Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Joris van Gorkom on Racial Hierarchies in Kant’s Thought

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.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Peter De Bolla on Liberty and Concept Analysis

Peter De Bolla is Professor of Cultural History and Aesthetics at King’s College, Cambridge and the Director of the Cambridge Concept Lab.  Together with Ewan Jones, Paul Nulty, Gabriel Recchia, and John Regan, all affiliated with the Cambridge Concept Lab, he coauthored the article “The Idea of Liberty, 1600–1800: A Distributional Concept Analysis,” published in the most recent issue (81.3, July 2020) of the Journal of the History of Ideas. He spoke with Brendan Mackie, a contributing editor at the JHI Blog, about their article.

In Theory: The JHI Blog Podcast · Broadly Speaking: Peter De Bolla on Liberty and Concept Analysis

Featured Image: Thomas Gainsborough, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews (~1750). National Gallery. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Carlotta Santini on Comparing Aby Warburg and Leo Frobenius

Carlotta Santini is Senior Researcher of the Centre National of Scientific Research (CNRS) at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. After receiving a PhD in philosophy at the Sorbonne, she worked at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes, the Technical University Berlin, Princeton University, and the CRASSH Institute in Cambridge. Her research interests include the study of German culture between the 18th and 20th centuries (aesthetics, philosophy, literature and anthropology), with a particular focus on the legacy of the classical Greek world. She recently spoke with JHI Blog editor Anne Schult about her article “Searching for Orientation in the History of Culture: Aby Warburg and Leo Frobenius on the Morphological Study of the Ifa-Board,” which has appeared in the most recent issue (81.3, July 2020) of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

Anne Schult: In your article, you refer to the study of human culture as “one of the most unstable fields of knowledge” in the early 20th century. What caused this instability? In how far can we read the respective methodologies proposed by Warburg and Frobenius as attempts to render it more stable?

Carlotta Santini: The great development of positivism at the end of the 19th century, the extraordinary developments of the exact sciences and techniques that we are still witnessing today, had great influence on the human sciences as well. Throughout the 19th century, the humanities followed a path of specialism, trying to develop rigorous methods in order to achieve a level of scientificity comparable to that of the mathematical and physical sciences.

But it is precisely this stimulating competition with the natural sciences, in highlighting a layer of undecidability, of ineliminable resistance of the world of the spirit to the descriptive rigidity of scientific laws and categories, that allows us, in my opinion, to best evaluate the great potential of the human sciences. Authors like Warburg and Frobenius have been able to describe the extraordinary complexity and articulation, the incessant force of mutation and transformation, in a word the inexhaustible creativity that characterizes the works of the human spirit.

The field of culture in its multiple aspects (history, language, society, religion, art) is undoubtedly the most difficult and richest field of study for a scholar, since its products are practically inexhaustible and the laws of development they obey are continually reformulated. The ambition to transfer the methods of the exact sciences to the field of human studies is perhaps a misconceived ambition. It is not objectivity that we should aspire to, but an understanding that is as broad as possible and takes into account the extent, variety, historical depth, and forward-looking perspectives of cultural development. Such kind of knowledge is perhaps never fully accomplished, but most closely realized in the exercise of knowledge itself: investigation, research, incessant comparison. This is a truly infinite task, however: a researcher in this field can retrace a hundred and more times the same path previously followed by others and nevertheless achieve results never seen before. This is, in my opinion, the great privilege, but also the great risk, faced by all scholars guided by genuine curiosity and intellectual honesty who dedicate themselves to the human sciences.

AS: You suggest that Frobenius and Warburg, though typically considered scholars of anthropology and art history, respectively, “can be most usefully understood as historians of culture.” What advantage does this reframing of the relevant disciplinary context offer when analyzing each scholar’s work? And how, in turn, do the specific approaches to culture pursued by Frobenius and Warburg enrich our understanding of cultural history?

CS: Anthropology and art history: labels such as these are just attempts to distinguish precise disciplinary fields, with precise methods. These distinctions are certainly legitimate and productive—the history of science bears witness to this—but we must not forget that they are still working hypotheses, diverse and always modifiable approaches to the great field of human knowledge. The terms “anthropology” and “art history” themselves are subject to terminological dispute, and the boundaries of these disciplines are variously defined by the individual scholarly traditions in the different countries in which they are practiced. That said, Frobenius and Warburg enjoy a peculiar reputation within their respective disciplines.

Frobenius was considered a more infamous than famous anthropologist among his colleagues, and Warburg was always cut off, both by his own choice and by the resistance of the academic world, from the academic circles of the nascent field of art history. Warburg and Frobenius themselves, therefore, refused to be confined to the restricted scope of their respective disciplines and, each for their part, formulated a broader definition of their individual quests for knowledge. Declaring themselves, as Burckhardt before them, as researchers of culture (cultural science, cultural history, cultural morphology are some of the possible definitions of this macrodiscipline), they do not deny the specificity of the methods of their original disciplines, but rather claim a wider validity to these same methods. Frobenius was certainly a brilliant anthropologist, but as a historian of culture, he perhaps represents the accomplished image of an ideal anthropologist. Anthropology is the science of man and, by definition, does not exclude anything concerning man. It therefore contains a bit of history and a bit of archaeology, of science of religions and sociology, of ethnography and geography, and of economics and mathematics.

Warburg, for his part, was undeniably a brilliant art historian, capable of channeling original methods into the study of artistic heritage. But for Warburg, art was the form of man’s expressive capacity par excellence. From this point of view, the whole history of culture is an integral part of art history, since it is the story of how man creatively expresses his relationship with the world, his “being in the world,” in physical and ideal images.

In choosing to define these scholars just as they have defined themselves on several occasions, i.e. as historians of culture, I therefore do not intend to introduce a further disciplinary distinction. The legitimacy of this definition rests precisely in its extension and extensibility, in its resistance to any form of limitation. The history of culture, more so than being a discipline, constitutes a perspective on the history of knowledge, on the history of mankind in general. Giambattista Vico called it the “new science,” and the legitimate object of this science is all that pertains to the realm of human action in the world. The epistemological spectrum of this discipline is therefore vast, since everything that man has created, worked toward, thought, and conceived of is included in it, and all the methods of the specialized disciplines are potentially included in it as well.

AS: Your article revolves around Frobenius’ and Warburg’s differing interpretations of the Ifa boards found among the Yoruba, a population that had settled along the great bend of the Niger River in West Africa. Apart from the methodological dispute between the two scholars, how does their shared analysis of this particular cultural artifact fit into the broader history of late 19th to early 20th-century German colonialism and the archives and kinds of knowledge it produced?

CS: I have chosen to focus on their interpretations of the Ifa board because it offers a very specific example not only of the application of their respective methods, but also of the difficulties of the intellectual and ideological context in which they were situated. As I point out in my article, Frobenius’ position, regardless of its validity, was in strong contrast to mainstream theories within African Studies at the end of the nineteenth century. As is well known, African Studies were considered a subsection of Orientalist Studies for a long time because of the pre-eminence attributed to Arab culture, which was counted among the “superior cultures” at the time. Within this context, Frobenius emerged as the first and most passionate champion of the study of Sub-Saharan African cultures. He recognized a very high level of autonomy and originality in Central and South African cultures, which he himself compared to and indeed deemed superior to classical Greek culture. Many scholars have reported that the historical context in which Frobenius’ research took place was the more general one of Prussian colonialist enterprise in Africa. But Frobenius did not approach local cultures from the viewpoint of cultural superiority. He studied African cultures with the conviction that he had reached the most authentic source of what we call culture. His passion for Sub-Saharan Africa was a real cognitive passion, with which he intended to bring the peripheral “Africa without history” back to the center and indeed conceive of it as the apex of cultural history.

Although not directly comparable to Frobenius’ admiration of African culture, Warburg’s attitude towards the Hopi Indians living in the American pueblos was also not driven by the paternalistic and utilitarian attitude of colonial science. He visited these regions with the desire to move away from the American East Coast environment, which had ended up exhausting him with its homologation of thought. It is therefore in search of an alternative to the dominant style of thought, to the Western intellectual elite, that Warburg approached the culture of the Hopi. However, a proclaimed absence of prejudice—and this is valid for both Warburg and Frobenius—did not mean abdicating their position as European observers. Through the study of foreign cultures, both authors tried as much to understand their specificity and uniqueness as to find elements of connection with their own culture. For both, the study of culture was a field of investigation that had to be conceived of on a world scale: none of the singular cultures could be said to be impermeable to others, or the repository of a higher truth. The study of particularities, of analogies as much as of differences, was functional to the more ambitious purpose of deriving a total understanding of the dynamics of common human experience on earth.

Featured Image: Ifa divination tray. Yoruba, Nigeria. Wood. W. 32.8 cm. Inv. 1011-74d. Musée Barbier-Mueller, photo Luis Lourenço.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview Think Piece

When was the age of information?

By Paul Duguid

My principal connection to the field of history is through an undergraduate course I co-teach called “History of Information.” It’s a course that seeks to take students from Lascaux to WhatsApp and beyond in fifteen weeks: its key transitional phrase, as my colleague notes, is “moving right along.” The naivety of such an enterprise probably reveals to the audience of this blog that neither of the teachers is a historian.

While courses with this title seem surprisingly scarce, it can be hard to say what distinguishes this approach from the more familiar history of human communications. One uneasy refuge is offered by students who when asked when the age of information began regularly answer “with the Big Bang.” Unlike communication, then, information is from this perspective, eternal and universal but then, perhaps, unhistoricizable. End of course.

Another opportunity to control our subject might be, as some students request, to define the key term. Here we could turn to Claude Shannon, the “father” of information theory, whoseMathematical Theory of Communication portrayed information as that which reduces uncertainty. But while Shannon’s concept works brilliantly for mathematical and computational analysis, students don’t have to think too hard to find information that has served to increase their uncertainty—Shannon’s own definition being but one example.

Alternatively, as the course takes place within the University of California system, we might draw on our former regent, Gregory Bateson, who in Shannon’s wake held that information is the “difference that makes a difference” (Steps Towards an Ecology of Mind). It’s a great aphorism, but restricts us to stuff which (a) is causal and, per Bateson, (b) “travels along neural pathways.” In my experience, this definition too easily gets stuck in the latter.

For consolation, I turn to the economist E.O. Hirschman’s Passion and Interests, which notes that “As happens frequently with concepts that are suddenly thrust to the center of the stage … [the concept] appeared so self-evident … nobody bothered to define it precisely.” This approach allows us to avoid definition while raising the question of what thrusts the concept to center stage in particular historical periods. It also suggests two alternative ways to address that question, the emic and the etic. For the latter, we can use contemporary lighting to illuminate stages from the past. This has allowed several historians to dazzlingly expose the actions of earlier centuries in the light of contemporary understandings of information. For teachers of a history of information, however, this etic view still slides too easily back to the Big Bang. The emic approach, by contrast, asks us only to see how historical subjects themselves became aware of and used the concept (while keeping at bay strange notions like James Gleick’s in The Informationthat “in the long run, history is the story of information becoming aware of itself”).

An emic approach allows us to fall back on Peter Burke’s guidance in The Social History of Knowledge, where he addresses the question of “What is Knowledge?” by considering what historical actors “rather than the present author or his readers” considered to be “knowledge.” In contrast to the brilliant illumination of contemporary digital light, taking such an emic view of “information” can feel more like trying to see by the flickering flame of a tallow candle. But it has advantages, in particular asking why “information” might have been “thrust to the center of the stage” and how people became aware of it as a forceful concept. Moreover, while emic approaches can make the past seem utterly distant, they can occasionally make it disconcertingly familiar, as, for example, when Vicesimus Knox, an eighteenth-century essayist, vicar, and schoolteacher, declared in words usually attributed to Marshall McLuhan, that his was the “age of information,” a declaration that led me to write my essay on the topic in the current issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas. While I have never yet convinced my students that they have much in common with McLuhan, let alone eighteenth-century vicars, what intrigued me in looking at “information” in that century was the way in which then as in the twentieth, the notion was at first embraced with enthusiasm as a means to transform society but “aged” surprisingly quickly, coming to be looked upon with a certain weariness. As the concept took center stage in both centuries, people began to think you couldn’t have enough of the stuff, while later coming to feel that it was hard to avoid having too much.

Paul Duguid is co-author of The Social Life of Information, and teaches courses on the history and the concept of information in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley. His article “The Ageing of Information” appears in the July issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas.