Friday, January 21, 2011

Is Laziness a Racial Characteristic?

In the beginning of Immanuel Kant’s essay, “Of the Different Human Races,” he distinguishes between natural division and artificial division. According to Kant, “race” is a natural deviation from the original line of human descent. Based on this understanding of “race,” Kant argues that “race” is scientifically supported. However, what exactly constitutes a “race?” Is it one’s physical, cognitive, or emotional characteristics that have “deviated”? If so, how can one measure such deviations? Does one’s cultural community and religion influence one’s race, and if so, how? Kant seems to make a broad claim about “race” without defining specific characteristics used to differentiate between races.

Kant’s observations of various races are primarily physical. For example, he describes people who lived in the arctic region as having a smaller build because “with a smaller build the power of the heart remains the same but blood circulation takes place in a shorter time” (p. 15). Similarly, Kant explains, “Negros…produced a thick, turned up nose and thick, fatty lips” (p. 15). However, imbedded within the context of the essay are remarks about cognitive deviation as well, for example differences in personality. After the extensive paragraph that describes how surrounding environment influences the appearance of Negros, Kant writes, “However, because he is so amply supplied by his motherland, he is also lazy, indolent, and dawdling” (17). Like physical attributes, does Kant believe personality traits, such as “laziness,” are preserved as well? For example, would Kant argue that a “Negro” who is born and raised in a sparse environment would be “lazy, indolent, and dawdling?” Clearly, this is an absurd claim to make. Because such characteristics are not preserved throughout generations, Kant should not include such observations in his essay. Rather, Kant should maintain his definition of “race,” although poorly defined, in order to uphold the belief that “race” belongs to the category of “natural law.” Not only does Kant’s statement about Negros undermine his naturally based philosophy of race, but it also undermines the integrity of different races. Words such as “lazy, indolent, and dawdling” are charged with negative connotations. Comments such as these emphasize the political motivation for race. Kant directly criticizes other “races,” with the hopes to indirectly advance his own.

Although I now understand “ten things to know about race” after class discussion, I, myself, do not have answers to the questions I have posed. Although slightly embarrassing to admit, I do not know what “constitutes” race. I am looking forward to further investigating this question throughout the course of the semester.


  1. think you are making a good point that despite the apparent "scientificness" of Kant's views, his racial categorizations are latent with normative judgments about differently raced peoples. While I don't know if his work can be fairly considered a "direct" criticism of other race, but the way in which he arms normative judgments with scientific vocabulary complicates the situation. Although I am (and I would think many others) more inclined to grant more legitimacy to Kant's argument than, for example, Bernier's on the basis that Kant use of science poses the problem of how scientific data is produced to reinforce existing socio-cultural norms.

  2. I understand your confusion concerning the exact definition of race considering the increasing ambiguity that surrounds the term. One dictionary states that a race can consist of “any people united by common history, language, cultural traits, etc.” This is very misleading and could lead one to think of the majority of the United States’ population as a single race. Racial categorization is solely a social construct. It is another way for humans to have superiority over one another and to separate themselves from their counterparts. It is an innate desire that humans have in common to want to be better than their peers and society has protected the right to feelings of superiority far more fiercely than human rights to life, freedom, and even thought and expression. Scientists, for instance, increasingly began to present different ways to test intelligence beginning in the early 18th century in order to rationalize racial discrimination and categorization. It is interesting how far society has gone to justify and maintain race as a way to classify humans.

  3. Reading Kant and Bernier's criticisms of the races is hard; from a modern standpoint we get angry reading these racist comments. However, I think these sorts of descriptions are still used today. When Europeans talk about Americans, they use words like "fat," "lazy," and "loud." Of course, this is not true of all Americans; it is simply a stereotype. Humans are quick to judge, possibly because it is a basic instinct and also because it is easy- it's hard to analyze an entire race or culture, but it's easy to find the most distinctive qualities and blow them out of proportion. I do occasionally get frustrated with Kant and Bernier, but I continuously tell myself that this is the first attempt to analyze race and we must respect these philosophers for their contributions to our current views.


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