May 16, 2013 § 1 Comment
I have been in Brussels to attend a conference on the Radical Enlightenment, and to interview Jonathan Israel, the keynote speaker, for an essay I am writing about his work and argument. Israel has transformed our understanding of the Enlightenment with his superlative trilogy published over the past decade: Radical Enlightenment, Enlightenment Contested, and Democratic Enlightenment. At the heart of his argument is his insistence that there were two Enlightenments. The mainstream Enlightenment of Kant, Locke, Voltaire and Hume is the one of which we know and which provides the public face of the Enlightenment. But it was the Radical Enlightenment, shaped by lesser-known figures such as d’Holbach, Diderot, Condorcet and, in particular, Spinoza that provided the Enlightenment’s heart and soul.
The two Enlightenments, Israel suggests, divided on the question of whether reason reigned supreme in human affairs, as the radicals insisted, or whether reason had to be limited by faith and tradition – the view of the mainstream. The mainstream, Israel writes, ‘aspired to conquer ignorance and superstition, establish ideas and revolutionise ideas, education and attitudes by means of philosophy but in such a way as to preserve and safeguard what were judged as essential elements of the older structures, offering a viable synthesis of old and new, of reason and faith.’ By contrast, the Radical Enlightenment ‘rejected all compromise with the past and sought to sweep away existing structures entirely’.
The argument, as can be imagined, has created considerable controversy. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 7, 2013 Comments Off
As I continue my life in purdah, trying to complete my book, here is the second book review drawn from the vaults. The review is of CLR James’ The Black Jacobins; it was originally published in August 2010 on Norman Geras’ normblog, as part of his Writer’s Choice series.
The poet and statesman Aimé Césaire once wrote of Haiti that it was here that the colonial knot was first tied. It was also in Haiti, Césaire added, that the knot of colonialism began to unravel when ‘black men stood up in order to affirm, for the first time, their determination to create a new world, a free world.’ In 1791, almost exactly three hundred years after Columbus landed there, a mass insurrection broke out among Haiti’s slaves, upon whose labour France had transformed its colony into the richest island in the world. It was an insurrection that became a revolution, a revolution that today is almost forgotten, and yet was to shape history almost as deeply as the two eighteenth century revolutions with which we are far more familiar – those of 1776 and 1789.
That we do remember the Haitian Revolution at all is largely due to the work of Césaire’s Caribbean contemporary CLR James. Césaire was perhaps the greatest poet of the anti-colonial movement. It was James, however, who most eloquently captured the poetry of the Haitian revolution in his magnificent The Black Jacobins. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 17, 2013 § 7 Comments
In my last post, on The Enlightenment’s “Race Problem”, I questioned the idea that the modern roots of the idea of race lie in the Enlightenment. The relationship between race and the Enlightenment is, I argued, far more complex than much contemporary discussion allows for. It was the transformation of Enlightenment attitudes through the course of the nineteenth century that helped mutate the eighteenth century discussion of human variety into the nineteenth century obsession with racial difference. This is the story of that transformation.
In March 1800, Captain Nicholas Baudin proposed to the French Institut National a journey of scientific exploration to New Holland (as Australia was then known). The Institut agreed to sponsor the expedition and asked the newly-formed Société des Observateurs de l’Homme for help in preparing instructions for the study of the ‘physical, intellectual and moral’ bearing of the indigenous peoples.
The Société provided two memoirs of instruction for Baudin’s voyage. The first, Considerations on the Diverse Methods to Follow in the Observation of Savage Peoples was written by the philosopher and educator Joseph-Marie Degerando. The second, An Instructive Note on the Researches to be Carried out Relative to the Anatomical Differences between the Diverse Races of Men, was penned by Georges Cuvier. Cuvier was one of the founders of the science of palaeontology and would become France’s most distinguished scientist of the early nineteenth century. Where Degerando was a child of the French Revolution, and a great believer in education as a motor of social change, Cuvier was deeply conservative in both his politics and his science, a lifelong opponent not just of revolution, but also of evolution. In the space between the respective views of Degerando and Cuvier emerged the nineteenth century concept of race. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 13, 2013 § 3 Comments
In an essay this week in New York Times, the philosopher Justin Smith tells the story of Anton Wilhelm Amo, a West African student and former slave who 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 attached to the dissertation from the rector of the University of Wittenberg, Johannes Gottfried Kraus, who, Smith observes, ‘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.’
Smith contrasts Kraus’ attitude with that of the Scottish philosopher David Hume who in 1742 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’s attitude expresses what Smith calls ‘the Enlightenment’s race problem’:
Scholars have been aware for a long time of the curious paradox of Enlightenment thought, that the supposedly universal aspiration to liberty, equality and fraternity in fact only operated within a very circumscribed universe. Equality was only ever conceived as equality among people presumed in advance to be equal, and if some person or group fell by definition outside of the circle of equality, then it was no failure to live up to this political ideal to treat them as unequal. « Read the rest of this entry »
November 6, 2012 § 1 Comment
Back in September, I wrote an essay about Judith Butler and the controversy over her winning the Adorno Prize. It touched off a debate in Pandaemonium, less because of my defence of Butler’s right to win the prize than my criticism of her work and, in particular, of her poststructuralism. I noted then that I have written little directly on Butler’s main theme, gender, but much, in the context of the debate about race, on poststructuralist / postmodernist conceptions of difference, identity, equality and agency. That critique is scattered across a number of books – in particular The Meaning of Race, Man, Beast and Zombie and Strange Fruit. I promised to delve into the archives, as it were, and publish some extracts from those books. The first – on Edward Said, Michel Foucault and the concept of the Other - I posted last month. This second extract, also from The Meaning of Race, is not so much a critique of poststructuralism as part of an explanation of how certain key themes in poststructuralist thought – in particular hostility to humanism and to Enlightenment ideas of rationalism and universalism – that once had been seen as the province of reaction came to be major currents in radical thought.
One of the problems in republishing extracts is that while essays and blog posts are generally self-contained, book extracts rarely are. In a book the argument runs through the whole work. Any extract necessarily assumes familiarity with arguments that have already been set out and builds up to conclusions that arrive only later in the book. At the same time, The Meaning of Race is now almost 20 years old. Many of the ideas that may have been barely formulated or ill-constructed in the book I have developed much further since then; some have changed quite considerably. I have, for instance, reworked the arguments about Frantz Fanon, the tradition that he represents and the legacy that he left. My forthcoming book on the history of moral thought contains new perspectives on humanism within both the liberal and Marxist traditions. Nevertheless, despite these shifts and changes, I hope that an extract such as this is still useful, both because I still stand by much of what is here and because it is, as always, a good starting point for debate.
August 15, 2012 § 11 Comments
In the series of extracts I am publishing from my almost-finished book on the history of moral thought I have reached Chapter 20 which explores the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, whose approach has deeply influenced me even as I have profoundly disagreed with it, and which uses MacIntyre’s work as a means of pulling together the threads of my own argument. This extract provides some background to MacIntyre’s work, and of his critique of the Enlightenment, and begins to challenge that critique by looking at his conception of moral ‘traditions’. (Sharp-eyed readers might have noticed that Chapter 19, like Chapter 6, has gone missing; all will be explained in good time.)
A series of environmental catastrophes devastates the world. Blame for the disasters falls upon scientists, leading to widespread anti-science riots. Labs are burnt down, physicists and biologists lynched, books and instruments destroyed. A Know-nothing political movement comes to power, abolishes the teaching of science and imprisons and executes scientists.
Eventually there is an attempt to resurrect science. The trouble is that all that remains of scientific knowledge are a few fragments. People debate the concept of relativity, the theory of evolution and the idea of phlogiston. They learn by rote the surviving portions of the periodic table, and use expressions such as ‘neutrino’, ’mass’ and ‘specific gravity’. Nobody, however, understands the beliefs that led to those theories or expressions, and nobody understands that they don’t understand them. The result is a kind of hollowed out science. On the surface everyone has acquaintance with scientific terminology but no one possesses scientific knowledge. « Read the rest of this entry »
May 21, 2012 § 12 Comments
This is a transcript of the first part of the talk I gave last week as part of the Criticise This! seminar in Ulcinj, Montenegro on ‘Rethinking the Question of Difference’. (The second part of the talk overlaps with the Milton K Wong lecture that I am giving in Vancouver next week; I will publish that in full.) The audience comprised mainly of artists, writers and critics, and the aim was to explore more deeply the philosophical and political underpinnings and consequences of contemporary ideas of social difference.
There is a certain irony in being invited to Montenegro to give a lecture on questions of identity, difference and multiculturalism. Not only has the English language appropriated the name of this region of Europe for its description of an intractably fragmented society – ‘balkanized’ – but few events have more shaped our perception of these issues than the conflict that led to the break up of Yugoslavia two decades ago. The messy, bloody, monstrous events that marked that break-up have helped entrench the sense of the contrast between racism and ethnic chauvinism, on the one side, and cultural diversity and multiculturalism, on the other. They have helped entrench the idea that the best, indeed only, antidote to the evils of ethnic nationalism is the embrace of diversity, of multiculturalism. The celebration of difference, respect for pluralism, avowal of identity politics – these have come to be regarded as the hallmarks of a progressive, antiracist outlook and as the foundation of modern liberal democracies. We’re All Multiculturalists Now as the American sociologist Nathan Glazer, and former critic of pluralism, observed, almost wearily, in the title of a book published in 1998.
What I want to do is challenge this received wisdom about difference, diversity and multiculturalism. I want to question what we mean by diversity, why we should value it, and how should we value it. I want to dispute what I regard as the lazy conflation of ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘diversity’ and to suggest that to defend diversity is not the same as promoting multiculturalism. Most of all, I want to contest the claim that racism and multiculturalism are concepts at opposite ends of a pole, and show, rather, that they are two sides of the same coin. « Read the rest of this entry »