Saturday, January 22, 2011

Race is a social, cultural and political tool.

The common uses of the term race rely on notions of skin color and appearance, language, religious affiliation and nationality. I do not believe that race is a consistent or substantive classification. Instead, it is a cultural, social and political concept rooted in superficiality. In order to show this, we can examine one of the most prominent contemporary scientists of the 18th century – Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy. During this century, European scientists were obsessed with deriving various ways to classify all forms of life. Carl Linnaeus’ classification system (which is still in use today) included four categories for humans, which he labeled the “varieties” of the human species. In his descriptions of the “varieties,” he includes biological as well as acquired social characteristics. Homo Europeans were light-skinned, blond, and governed by law; Homo Americans were copper and regulated by customs; Homo Asiatics were sooty and governed by opinions; Homo Africans were black and indolent, governed by impulse. This is nothing less than a thinly masked attempt at ranking the different groups simply based on ethnocentrically skewed assumptions. And the parts about how each group is “governed” would surely not have held true. Even a cursory examination of each racial group would show every variety of behavior here attributed to a given group. The system in which these descriptions were codified is still in use for the animal kingdom today, albeit without this poorly conceived attempt to classify human beings.

Kant’s attempt to classify humans into a taxonomy of sorts is different in one major aspect than Linnaeus’ – he goes about justification of the system from a “logical” perspective. However, it would seem that his argument is merely a spigot of ignorance. Kant believes that he can give explanations which have some plausible merit about the various races by describing reasons for their physical attributes. This involves observing that certain arctic peoples are of smaller build because “with a smaller build the power of the heart remains the same but blood circulation takes place in a shorter time.” This is laughable as a working explanation for the stature of a group of people, and one can imagine several scenarios in which short people live in very warm climates – pygmies, for example. Also explicit in Kant’s taxonomy is the assumption that whiteness equates to perfection of reason and minimal deviation from the root lineage of man. It is clear that this account is also saturated with the types of ethnocentric judgments which other popular intellectuals were espousing. Kant also believed that human reason was the true mark of humanity, and this classification of inferiority which he supported makes many implicit judgments about general comprehension and reasoning faculties of the races which are further from what he considered to be the lineal “root,” or white Germans.


  1. I completely agree with the idea that applying social characteristics to races is ridiculous, but we must also consider what biological tools Linnaeus and Kant had at their disposal when judging their arguments. There was essentially little communication worldwide during their times, and I daresay Kant and Linnaeus had much interaction with foreign races other than second-hand accounts. So when one says that Kant's postulation as to why arctic people are shorter in general than many other populations is laughable, one must keep in mind that biology as we know it today did not exist. Kant was taking the knowledge-base of the times and trying to apply it to observations. This is no different than what we do today, but luckily our knowledge-base stretches much further than theirs. Additionally, the fact that pygmies exist in warmer climates does not necessarily invalidate the idea that arctic people are shorter because of their climate. It only shows that other climates may lead to a similar phenotype under Kant's view of biology.

  2. Humans are terrified of the unknown. Regardless of our religious or scientific justifications, we go to mental extremes to quell our fears, to predict the future, and, ultimately, to decode the nuances of everyday life. Despite the rudimentary nature of Kant's dissection of race, we must remember that every form of classification has a beginning, and generally those beginning tactics are significantly less sophisticated than we would use today. Also, when looking back on something such as race analysis we have to remember that racism itself was not developed. I think it's interesting that you call Kant's approach "logical" because, if looked at through a modern lens, this is an incredibly irrational and racist description of the various races. Of course Africans are not guided solely by "impulse," but this is what Kant believes to be true and we must respect his stab at a legitimate classification. The early philosopher, Lucretious, attempts to define now understood concepts such as atoms and storms. To us, his conclusions might seem ridiculous, but we recognize the importance of his hypotheses; his contributions to science paved the way to more valid and respected explanations for these phenomenons. It could be said that Kant's initial observations were made with the intent to exploit these newly identified races, but I truly believe that philosophers did not have enough "practice" to make a legitimately informed analysis of the races. Every institution needs a beginning, and although this is not the most ideal, it is a beginning.

  3. It is hard to keep in mind that the knowledge that Kant had regarding biology was obsolete considering the type of claims that he was making. Even when I take into consideration that Kant was writing with limited knowledge, it is hard to ignore the fact that he often strays away from his scientific descriptions and begins to generalize and make baseless assumptions about certain groups of people.


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