Enlightenment Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Coming fashionably late to the culture-war party, The Economist published a piece this week on the evils of “Critical Race Theory” (CRT), a body of scholarship associated with ideas such as “intersectionality,” “white privilege,” and (though so far as I am aware it did not originate the phrase, much less create the phenomenon) “systemic racism.” Though I am periodically accused on Twitter of being beholden to this work — usually by people who themselves lack familiarity with it, and usually when I am talking about history — in point of fact I have at present virtually no direct knowledge of the literature. My views on it can therefore be of no genuine interest. What is of interest to me is that, according to The Economist, this body of thought is a rival and threat to something called “Enlightenment liberalism.” And it is to this Enlightenment liberalism, we are told, we must return — both to save ourselves from the academic menace and to bring about what is vaguely termed “progress on race.”

The piece begins with the assertion that “Liberalism — the Enlightenment philosophy, not the American left — starts with the assertion that all human beings have equal moral worth. From that stem equal rights for all.” This is obviously not a historical statement; ideologies are not automata that unfold themselves in logical sequence over time, starting from first principles and moving inexorably toward ever-finer implications. It is a philosophical claim, stated in the philosopher’s present tense — a claim about which beliefs are most fundamental to liberalism as an ideology. As such, it says little about what these principles meant in practice, in the historical past of their formulation. This is not a problem if you are doing philosophical argument rather than historical recovery. The trouble is that, by invoking the authority of the Enlightenment, the piece tries to do both kinds of work with just one set of tools. That is, it claims historical sanction for logicking its way from philosophical claims to practical prescriptions without checking that the intermediate steps are grounded in adequate history. (In this, it does what it accuses Theory of doing, but I digress.)

It’s easier to see what I mean once we go a little further. Having stated that Enlightenment liberalism begins with the assertion that all people are of equal moral worth, and thus in effect with the recognition that all have equal rights, it proceeds:

Yet when it comes to race many liberals have failed to live up to their own values. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in America’s Declaration of Independence in 1776, “that all men are created equal.” More than a decade later the Founding Fathers would write into the country’s constitution that a slave was in fact to be considered three-fifths of a person. In Europe many liberals opposed slavery but supported despotic imperial rule overseas. “Perhaps liberal theory and liberal history are ships passing in the night,” speculated Uday Singh Mehta of the City University of New York in 1999.

There are a couple of things going on here. First, we have a narrative of unkept promises: liberals said they wanted X, but failed to bring X about. This sounds historical at least in the minimal sense that it required the passage of time to happen, and some of the ensuing details hint at what this story might look like: a first act of bold, Enlightened pronouncements; a second act of compromise and betrayal (into which the article later shoehorns “250 years” of slavery “followed by nearly a century of institutionalised white supremacy” — one might almost say, entrenched and systemic racism); and an implied third act, set in the near future, wherein promises are remembered and ways found to keep them. But over against this we have the application of “liberal” willy-nilly to Jefferson, the Founding Fathers, unnamed Europeans of unspecified dates and audiences alive in 1999. So is this a history lesson or a philosophical argument? Is “Enlightenment liberalism” historically situated, or not? Appeals to context, of the kind often alleged against discussions of systemic racism (notably in the context of public history and memory), suggest that it is. Yet arguments like this one demand otherwise.

This fusion of sophistical generalities and historical pretensions continues in a vein that will be familiar to anyone who has encountered arguments against “anti-racism” in other venues. The article is gracious enough to qualify the claim that “slavery is [sic] a near-universal feature of pre-Enlightenment societies” by noting that “the Atlantic slave trade is notable for having been tied to notions of racial superiority.” But the fact that the Atlantic slave trade is also notable for having contributed to the intellectual resources, material wealth, and commodity consumption that supplied the salons, coffee-houses, and indeed the colonial plantations where the Enlightenment took place (to say nothing of sustaining, on many non-CRT accounts, the expansion of capitalism itself) goes curiously unremarked. In a piece that posits the Enlightenment as the answer to problems that worsened during the course of the eighteenth century, this is — to put it mildly — a striking omission.

More striking and less forgivable is the omission of what Enlightenment thinkers, including some of the most liberal, had to say about “notions of racial superiority” themselves. It doesn’t make for pleasant reading. But it is reading that anyone writing about the salience of Enlightenment thought to “progress on race” today ought to have done, if only to make the cherrypicking of “Enlightenment liberal” views less glaring. Adam Smith’s opposition to empire makes its appearance; his bosom friend David Hume’s assertion of white supremacy does not:

I am apt to suspect the negroes, and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites… have still something eminent about them…. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men.[1]

Likewise, Enlightenment opposition to slavery is trumpeted in general; but the specific rationale for Franklin’s is nowhere to be found:

That the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth, I could wish their Numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, Scouring our Planet, by clearing America of Woods, and so making this Side of our Globe reflect a brighter Light to the Eyes of Inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we in the Sight of Superior Beings, darken its People? why increase the Sons of Africa, by Planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White and Red?[2]

Hume’s view above was not universal; indeed it was criticized when his Essays appeared. But neither was it a personal idiosyncracy, as Franklin’s and many other extant passages from Enlightenment thinkers could easily be brought to show. To make “Enlightenment liberalism” our guiding light on race without considering how Enlightenment liberals themselves thought about race is at best nonsensical and at worst dishonest. In any event, the resemblance these Enlightenment views bear to the arguments of pseudoscientific racists (who themselves claim Enlightenment forebears) today should perhaps give would-be Enlightenment liberals pause. It certainly suggests we think twice before handing the keys of “progress on race” to Franklin, Hume, and their ilk.

Behind the article’s failure or refusal to do the basic historical work the subject requires lies a more fundamental failure to think historically and to ask the obvious questions. The author knows that the eighteenth century was the high point of the Atlantic slave trade; they know and even say that most of the Founding Fathers “owned” enslaved people. Yet they present “the assertion that all human beings have equal moral worth” — a phrase no eighteenth-century author penned — as an “Enlightenment” view that can be taken at face value without further interrogation or translation. Never do they ask how these “human beings” were described at the time, or to whom these presumptions of “equal moral worth” were applied — and from whom withheld — in practice. Never do they ask who was understood to be fully “human,” in the pertinent sense, and who not.

Never do they consider, in short, that the “failure” to extend liberalism’s putative promises to all was the Enlightenment’s failure as much as liberalism’s. The roots of this failure — if one can call a system of ideas modified but largely sustained over centuries a failure — lie as much in the Enlightenment’s own engagement with history and human diversity as they do anywhere else. These are not questions that concern with “progress on race” should let one ignore, or that familiarity with the Enlightenment as a historical phenomenon would let one forget. Enlightenment as a timeless, axiomatically liberal brew of cherrypicked quotations is, of course, another thing entirely. The irony of using such intellectually shabby tactics to attack scholarship as “ideology” should be obvious.


1 David Hume, “Of National Characters,” in Essays Moral, Political, Literary, 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1777), 1:208, n.10.
2 Benjamin Franklin, “Observations concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries” (1751), in Franklin (ed. Alan Houston), The Autobiography and Other Writings on Politics, Economics, and Virtue (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 221.

2 thoughts on “Enlightenment Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

  1. Pingback: Al mercato delle idee - Ocasapiens - Blog - Repubblica.it

  2. Pingback: And now for something completely different | memorious

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