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When Your Favorite Philosopher is a Bigot
Peter Adamson considers possible ways forward.
We seem to be living in a time when people are willing to overlook bigotry. Donald Trump looks at a crowd of white supremacists and sees the ‘very fine people’ among them. Trump’s own sexist remarks provoke nothing worse than exasperated sighs among his supporters. Across Europe, the frank racism of far-right parties doesn’t stop people from voting for them as an expression of unhappiness with the government. No doubt genuine racism and sexism play a role here, but it also seems that people who would be horrified to be accused of prejudice themselves are willing to ignore or forgive prejudice in others. The intelligentsia tends to be outraged by this, but I wonder, are we really so much better?
Or rather, I wonder, am I myself so much better? As a historian of philosophy, I devote much of my life to the careful and sympathetic exegesis of thinkers who were, almost to a man (and they were mostly men), outrageous bigots by today’s standards. Nearly everything Aristotle says about women consists of unfavorable comparisons to men. His ‘natural slave’ theory has been a historical bulwark of racism; and it was echoed two millenia later by Immanuel Kant, who was adamantly opposed to interracial marriage, and who claimed that “negroes cannot govern themselves, and can serve only as slaves.”
The usual way philosophers have of dealing with this is akin to many Trump supporters’ attitude towards his misogyny: they don’t really approve of it, but also don’t think it matters so much. Similarily, the argument goes, Aristotle’s views on women or Kant’s ideas on race can be detached from the rest of their teachings, treated as a few unfortunate sentences in the midst of an otherwise valuable body of work. As historians, we usually take great pains to read various passages in light of one another; but here we do the reverse, engaging in a kind of interpretive quarantine by reading the rest of the book as if the (mercifully brief) wince-inducing bits weren’t there at all.
But is their bigotry so easy to contain? Let’s have a closer look at that idea of natural slavery. Aristotle actually doesn’t invoke the notion of ‘race’ at all. Instead he justifies his idea that there are people who are naturally slaves in part with reference to the impact of environment on people’s bodies. If you live in an imbalanced climate, this will have an effect on your intelligence and other traits, which is why the Greeks, who live in an ideally balanced zone, are uniquely capable of self-mastery. Climate is meanwhile influenced by the movement of the heavenly bodies. This conjunction of ideas appears in later authors, as when the Muslim thinker al-Kindi draws on the ancient astronomer Ptolemy to explain that people who live in a very hot climate – he explicitly mentions people with black skin and kinky hair – are characteristically dominated by wrath and desire, whereas people from further north are ‘strong thinkers’ and ethically moderate. Thus were the full resources of Aristotelian cosmology pressed into the service of something resembling modern racism. Can that really be irrelevant to our evaluation of that cosmology and the motives underlying its invention?
The historian may protest that to be interested in Aristotle, al-Kindi, or Kant, is unlike voting for a politician: it need involve no approval of the author’s worldview. I’ve met many experts in Aristotelian cosmology, and not one of them has thought that the Sun orbits the Earth, as Aristotle did. So we might treat the bigotry of the past the way we treat the scientific mistakes of the past. That is, rather than detaching hateful remarks from the rest of the theory, we detach ourselves, offering an objective analysis of these thinkers’ ideas without ever adopting those ideas as our own. This will often involve situating the thinkers in their historical context. We might for example note – as a historical observation, not as a matter of praise or blame – that when Plato argued in the Republic that women can do everything men can do, but not so well, he was being unusually ‘feminist’ for his time – while simultaneously being sexist by modern standards.
This seems a reasonable solution, but it will not be enough for those philosophers who do not see themselves as ‘mere’ historians, but seek truth in historical works. Most notorious in this regard is the case of Heidegger. There is an ongoing debate as to whether his Nazism effectively poisons his thought as a whole, making it off limits as a source of philosophical inspiration. Analogous threats also need to be taken seriously by exegetes of other thinkers, and have been, to some extent: good work has been done on Kant and race, for example.
Some contributions in this direction have used the ideas of historical thinkers to challenge those thinkers’ prejudices. Kant is an obvious example. The ethical demand of his ‘categorical imperative’ to treat other humans as having an irreducible dignity, has been an important source for ideas about equality and human rights; and Kant himself was critical of European imperialism. Likewise, one could note the poor fit between Aristotle’s commitment to the rationality of humans as a species, his assumption that nature broadly achieves its purposive aims, and his elitist, racist and sexist claims that the vast majority of humans are incapable of the highest level of reasoning. The purpose of this ‘immanent critique’ by modern philosophers of their historical counterparts is not to catch out famous philosophers in self-contradiction. Rather, it is to acknowledge the ugly, even evil, aspects of historical writings while finding in those very writings the resources to challenge the bigotry of the past, and, more urgently, the present.
© Prof. Peter Adamson 2017
Peter Adamson is the author of A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vols 1, 2 & 3, available from OUP. They’re based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast.