One should not mistake the examples a philosopher uses for the focus of the philosopher's interest. This is a common complaint leveled against scholars who engage with philosophical texts from a position outside of philosophy narrowly conceived. Thus Martha Nussbaum has criticized Judith Butler's view that J. L. Austin heterosexualizes social bonds by taking 'I thee wed' as the paradigmatic example of a speech act. Nussbaum comments: "It is usually a mistake to read earth-shaking significance into a philosopher's pedestrian choice of examples. Should we say that Aristotle's use of a low-fat diet to illustrate the practical syllogism suggests that chicken is at the heart of Aristotelian virtue? Or that Rawls's use of travel plans to illustrate practical reasoning shows that A Theory of Justice aims at giving us all a vacation?"
Yet, pace Nussbaum, one might also reasonably suggest that the significance of examples should be judged on a case-by-case basis. The stock examples of chalk, tables, and desks that philosophy instructors employ in teaching in fact say quite a bit about our ontology, and it is not at all a disruption of philosophical reflection, but indeed a deepening of it, to ask what the taking of these mundane classroom objects as paradigmatic instances of thing says about our ontological commitments. Aristotle and Leibniz both, for example, would have seen chairs and chalk as each in need of a different sort of ontological analysis, whereas we tend to run them together. When it comes to examples touching upon race or gender, philosophers tend to be somewhat more tolerant than Nussbaum is here of Butler, and indeed many people working very much from within the discipline of philosophy, rather than picking away at it from outside, as Nussbaum supposes Butler to be doing, have acknowledged that examples drawn from racial or ethnic others in the history of philosophy may be more relevant to understanding this history than chicken is to Aristotle's virtue theory. Charles W. Mills, for example, argues that the off-hand comments about race in classical philosophical works, far from being tangential to the main concerns of the authors, in fact express the overall systematic aim of these works: to perpetuate a social contract and a moral psychology that promotes and preserves the interests of whites over other people. We do not need to scrutinize his argument in order to appreciate that at the very least there are serious philosophers who are rather more interested in drawing out the significance of examples than Nussbaum thinks we ought to be.
There is an example of such an example, so to speak, in the French Jesuit Gabriel Daniel’s 1690 work, Voiage du monde de Descartes. This is a satirical work, a fictional romp whose purpose is as much to ridicule Descartes and as many other people and ideas as one can touch upon along the way. The work’s plot, such as it is, involves an encounter with the disembodied spirit of Descartes, who takes the narrator on a tour of the ‘world’ described in the philosopher’s 1633 Le Monde. Daniel’s principal aim is to deflate and satirize Descartes’s vortex theory, and in order to do this he imagines a trip to the moon, inspired also by Cyrano de Bergerac’s Histoire comique des États et Empires de la Lune, first published in 1655. In the course of the narrator’s space travels he encounters the disembodied spirits of many dead philosophers, who have apparently taken up residence on the moon.It turns out, in Daniel’s parallel reality, that Descartes’s discovery of the strict separation between body and soul brought with it a practical application: the ability of the soul to leave the bodily machine at will. In the story, this is an ability that Descartes guards as a sort of secret, and in this way Daniel effectively portrays Cartesian mechanism and dualism as a sort of magical sect; at one point the narrator proclaims: “I was very worried that this was some sort of sorcery and magic, and that under the pretext of taking me to Descartes’s World, they were in fact taking me to a sabbath.” It is within the context of this farce that Daniel introduces the figure of the African servant who inadvertently gets initiated into this secret, with tragic results. This passage is worth citing the long excursus on the servant’s fate in full (translation ours):
“Oh my God! Sir!”, I cried out, terrified. “What is this you are causing me to see?” “Gentle now,” he said to me, “gentle. Do not be alarmed. What you are seeing is not so devilish, even if it is black. This is not at all a devil; it is the soul of a little Negro, who is in the service of M. Descartes, and whose adventure I will tell you in two words, to relieve you of any doubt or worry. This little Negro was once the valet of M. Regius, the famous professor of medicine at the University of Utrecht, who, as you know, was previously a close friend, disciple, and admirer of Descartes. In view of these qualities, he earned from him knowledge of the secret of the separation of the body and soul. But afterward they had a falling out, to the point that Descartes thought himself obliged to write against him, since he corrupted the doctrine, and even made it scandalous. Regius, whose manners were not always those of the most gallant man in the world, at least as Descartes described him, took his vengeance against him, and displayed his contempt for the thing that Descartes valued the most, by teaching the secret to this little Negro, who took it into his head more than once to take advantage of it. As he was coming back one day from the countryside, where his master had sent him, finding himself tired, and having sat down in the shadow of an oak, his soul left his body there to rest and sleep, and went to amuse itself I don’t know where. But some robbers killed a man nearby. The officer who was in the area, having been notified, came without delay with his soldiers: the noise was so great, that he awoke the body of the little Negro… The machine [of his body], determined [into motion] by this noise, and by the strong impression that the presence of these armed men made on its organs, began to flee. They ran after him, caught him, and interrogated him. He halted at every word in his responses, which, in the absence of a soul, could not be very coherent. The officer, who was a bit hurried, took his fleeing, and the fright that appeared in his face and in his speech, as decisive proof of his crime, and ordered him to be hanged from a tree then and there as an accomplice to the murder that had just occurred. The soul, returning a moment later, found its body striking the horrific figure of a hanged man. Obliged as it was to stay away, it found itself in a difficult position. Most separated souls that move about throughout the expanse of the world, being philosophers’ souls, and souls of importance, who, in an assembly that the most formidable among them had summoned, had declared to be true that philosophical opinion according to which not all souls are of the same species, did not wish to accept that the soul of an ignorant Negro should have the same privileges as they themselves, and chased him away wherever he appeared. In the end, for the sake of his happiness, he dared to leave our vortex, and passed to the place where the spirit of M. Descartes was meditating. The spirit had compassion for it, and permitted it to stay with him.There are a number of noteworthy elements in this passage, simultaneously rich and problematic as it is. One thing to note is that the author falls back on the same association between blackness and ghoulishness that we see, for example in Spinoza’s infamous dream about a 'black, scabby Brazilian'. This, we may presume, is likewise a vestige of the medical tradition that associated blackness with a surfeit of black bile, as well as with earth and ash, and thus with cadavers. In this case, however, the association is quickly identified as an error, and the apparent color of the spirit arises from the fact that during its lifetime it had been associated with a person of African descent. But the more important question here is: why does Daniel invent this character at all? Which figures or ideas exactly is Daniel lampooning? One important thing to note is that, while Descartes is the ostensible target of Daniel’s farce, in the end it is Descartes who comes out looking less ridiculous than the disembodied philosophers who have taken refuge on the moon. The servant falls into trouble in the first place only because he learns the ‘secret’ and begins to dabble in Cartesian magic. But once he finds himself in trouble it is only Descartes’s ghost, among all the dead philosophers, who is willing to have him. The other dead philosophers, in apparent bad faith, invoke the Thomistic doctrine according to which disembodied souls must be individuated with respect to species --i.e., any immaterial being must occupy its own species-- as a way of refusing to acknowledge any community with the soul of the African. For Descartes, by contrast, there is only one species of created substances that has a soul at all, and any disembodied soul from this species must of necessity be of the same nature as any other. The fact that the African has a soul in the first place that is capable of going wandering from the body means that he is not a mere machine, for in going wandering the soul leaves its machine behind. And if one is not a mere machine on the Cartesian ontology, there is only one other thing one can be, and that is a thinking thing. A thinking thing, moreover, is simply not the sort of thing that can be of a certain race or other, let alone of a certain species or other.
In seeking to mock Descartes, Daniel inadvertently --and accurately-- draws attention to an important feature of Cartesian mind-body dualism and its corollary, Cartesian human-animal dualism: that on such an ontology there simply is no room for finer gradations of race, where race is understood as marking out physical differences between different human groups that in turn correspond to differences of mental capacity. Descartes is not an anti-racist thinker, by any means; but his ontology makes racial thinking strictly speaking incoherent, as Daniel appears to detect. And so, in the tale, the African suffers a terrible fate, and is the victim of what can only be called a racist lynching. But in the end his wandering soul ends up in the Cartesian camp, and notwithstanding the author’s intentions ends up, in departing the vortex of the moon, taking one small step towards an explicit disavowal of the significance of racial difference.
Of course the Thomistic doctrine was meant to deal with the problem of distinguishing between angels, not between races, and it is telling about the preoccupations of Daniel’s era that a doctrine such as this could be appropriated and racialized in this way. Daniel writes as if the distinction between human races had been a concern of philosophers all along, and as if Descartes is breaking with long tradition in implying that an African’s soul is a thinking thing as much as any other, whereas in fact it would be more accurate to say that Daniel belongs to the first generation, or very near to it, that would consider it necessary to distinguish between races at all. Part of the perception of an urgency in doing so came from the perceived anti-racist implication of dualist philosophies such as that of Descartes. One might suggest hesitantly that metaphysical dualism served as a bulwark against racism, while naturalism about the human self served to bring this bulwark down. For the moment, however, we are principally concerned with the case of the African's lynching, and his soul's subsequent migration into the Cartesian camp, as an illustration of the complex ways in which gratuitous racism and philosophical argument are often interwoven in the early modern period, and of the importance of dwelling on an author's choice of examples. Daniel's story of the 'Negro' is not like Aristotle's illustration of the theory of practical virtue by appeal to a diet of chicken. This fictional persona, rather, occupies a place at once in the history of racism and in the history of philosophy, and neither of these roles can be fully understood without adequate consideration of the other.