My latest in the International New York Times. Click here to read the pdf.
[This is the complete text of a letter submitted to The New York Times, an abridged version of which will appear in print on Thursday, October 24. --JEHS]
We were dismayed to read Dan Bilefsky's October 19 article, "Are the Roma Primitive, or Just Poor?" The title pretends to present two sides of a legitimate debate, when in fact the first horn of the dichotomy, as stated, has no place at all in civil discussion, in Europe or America. Failing entirely to consider the matter in a critical and historical framework, the article delivers what the title promises, making it appear acceptable to debate as a serious issue whether Roma culture will effectively be a plague on Europe until this culture is renounced by its members through assimilation.
We are not in the habit of resorting too quickly to that well-known argument-stopper, the comparison to Nazism. But such speech has truly, without exaggeration, not been acceptable in Europe since the time of the Third Reich. Though the Roma and Sinti were persecuted and murdered then, too, the Nazi resort to claims of essential cultural backwardness, and of essential foreignness on European soil, is more familiar from that regime's persecution of the Jews. Can anyone even begin to imagine, today, speaking publicly about any other persecuted and marginalized European ethnicity as 'primitive', as fundamentally unfit for side-by-side existence with the majority groups on European soil? Of course not.
While it might be objected that Bilefsky is only repeating the defense to which the Roma themselves have had recourse before the law in France, this omits to acknowledge that there is no mention at all of 'primitiveness' in their defense, but only of tradition. While some Roma may have decided to appeal to the category of cultural difference as a tactic, we do not see them self-identifying as 'primitive'. Of course they wouldn't self-identify in this way, and in any case the key question the article aims to address has nothing to do with defense strategies in this particular trial, and everything to do with the politics of identity and belonging in Europe.
Can anyone imagine speaking of economically and historically disadvantaged ethnic minorities in the United States in this way? Again, of course not. It is worth noting here that Roma people were legally enslaved in parts of Balkan Europe until 1856, thus just seven years before Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in the US. Since that time, there has been no civil rights movement, no Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, to draw attention to the deep, systematic, engrained injustices the Roma have had to face.
Overt discrimination against Roma, while technically illegal, remains widespread and widely accepted in Southeastern Europe. Deprived of opportunity there, many hope for better prospects in Western Europe, only to find once they arrive, in many cases, that their status as citizens of the European Union counts for nothing. Roma migrants from Romania or Bulgaria are unable to take advantage of the promise and opportunity European unification was supposed to offer. Though in many cases citizens of a political union which migrants and refugees from all over the world struggle to reach, often dying in the process, the Roma remain effectively stateless, disowned by all European governing bodies as out of place, indeed as invasive.
Nonetheless, they have a vibrant and resilient culture, with literature worth reading, films worth seeing, and people worth getting to know. This much they have in common with all cultures. Bilefsky's article will certainly not help anyone to realize this, and could very well help to bring about the return of the sort of scenario in Europe that, we fear, now has too many people unreflectively mouthing the words: 'Never again'.
1. Pantelis Bassakos, Panteion University, Athens, Greece
2. Susan Bernofsky, Columbia University
3. Emanuela Bianchi, New York University
4. Gunnar Björnsson, Umeå University, Sweden
5. Ina Blom, University of Oslo, Norway
6. John Collins, Columbia University
7. Stefano Cossara, Université de Paris-Sorbonne
8. Gergely Csibra, Central European University, Budapest, Hungary
9. John Drabinski, Amherst College
10. Ed Emmer, Emporia State University, Kansas
11. Meredith Evans, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada
12. Marcie Frank, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada
13. Su Friedrich, Princeton University
14. Matthias Fritsch, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada
15. Aaron Garrett, Boston University
16. Jorge-Luis Guijarro, Universidad de Cádiz, Spain
17. Christophe Z. Guilmoto, Institut de Recherche Pour le Développement, Paris
18. Edward Kazarian, Rowan University, Glasboro, New Jersey
19. Julie Klein, Villanova University, Philadelphia
20. Jonathan Kramnick, The Johns Hopkins University
21. Martin Lenz, University of Groningen, Netherlands
22. Alan M. Leslie, Rutgers University; Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
23. Hilde Lindemann, Michigan State University
24. Mathieu Marion, Université du Québec à Montréal, Montreal, Canada
25. Christian Munthe, University of Gothenburg, Sweden
26. Alan Nelson, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
27. John Protevi, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge
28. Anne Reboul, Centre National de Recherche Scientifique, France
29. Uta Reinöhl, University of Cologne, Germany
30. Adina Ruiu, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, and Université de Montréal, Montreal, Canada
31. Eric Schliesser, Ghent University, Belgium
32. Justin E. H. Smith, Université Paris Diderot - Paris 7
33. Jon Solomon, Université Jean Moulin - Lyon 3, Lyon, France
34. Dan Sperber, Centre National de Recherche Scientifique, France, and Central European University, Budapest
35. Jason Stanley, Yale University
36. Robert Vallier, Institut des Sciences Politiques, Paris
37. Charles Wolfe, Ghent University, Belgium
38. Ines G. Zupanov, Centre National de Recherche Scientifique, France
My piece in the New York Times Stone series on February 10 received an unusally large volume of responses, both in the comments section there as well as in the form of e-mails to me and posts on a number of blogs. Many commenters were generally supportive of my line of analysis, and many also raised legitimate points of criticism. Many others still raised illegitimate points of criticism. Let's get to those first.
Roughly 10% of the comments I received came from bona fide racists. Perhaps I should pause at this point to define my terms. By 'racist' I mean someone who (i) believes that racial categories map onto real, biologically significant subdivisions of the human species; and (ii) that these various subdivisions are characterized by greater and lesser physical and cognitive abilities, and/or by different temperamental or emotional profiles. Many of the racists who wrote to me cited genetic studies (e.g., this) that show, in one way or another, that traits do indeed cluster in populations. By a curious coincidence, within just a few days of my piece, Nicholas Wade --who has also appeared recently with a sympathetic appraisal of Napoleon Chagnon's Hobbesian éloge to the Yanomamö-- published an article in the Times trumpeting the great antiquity of the mutations that led to what are held to be typically East Asian traits. This article was in turn cited by many commenters as the scientific proof that 'race deniers' do not know what they are talking about.
But I never denied that traits cluster in populations. There is a very simple, logical point that always seems to get shot to hell by the people who are poised and ready to fire back against 'race deniers' like me with the supposedly heavy artillery of genetic research. That simple point is that people who use such scientific research as a way of strengthening their case for the reality of race are begging the question. And I mean this not in the incorrect sense in which we now often hear this phrase from Republican politicians and from know-nothing advertising campaigns. I mean it in the sense of petitioning the principle: they are assuming at the outset the reality of the very thing they're supposed to be trying to prove. Yes, traits cluster in populations, but it is only if you have already presupposed that the human species breaks down into real subdivisions that you will subsume new information about such clustering into a racial schema. Otherwise, what you will notice are all the salient respects in which the population that is the locus of such clustering does not amount to a discrete kind. For one thing, it is entirely permeable at its boundaries, and thus has nothing in common with the isolated reproductive communities that constitute biological species on analogy to which races are, consciously or unconsciously, modeled. For another, trait clusters tend to be noticed in populations that were already of interest to us as purported races for initially non-scientific reasons. Take the example of the new discoveries about 'East Asians'. We assumed at the outset that there were such people, constituting a real subdivision of the human species, and then we went in search of their distinctive features. Lo, we found some in the sweat glands, hair follicles, and breast size of females. But would we find the same traits clustering in, say, Tungusic peoples, or the Chukchi? They are East Asian too, after all, Eastern Siberian, to be precise, and it is a contingent fact about human history that they are outnumbered by, say, Han Chinese. If we sample all of the peoples of the world, rather than the ones that are salient to us on pre-scientific cultural and historical grounds, we will notice that our conception of where the racial boundaries lie is rooted in our pre-scientific interests, and only subsequently filled out, as best it can be, by new genetic research.
This is particularly evident in the local US context, in which genetic and medical information about African-Americans becomes naturalized and universalized in such a way as to purportedly tell us something about a significanct subdivision of the entire human species, one that was formerly called 'Negroid'. But of course such information tells us nothing of the sort: it is useful for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes for doctors in the US to know that someone is 'black', but this in no way implies that the same information about a person in the Kalahari, Ethiopia, or even (depending on the culture and period of history you inhabit) New Guinea or Australia could be used in the same way. The information is of strictly local interest, and yet it calls upon a global system for subdividing the human species, one that places Khoi-San, Ethiopians, and African-Americans, at least, in the same quasi-natural kind.
And this point needs to be emphasized in order for non-racists to have at their disposal the simple and obvious, but too-often neglected, response to the racists who invoke supposedly scientific evidence concerning the superior performance of black athletes in track events, or the inferior performance of black students on standardized tests. It is seriously unlikely that a mass-scale standardized test of everyone who is placed for historical and non-scientific reasons in the folk category 'black' could ever be carried out in a sufficiently rigorous way to warrant a conclusion of the sort: "'Blacks' perform worse on standardized tests than 'whites'." Again, what this would involve is devising a test that could be given to Namibians, Ethiopians, Haitians, etc., and whose results could then be compared with those of the same test as given to Norwegians, Circassians, Scotch-Irish West Virginians (who counts as 'white' in a given era, and why, is no less perplexing than who counts as 'black'). This will never happen, but that doesn't matter to the racists, because anyway what they really mean when they invoke such tests to ground claims of racial difference is that here, in our local context, there is such a difference. But race is supposed to be global, natural, a result of evolution, etc., while local differences are obviously only the result of civil history and culture. And this is the great inconsistency of the pseudo-scientific concept of race: that it is reaching too far too fast, invoking a global natural order to which claims about local 'racial' difference never accurately apply, and failing to notice that the local differences admit of a much more parsimonious explanation than the one that has to move all the way down to the level of biology.
There is a connected point to be made about evidence from history. Many racist commenters echoed David Hume in their suspicion that the accomplishments of non-white people have been exaggerated for the sake of 'political corectness'. Thus the racist Joel Eidsath sends, for example, this sarcastic dismissal of the legacy of Anton Wilhelm Amo:
Your contribution to the rather burgeoning field of "race does not exist" articles is much appreciated. The "there was once an African of decent intelligence" sub-category of these sorts of tracts can always use another entry! [Sub-sub-category, reference to the "black" St. Augustine.]
Nevermind, now, that my point was not principally to trumpet Amo's contribution to philosophy, so much as to observe the way his work was received by his contemporaries. Eidsath's main concern here is that anti-racists are looking a bit too frantically for historical evidence of the sort that would refute Hume's comment. But if you are skeptical of the Black Athena thesis in its particulars, there is still no avoiding a general corollary of it, that in order for a group to be perceived as substandard or as high-performing relative to another group, it must already be conceptualized as a group, and there is no good historical evidence that in the ancient world there were any categories that even loosely mapped onto our own 'black' and 'white' (and even these differ from region to region when taken synchronically). And if you wish to dispute that, then it might be helpful to move away from our own local concern about black and white, where our emotions are perhaps clouding our judgment, and consider a case of perceived racial differences that lies entirely off of our own historical and geographical radar (and by 'our' I mean 'most readers'). Anyone who has an intimate experience of the treatment of the Dalits in India can affirm that they are in a position very similar in structural respects to that of African-Americans. There are plenty of non-Dalit Indians who will tell you that, as history and statistics and good common-sense show, Dalits are plainly temperamentally different, more prone to criminal behavior, etc. In other words, Dalits are being conceptualized racially by the people who are discriminating against them, even if from a distance, for people who don't know anything about India, there is no perception of any racial difference at all.
One commenter wrote to tell me that my mention of the case of the Tutsi and Hutu weakened my argument, since in the Rwandan context these two groups perceive one another in racial terms. But what supposedly weakened my argument in fact did the opposite, since one of my principal points was precisely that race is the naturalization, or projection into the biological sphere, of what is in fact only a matter of local history: a history that might involve two groups in which genetic traits cluster differently, but can also involve two groups in which the supposedly essential or 'racial' differences are entirely invisible. So, to get back to Amo and Augustine, even if it were to turn out that no one we would consider 'black' ever made a significant contribution to the human endeavors that have historically been valued in Europe, this would still not enable the racist to get around the problem that who is considered racially distinct from whom --who is considered Dalit or non-Dalit for example, or who is considered black or white-- is always a local, contingent, and unstable affair.
While many racist commenters wrote to express their disapproval of my insufficiently racist position, another significant portion of commenters judged that my position is in fact racist. Most of these commenters judged that I misunderstand the American situation, and some supposed that this is because I am not myself American-- I am, though I have lived outside of the country for a decade. Sometimes it seems to me that being an American looking at my country from a distance frees me up to think and express views that are rather harder to arrive at from within the belly of the beast. It also becomes easier, I think, to examine American history comparatively, to resist the belief that that country has a Sonderweg that sets it apart, and to look at things like the history of race relations in a way that places this history alongside comparable --while, obviously, non-identical-- histories elsewhere in the world.
I believe that slavery and its aftermath constitute the defining legacy in the formation of the American identity, and I also believe that much of the difficulty of talking about and understanding 'race' in the US is a side-effect of a largely praiseworthy attempt to heal this trauma. To some extent since the end of the Civil War, but more importantly since the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, there has been an effort to overcome ethnic divisions in the US by construing all Americans as Americans simpliciter, and to some extent denying that descendants of slaves on the one hand and immigrant European beneficiaries of white privilege on the other constitute distinct cultural groups at all. (The denial is not as severe as, say, the denial of cultural distinctness in the modern Turkish republic, which has lead to the denial of the very existence of Kurds, now conveniently redescribed as 'Mountain Turks'; in the US case, a certain amount of cultural difference is allowed to flourish in traditions of cuisine, music, etc., as long as it flourishes way below the threshold at which it might threaten the unity of the nation-state). But social reality forces us to acknowledge cultural difference in some way or other, even if the political legacy of integration forbids us from talking about it as cultural difference. And so we are left in a peculiar situation, in which it can easily appear more racist to speak of two cultures and no races, than to speak of one culture in which any lingering perception of difference is to be explained by appeal to the supposed fact that this one culture is made up out of two races. In other words, we've chased difference out of the political and cultural dimension, and it didn't have anywhere else to go but down to the biological dimension. Where, I repeat, it plainly does not belong.
In this respect, at least, the US really does have a Sonderweg. I cannot think of any other multicultural society that has dealt with its internal differences in a similar way. This imperfect response to the legacy of slavery is, I would also add, itself a part of the legacy of slavery: the fact that 'race' suggests itself as a category for the interpretation of cultural difference is a result of the fact that we inherited this category from a system that found it useful for the preservation and enforcement of structural racism.
One final note about cultural difference: Americans are to some extent justified in disputing the claim that there are 'two cultures' constituting their society, since obviously there are very many more than that. African slaves came from many cultures, and so did European immigrants (and, later, immigrants from elsewhere). But by force or by elective affinity, everyone who arrived was filtered into the one or the other (or became stalled as a problem case, a tertium quid, as, for a time, the Irish, Jews, and, more recently, Latinos). As many scholars have noted, ethnogenesis is almost always a matter of an initial political union. For example, in his monumental History of the Goths, Herwig Wolfram shows convincingly that the ancient Germanic people originally came into being as a result of elective tribal confederation. In other words, Germans are creoles too. All cultures, in their origins, are creole, and it is in no way to deny the distinctness of pre-modern African cultures to concede that, once brought here by force and compelled to adapt to new circumstances, over the centuries a distinctive African-American culture emerged. There is such a thing, like all cultures a loose, permeable cluster of family resemblances, and we don't need to drop down to the level of 'race' in order to make sense of it. History will do just fine.
The most interesting and formidable criticism of my article (particularly as formulated by Kenan Malik, drawing on his own earlier work on the subject) had to do with what was initially a throw-away claim in the article, about the contrast between Johann Gottfried Herder and the majority of his contemporaries. This claim then came to frame the entire article when the editors chose a title for the piece that made reference to the Enlightenment. (Why don't authors get to choose their own titles in the newspaper business? Where did this practice originate? Why don't more authors protest against it?) But my principal aim had never been to defend the counter-Enlightenment against the Enlightenment, and I am certainly aware, as was pointed out by a number of critics, that at the center of the Enlightenment there were many thinkers, notably Condorcet, who mounted laudable defenses of racial equality, fought for abolition, and so on. What's more, it is certainly fair to see the Haitian Revolution of 1802 as an inevitable extension of the revolutionary spirit that had first been sparked in Europe largely by Enlightenment thinkers' promotion of liberty, equality, and so on. Many, not just Toussaint-L'Ouverture but also a number of European sympathizers, did in fact suppose that the only legitimate place for the boundaries of equality to be drawn were around the entirety of the human race, rather than around a mere part of the human race deemed in advance to be, as the saying goes, more equal than others.
But still, but still, if we are to attempt to spell out some precise commitments that we may properly identify with that nebulous notion of 'the Enlightenment', it seems to me that at the core of this movement, or Zeitgeist, or whatever you might wish to call it, is the idea that history is progressive, and that Europe is, as of the middle of the 18th century, further along in the course of progress than the rest of the world. For their own good, Enlightenment thinkers supposed with near unanimity, non-European peoples must be brought into the fold of European history in order to be able to ride the wave, so to speak, of historical progress. This is abundantly clear in Kant, who supposed that the lives of South Sea islanders, to the extent that they are spent outside of the fold of history, are literally not worth living. And it continues to echo loudly in Marx, who maintained that the British installation of industrial looms in Bengal might have increased the misery of Bengali weavers, for the time being, but at least it did them the service of moving them into a historical position from which their lives could begin to improve.
On this understanding, there simply is no room for indigenous voices at all, and I do not know of a single thinker centrally associated with the Enlightenment, including even Condorcet, who is able or willing to make room for such voices, to acknowledge that a life entirely outside of the grand unfolding of historical progress initiated by European civilization might nonetheless be worth living. I see the readiness to notice the intrinsic interest and value of sub-historical or extra-historical folk-ways as characteristic of a form of thinking that was from the outset self-consciously poised against the Enlightenement. I see Herder as one of the exemplary figures in this history (though I see interesting anticipations of it already in Leibniz), and I see it as echoing through the much later work of Franz Boas, Zora Neale Hurston, and many, many others. This is in no way to deny the laudable strains of progressivism in the Enlightenment, but it is to question whether progressivism, or the belief that the human good always consists in progress, is the exclusively laudable approach to the problems human diversity poses.
This is my latest in the New York Times Opinionator series, "The Stone." To read the whole thing, go here.
Kenan Malik has written a very interesting critical response, here. I intend to write a follow-up post soon in which I reply to some of Malik's criticism, and also to some of the many comments on the Times page.
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.
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.”
For the full essay, go here.
For more resources on Anton Wilhelm Amo, go here.
In just a few days, we will once again endure the annual spectacle of the president of the United States pardoning a turkey that would otherwise have been fated for the Thanksgiving table. This event is typically covered in the media as a light-hearted bit of fluff — and fluff is what it might well be, if there were not actual humans on death row awaiting similar intervention. In the current American context, however, the turkey pardon is a distasteful parody of the strange power vested in politicians to decide the earthly fates of death-row prisoners. There is in it an implicit acknowledgment that the killing of these prisoners is a practice that bears real, non-jocular comparison to the ritual slaughter of birds for feasts.
I am not saying that this slaughter of birds for food is wrong ― not here anyway ― but only that the parallel the presidential ritual invites us to notice is revealing...
To continue reading, please go here.
[From the New York Times, August 29, 2011]
Two nights ago, Hurricane Irene was taking her sweet time, making her painfully slow path up the East Coast towards New York. And everyone, but everyone, was talking about the weather. New Yorkers, many of whom ordinarily exhibit a strong aversion to small talk, had given themselves carte blanche to do so until after the storm weakened and passed on to irrelevant Canada.
But what makes us so certain that talk of weather is small, anyway? What, after all, could be more fundamental to our existence as corporeal, terrestrial creatures than the fluctuations of the atmosphere through which we move? What is it, moreover, that we are neglecting to care about when we dismiss weather talk as the stuff of superficial exchange?
Etymology tells us that the banalization of weather is a recent development. In a number of languages the standard word for “weather” is exactly the same as the word for “time”: thus French le temps, Romanian timpul, Hungarian időjárás (literally “the walking of time”), to name a few.
To continue reading, go here.
From the 'Stone' series in the online edition of the New York Times. To read the entire article, click here.
Today’s natural scientist easily distinguishes his own work not only from his hobbies, but also from the activity of his pseudoscientific counterpart. When we look back in history, however, it becomes difficult to keep this distinction in view, for it has often happened that false beliefs have produced significant experimental results and have led to real discoveries. It is no less difficult to separate the history either of science or of pseudoscience from what I will dare to call the “real” history of philosophy, for until very recently, what we now call science was not merely of interest to philosophers, but was in fact constitutive of philosophy. In fact, it was not called science at all, but rather natural philosophy.
Thus, tellingly, among the articles in the Philosophical Transactions of 1666, the first year of the journal’s publication, we find titles such as “Of a Considerable Load-Stone Digged Out of the Ground in Devonshire,” and “Observations Concerning Emmets or Ants, Their Eggs, Production, Progress, Coming to Maturity, Use, &c.” Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, researchers studying the properties of magnetism continued to refer to their area of interest as “the magnetical philosophy,” and as late as 1808 John Dalton published “A New System of Chemical Philosophy.” A year later Jean-Baptiste Lamarck brought out his “Philosophie zoologique.” Yet by the early 20th century, this usage of the word philosophy had entirely vanished. What happened?
A History in Six Types
(Princeton University Press, 2016)
Justin E. H. Smith
The Leibniz-Stahl Controversy
(Yale University Press, 2016)
Translated, Edited, and with an Introduction by François Duchesneau and
Justin E. H. Smith
Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference:
Race in Early Modern Philosophy
(Princeton University Press, 2015)
Justin E. H. Smith
The Life Sciences in Early Modern Philosophy
(Oxford University Press, 2014)
Edited by Ohad Nachtomy and Justin E. H. Smith
Philosophy and Its History:
Aims and Methods in the Study of Early Modern Philosophy
(Oxford University Press, 2013)
Edited by Mogens Laerke, Justin E. H. Smith
and Eric Schliesser
Justin E. H. Smith
Edited by Justin E. H. Smith and Ohad Nachtomy
Edited by Carlos Fraenkel, Dario Perinetti
and Justin E. H. Smith
Edited by Justin E. H. Smith