenment historiography and on race in early modern period in Europe and European empires. Her publications include The Scottish Enlightenment. Race, Gender, and the Limits of Progress (2013), awarded of the “István Hont Prize” for intellectual history, and the co-editon of Negotiating Knowledge in Early Modern Empires: A Decentered View (2014), Simianization. Apes, Gender, Class, and Race (2015), L’expérience historiographique (2016), as well as the “Forum” on  “Closeness and Distance in the Age of Enlightenment” in Modern Intellectual History (2014) and the special issue on Les vitrines de l’humanité in Passés Futurs (2019). Sebastiani has spent the academic year 2017-2018  at the Institute of the Advanced Study, Princeton, as a member of the School in Historical Studies. Her new book on Race et histoire dans les sociétés occidentales (15e-18e siècle), co-authored with Jean-Frédéric Schaub, will be published in September 2021. She is now completing a monograph on the boundaries of humanity in the Enlightenment, focusing on how the great ape contributed to the shaping of human and social sciences.

Buchan and Sebastiani recently spoke with Nuala P. Caomhánach about their article “‘No distinction of Black or Fair’:The Natural History of Race in Adam Ferguson’s Lectures on Moral Philosophy,” which has appeared in the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (April, 82.2) and is currently open access.

Nuala P. Caomhánach: Although predominantly known for his contribution to the civic tradition of Scotland’s Enlightenment, your essay highlights how Adam Ferguson’s pedagogical activity, as a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, was a site of ongoing reflection, reorientation, and a testing ground for his studies on the boundaries of human variation and diversity especially with regard to the category of race.  The focus on analyzing lecture notes is striking as you demonstrate how Ferguson’s thinking on race vacillates over time, is suggestive rather than conclusive, and stands in sharp relief to how he omitted this category from the Principles of Moral and Political Science (1792). In thinking about the placement of Ferguson within the intellectual tradition, the focus on his lecture notes suggests a desire to decolonize his published works. First, why do you think race as a category has been dismissed as a minor thread in Ferguson’s thought? Does this reflect on the historical field itself as a whole, and/or does it highlight the kinds of archival material that are examined and are more “acceptable” within the field? In providing ample evidence of how his lecture notes reveal the tension about racial categories for Ferguson, are you suggesting that key historical actors in intellectual thought need to be re-evaluated, and if so, to what end?

Bruce Buchan & Silvia Sebastiani: It would be fair to say that race has tended to be marginalized in the history of Europe’s Enlightenment, not just in Ferguson’s own thought. Although there have been studies, since the post-World War II period and in particular since the 1970s, highlighting how racial categories are constructed at the very moment when the universal and natural rights of “man” are affirmed, it is only in recent years that the racial question has been placed at the center of research on Enlightenment. Our interpretation of Ferguson is not just a matter of decolonizing intellectual history by drawing greater attention to race in Enlightenment thought, as important as that is. For us, race was part of elaborate patterns of thought linking it with historical categories (such as civilization, savagery, and barbarism), and with natural historical frameworks for taxonomizing nature, connecting human populations with climates, geographies, and diseases. Race therefore is not just an important concept in its own right. In the eighteenth century, “man” was included in natural history, and classified as the rest of natural world, such as flora and fauna. This “naturalization” of humankind went hand in hand with its historicization. By emphasizing race, paying greater heed to its articulation in the period and to the questions it raised for intellectuals such as Ferguson, for us is crucial in the continuing quest to properly interpret Enlightenment thought in general. 

Silvia has been working on the implications of this approach for some time, and has made such a significant contribution to the intellectual history of Scottish Enlightenment thought in her The Scottish Enlightenment: Race, Gender and the Limits of Progress (2013). Here she elaborated the connections between race and a range of other concepts, such as gender and nation, that were used to distinguish between human groups, and to make hierarchical prioritizations of some over others. This is what makes the concept of race in Ferguson’s teaching so important for us. Ferguson has previously been interpreted, as you suggest, as a distinctive contributor to a civic tradition of thought by integrating virtue and corruption with stadial historical schemes that charted universal stages of progress from savagery to civilization. Ferguson has also been read, as he was by Karl Marx, for his early formulation and criticisms of the division of labor, and thus of the “progress” of civil society. In both cases, Ferguson’s thought has been viewed through a politico-economic lens, tending to obscure the pivotal contribution of natural history in his construction of knowledge. What we want to show in our paper is that Ferguson’s approach was built on models of natural history then developing in Enlightenment Europe, and that the dialogue with Buffon’s work was central. This shift of emphasis, we believe, has important consequences in the interpretation of Ferguson’s thought.

It was Ferguson’s natural history of the species that enabled him to connect virtue and progress, savagery and race, and this was the framework that he presented so vividly in his lectures on moral philosophy. While it is true to say that race does not occupy a central place in Ferguson’s published works, its prominence in his teaching is a feature of his intellectually distinctive blending of natural history with stadial historical thinking. And we know, as we suggest in our conclusion, that this is precisely how Ferguson was read by those who made colonial voyages and sought to interpret non-European and First Nations peoples according to ideas of race drawn from natural history, and presumptions of savagery dependent on stadial history. This is unfolding research that Bruce Buchan has also been conducting with Linda Andersson Burnett (at Uppsala University), and some of that work can be accessed here.

To return to your question about methodology, our paper is a contribution to the extension of intellectual histories that seek meaning from more fragmentary sources. It would be fair to say that conventionally, intellectual history has sought to trace repertoires of meaning in sources that were made available in quite restrictive contexts. One restriction has been the overwhelming focus on published or unpublished manuscripts—complete works that can be traced to distinct authorship and identifiable readerships. It is not hard to understand why intellectual historians should prioritize such sources, because they offer concrete conceptual or argumentative formulations that allow influence and interpretation to be reconstructed. Nonetheless, this focus reinforces a spatial confinement matched by the preference for complete products of thought, typically published texts. This approach to intellectual history has been extremely fruitful, but it tends to treat its subject as an existential whole, a finished product that allows sources of influence to be traced from histories of development toward that finality. We don’t for a moment suggest this approach is misguided. We endorse and apply this technique, but we also see the potential in less conclusive and more fragmentary sources (such as Ferguson’s lecture notes) to broaden the interpretive possibilities for intellectual historians. This necessarily involves more tentative conclusions, but for us the value of such sources lies in their ability to peer behind the monumental figures of intellectual history, the great minds or influential texts, to engage with the persistent doubts and the frank speculations retailed to other audiences. In Ferguson’s case, to his students.

There is a growing literature focusing on the importance of handwritten notes in the Enlightenment era, alongside the printed text, and on the need to take into account the materiality of different ways of constructing knowledge. Compared to the printed text, the notes reveal other elements of knowledge construction. We don’t mean to say that the notes allow historians to see things better; but to see them otherwise. This is why it is useful to combine the two approaches together. The educational dimension of the notes is another crucial aspect to be stressed, as Craig Smith has masterfully demonstrated. Indeed, his book on Adam Ferguson and the Idea of Civil Society (2019) is a fundamental contribution to this field. We could only use the book marginally because it was published when our article was already written, but we would like to acknowledge our debt to his work and the parallels between our approaches and arguments. Historians of the Scottish Enlightenment have long emphasized the crucial contribution made by Scotland’s universities in providing an institutional framework for the intellectual dynamism of the era, but scholars are yet to fully explore the content of what was taught, how it was taught, and what former students did with the ideas they imbibed. And here we think it is important to emphasize that today as much as in the past, the widest audience that most scholars ever reach is made up of the students they teach. Ferguson was evidently proud of his achievements as a teacher, which we think is at least implied in Henry Raeburn’s portrait of the then retired Professor in the early 1790s (see above). Here Ferguson chose to be painted flanked not only by his various elegantly bound publications, but by two very thick volumes of his manuscript lecture notes on moral philosophy. For us, paying heed to teaching makes empire and colonization (and hence race) unavoidable features of the intellectual history of Enlightenment thought.

A last point should be emphasized. Until recently, historiography has focused almost exclusively on An Essay on the History of Civil Society, which indeed was a crucial contribution, but not the only one Ferguson made. He construed history in different ways and with different tools, including lectures, while addressing diverse audiences. He was more versatile than is often acknowledged. In his long life, Ferguson pursued a varied career as soldier, clergyman, librarian, and professor both of natural philosophy and moral philosophy, also joining clubs and debating societies. We believe it is important to take into account the multiplicity of contexts in which Ferguson participated. This also means that intellectual historians need to articulate how the Scottish, the British, the European, the imperial, and colonial dimensions all nourished Enlightenment debates on humankind and its history. Our own and others work on Ferguson appears to confirm that natural history shifted into raciology in the years between 1780 and 1800. By then, race had become a major concern all over Europe and throughout European empires. Yet Enlightenment thought provided no single solution to the question of race (and there has probably never been agreement on this imaginary, but terribly powerful category). The tension about racial categories that runs through Ferguson’s work can be found in other literati, more or less explicitly. Despite that uncertainty, race emerges in this period within natural histories and taxonomic classification, as much as within philosophical and universal histories of civilization, as an attempt to explain the unequal progress of human societies. These approaches are entwined and should be studied as such. It is within this complex and heterogeneous framework that we suggest the need to re-evaluate key historical actors in Enlightenment thought. Our aim is to show that there is an unresolved tension between universalism and hierarchy in Enlightenment thinking, which continues to spark controversy around the world today.

NPC: In what ways did incorporating natural history imbue a scientific authority to Ferguson’s arguments? Why was Ferguson so reluctant to articulate a theoretical framework without having all the “facts” or empirical data, as he seemed to want to stay within the descriptive and collecting stage? Was he, in essence, waiting for all the data to be gathered before leaping from speculation to empirically supported theory? I am curious in what ways Ferguson’s Christian beliefs were filtered through a natural history lens, for example, the compatibility of a Biblical insistence on monogenesis, and whether this was in part a reaction to  Rousseau’s dismissal of the authority of the biblical account of Man in Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes (1755).

BB & SS: Some elements of this question have already been addressed in our previous answer: the relationship between natural history and stadial history is both complex and crucial. We’ll just make two observations here, but our answer could be much longer! First, the historiographical revolution during Europe’s Enlightenment is based on providing “evidence,” that is, verification borne out of the critical analysis of sources. This is an aspect of Enlightenment thought that Arnaldo Momigliano emphasized many years ago. The aim of Enlightened historians, certainly those in Scotland such as Adam Ferguson, was to write “scientific” history, which responded (as they saw it) to laws of nature and was based on “facts.” Ferguson participated here in a larger reflection in which the Bible was questioned as a historical document (despite its centrality in Scottish Calvinist society).

On the other hand, however, the defense of biblical monogenism remains crucial, as you rightly point out, but this was not done on the basis of the authority of the sacred text itself, but on scientific reasoning. This was why Ferguson placed such an emphasis in his lectures on seeking to trace on the effects of climate, diet, and terrain on human individuals and their societies. By doing so, Ferguson once again blended diverse sources, combining speculations derived from Montesquieu’s climatic theory, with the archaic Hippocratic-Galenic doctrine of temperament, and very contemporary medical suppositions about the environmental determinants of sensibility. By drawing on and coordinating such sources together Ferguson presented human beings, and human races, as subjects for natural historical inquiry—the model for which was supplied by Buffon. Identifying Buffon’s influence on Ferguson enables us to pay closer attention to the complex relationship between race and history. There is a tendency, thanks to the pernicious influence of the doctrine of scientific racism in the late nineteenth century, to regard race as immutable, as resistant to historical malleability. The relationship between race and history is more complex in the late eighteenth-century context, and especially in Ferguson’s teaching. The complexity emerges when we pay attention to Buffon’s key concept of race as a product of degeneration from an initial prototype. Degeneration and improvement are articulated together in Ferguson’s history of civil society. Understanding their connection means that we need to confront race as a key concept in Ferguson’s history, and in Enlightened historiography more generally.

That Ferguson could engage so closely with natural history might also be seen as a feature of his Presbyterianism. Long before he won fame as a Professor of moral philosophy and exponent of Enlightened history, Ferguson served almost 10 years as a chaplain to one of the most famous Highland regiments raised to keep watch on the rebellious clans. His first publication was a sermon, delivered in Gaelic to the troops, on the need for loyalty to the Hanoverian dynasty and the British state. Right at this early stage in his career, Ferguson saw no inherent conflict between Christian faith and a commitment to history, or more specifically, to the civilization he believed history had unfolded and embodied in the British state.

If there was no inherent tension between history and faith, he did not see one between history and nature either. This is where the figure of Rousseau looms into view. Ferguson’s disagreement with Rousseau, as Iain McDaniel has shown, was drawn out over a number of objections, yet for us the key point of rupture is over the question of a dichotomy between nature and history. Such a separation was affirmed by Rousseau, for whom human sociality is an artefact of the history of society rather than part of the nature of human beings. By contrast, Ferguson followed Buffon and Montesquieu in reaffirming the social dimension of humanity. It was one of Ferguson’s foundational convictions, reiterated again and again in his lectures, that “man” is born into society and is only capable of realizing “his” humanity in networks of social interactions. These relations could be either harmonious or antagonistic (indeed, his thinking mirrored Kant’s formulation of the “unsocial sociability” of humankind), but in both cases affirmed the inherently and inescapably social nature of “man.”  Ferguson followed in Buffon’s footsteps in distinguishing “man” by both physical and moral characteristics, and by a need for society, outside of which “he” would never be able to survive. It was thus useless to multiply conjectures and hypotheses, as Rousseau had done: society was neither artificial nor contractual, but grounded in nature. Human progression did not need any external or accidental circumstances to set it in motion. This is why art is “itself natural to man,” as Ferguson stated at the outset of his An Essay on the History of Civil Society. In so doing, the distinction between nature and artifice, upon which Rousseau had constructed his entire system, was annihilated: civilization did not produce anything which was not already contained in human nature (an aspect on which Silvia is doing some further work now).

Timeline of history in Ferguson’s 1780 article History (2nd edition of Britannica).

NPC: Ferguson’s time as secretary to the ill-fated Carlisle Commission highlights the role of colonial policy and sources in his thinking about the nature of humanity and race. It was striking how Ferguson confirmed that warfare was an index of historical progress. Do you think that Ferguson was justifying colonial violence in the Americas? It is clear that the peoples of America were troubling within Ferguson’s schema, and it required him to question the role of latitude, the temperate zone, and name these peoples as savage. This outlier seems to highlight his unwillingness to question the supremacy of white Europeans. How was Ferguson so certain about delimiting Europeans as superior, yet have such immense uncertainty in classifications of race? Did the debates about colonial spaces and humanity concern Ferguson about the future of the colonies, and (white) mankind?

BB & SS: Ferguson’s attitudes to empire and colonization were troubled and troubling, to say the least. On the one hand, his publications evince a healthy skepticism toward the moral claims made by empires, seeing in them engines of moral corruption, domestic tyranny, and rapacious conquest abroad. There are many passages in his works that might also suggest that he made claims against Britain’s Empire. Yet Ferguson’s career exemplified a consistent, indeed persistent, attachment to the material interests of Britain’s Empire. At least part of the reason for his prevarication, we think, is that Ferguson had a life-long attachment to war, and a deeply sentimental appraisal of the moral character of warriors, ancient and modern. This is a complicated story (on which Bruce has done some work in the past and is doing further research at the moment), but to cut a long story short, Ferguson viewed warfare as an index of civilization arguably more reliable as a guide to historical progress than mores, manners, or systems of government. If, in the course of historical progress, the brutal wars of Europe’s archaic, Homeric past had been civilized by modern laws and “lenitives” (to use Ferguson’s own phrase), warfare had also become less personal, detached from martial virtue. This was the challenge that Ferguson confronted in the “militia debate” of the 1750s and 1760s (about which John Robertson and Richard Sher have written): how to integrate the virtues of the archaic warrior in the context of modern civilized war? It was a challenge that spoke to his own experience as a Scotsman of Highland birth, a Gaelic speaker, who served in a Gaelic-speaking Highland regiment in service to the British imperial state. It was a challenge posed by European colonization in the Americas, and by conflict with First Nations warriors, who, Ferguson reflected repeatedly in his An Essay on the History of Civil Society, represented a model of “savage” martial virtue that “civilized” Europeans had lost. Ferguson did not say too much more than that about European pretensions to any rights of conquest, or about its actual conduct in the Americas or elsewhere, but it would be fair to conclude that he was aware that colonization was as much a moral as a military challenge; one in which the claims of First Nations warriors deserved to be taken seriously.

Against that backdrop, then, his late career sojourn to America with the Carlisle Commission presents another aspect of Ferguson’s thinking on war. Though the Commission deserves to be seen as a failure and a farce, Ferguson’s role in it deserves careful consideration. Whether or not he was an active participant in the Commission’s deliberations, he later explicitly affirmed its members’ decision to threaten a suspension of the laws of war in Britain’s conflict with its former American colonies. As Ferguson saw it, the colonists were “rebels” who had allied themselves with Britain’s archrival, France, and therefore had placed themselves beyond the bounds of the laws of war. Ferguson did not expand on this reasoning in his lectures, but his interpretation of the European tradition of writings on the laws of war since Grotius did make clear that “rebels” had no status among legitimate belligerents at war.  Here again Ferguson took part in a more general debate to be taken into account in Scotland, Europe, and beyond.

Ferguson had more to say about the conduct of the American war for independence much later in his career, but we think it is significant that his American sojourn left an imprint in his lectures in respect to his presentation of race. In this connection we would draw attention to two features of his thinking. First, that his manifest interest in the climatic determinants of race (though he frankly admitted uncertainties on this score) made him amenable to the already centuries-long anxiety that colonization would expose Europeans bred in more temperate climes to degenerating heat, cold, or humidity. Ferguson accepted the legitimacy of this concern, but he used his lectures in particular to emphasize the advantages presumed to accrue to the “European race” from their temperate climate, above all in supposing it bestowed greater ingenuity. It was for this reason that he argued Europeans were able to modify the worst effects of climate and thus to temper the potential for racial degeneration.

While these arguments can hardly be described as novel, we think their significance lies in their connection to a second aspect of Ferguson’s thought after he returned from America: his interest in the historic role of colonization. He was, of course, later to write on this in his celebrated History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic (1783). In his lectures, however, he elevated the ability of humans to form “settlements,” and to colonize new terrains, as an integral feature in the natural history of humanity—an exemplification of the progress humans were fitted by nature to make in taming nature, securing themselves, and extending their conquests. This is why we see Ferguson’s lectures on moral philosophy as such an important source of insight into his thinking at a time of considerable conceptual change in Scottish thought generally. It was here, in his lectures, that Ferguson taught cohorts of students to approach the great moral questions of their times, about war, colonization, and the fate of empire, through dual lenses of both history and natural history. By drawing them together and presenting them to his students, Ferguson sought nothing less than to illuminate the capabilities as well as the limitations of the races of “man.” 

Nuala P. Caomhánach is a doctoral student in the Department of History at New York University and evolutionary biologist at the American Museum of Natural History. Her research focuses on the concept, meaning, and construction of biological Time and Space across three bodies of scientific knowledge—Ecological, Malagasy, and Phylogenetic—as applied to conservation ideology and policy from the late nineteenth century to present day. In short, her dissertation aims to understand how Madagascar became the botanical museum to save all of nature (and thus, humankind).

Featured Image: Portrait of Adam Ferguson (1723–1816) by Henry Raeburn, c. 1790. Courtesy of the University of Edinburgh.

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