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Reflections on the Idea of Race

by Mark Westmoreland

The twenty-first century confronts us with at least two questions: How do we respond to the horrific events of the previous century, and how do we ensure that such atrocities do not occur again? Many prejudices have been incited by the implicit systemization of Race, or racialization. Moreover, can we today imagine the possibility of living in a harmonious world, a world of pluralism — the idea that there is a multiplicity of incommensurable values expanding over various cultures? Commenting on our contemporary situation, F.M. Barnard writes:

Not many social theorists today, it is true, share their nineteenth-century precursors faith in unilinear progress. Yet, this does not seemingly prevent contemporary sociologists and economists from theorizing about political development as though progress in one direction — for example, in the possession of telephones or automobiles — must necessarily correlate with the arrival of stable democracy.[1]

It appears that many academics, clergy, and laypersons struggle with reformulating their ideas of human progress, particularly in terms of Race. However, over the past few years, we have seen a resurgence of the idea of cultural cosmopolitanism amongst America's youth (although they are unaware of it). Perhaps it is best for us to go back a few centuries in hopes of understanding our historical situation. By tracing the origins of the idea of Race, we may be on firm ground to truly accept diversity and embrace pluralism, or cultural cosmopolitanism.[2] Working through four centuries of racial discourse can be tedious. I promise to make our journey as clear and straightforward as possible while not belittling the ideas of our predecessors.

Why should such a historical trace be of importance for us today? 'Historical change in the abstract sense,' G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) states, 'has long been interpreted in general terms as embodying some kind of progress towards a better and more perfect condition.'[3] In a similar tone, Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) asks, 'For what other purpose would humans have joined together, but that thereby they might become more perfect, better, happier human beings?'[4] Furthermore, Hegel claims, 'In our understanding of world history, we are concerned with history primarily as a record of the past. But we are just as fully concerned with the present.'[5] We continue to witness this dilemma. No doubt, we must know our pasts in order to know who we are. However, how much do we impose of our present situation back onto our pasts? Let us reflect upon the historical origins of the idea of race in order to better understand the racialized world in which we live today.

Let us ask ourselves a few basic questions regarding Race. How do we use the term Race? In other words, what do we mean when we say 'Race'? Do you belong to a Race? If so, to which one do you belong? Have you ever acted in a racist manner to another person? Have you ever been the object of racism?

Probably all of us have an experience of Race. Let us ask a few more questions. Are there actually Races that exist? If so, are the groups we categorize as Races actually Races? For example, most Europeans understand Jews as being a particular Race. Most Americans understand Jews in terms of Ethnicity. And finally, is it possible that racialization, the experience of Race, and racism exist, but not Race itself? This final question should remain in the forefront of our minds for the rest of our investigation.

Let us continue this reflection by looking into the history of the idea of race, an idea that was formed not too long ago. In the sixteenth century, European nations began to speedily expand their horizons. Trade, travel, and colonization made the world a little smaller. Explorers came into contact with more diverse people groups and began to keep travel journals documenting their perceptions of physical distinct people. Such travel journals became commonplace for the educated class, particularly the educated who themselves traveled the world.

One such traveler was the physician Francois Bernier (1620-1688), who first used the word Race in its modern context.[6] In 'A New Division of the Earth According to Different Species or Races of Men' (1684), Bernier remarks that 'Geographers up to this time have only divided the earth according to its different countries or regions.' This new division became manifest in terms of Race. While practicing medicine in India, Bernier came to the conclusion that human beings do not make up one Race, but rather a multitude of species. Despite his attempts for accuracy, Bernier failed to give a coherent definition of Race and continued to use species and race interchangeably.

This failure in giving Race a fixed meaning can also be found in the works of Isaac De La Peyrere (1596-1676), Francois-Marie Arouet De Voltaire (1694-1778), and Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696-1782). All three of these men argued for the notion of Polygenesis. In Prae-Adamite (1655), Peyrere claims that Adam and Eve were not the first human beings on earth and that gentiles existed prior to the life of Adamites (Jews). The conclusion of Peyrere and the other adherents to Polygenesis is that we have our origins in various local creations. We are without a single common ancestor, without a single common origin. This conclusion, however, did not keep hold among naturalists and the anthropologists to come later.

The Swedish naturalist, Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), gave the first rigorous, scientific classification of human beings.[7] The 'Father of Modern Taxonomy' included human beings in the same classification system as plants and animals. He suggested that there were four basic varieties of human beings with each variety corresponding to a particular geographic location. Within each location, similar characteristics, qualities, and personalities were found. Only when one stepped outside of a particular location and looked upon all the varieties could one see the magnificent diversity of humans. However, Linnaeus's attempts left much to be desired. In striving to understand the archetype of the human species, he neglected to respect the human differences found within each of the four human varieties.

The last criticism was taken up by Count Georges-Louis Buffon (1707-1788). Buffon sought to bring order to human variety. Instead of classifying fixed, static varieties of human beings, Buffon offered a more genetic account of human variation. As a naturalist, he held that organisms change under environmental influence. In Natural History: General and Particular (1749), Buffon defines species as that which can continually reproduce generation to generation.[8] Buffon, like his predecessors, still lacked a consistent definition for Race and used the term rather ambiguously.

We have now reached the point in our investigation where Race receives its first scientific and systematic definition. The well-known philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) seemed to react quite strongly against the works of his predecessors. Living during the German Enlightenment, Kant saw the rise of Anthropology in the German academy. He was well-read regarding the various discussions of the idea of Race.

Kant's attempts to give a scientific account of Race are found first in his 'Of the Different Human Races' (1st. ed. 1775/ 2nd ed. 1777). In this text, Kant bases Race solely on skin color. In Section III, Kant expresses his understanding of seeds and predispositions, both of which lead to the formation of the various Races. If original humans had the potential to develop into one of four main Races, then their offspring (if they migrate) can actualize one of the seeds. The actualization of the seed is what Kant calls a natural predisposition. One's predisposition, leads to one of four actualizations. Once actualized, one cannot go back and actualize a different seed. Kant understands this theory of anthropological causation to lead to four races: (1) the white race; (2) the Negro race; (3) the Mongol race; and (4) the Hindu race. This classification of Races held sway for sociologists and anthropologists well into the early twentieth century. The Kantian systemization of the idea of Race has led those working in Race Theory to deem Kant 'The Father of the Idea of Race.'[9]

There are many others involved in the history of the idea of Race (Hegel in particular). For now, let us complete our reflection by turning to Herder, who was a student of Kant from 1762 to 1764. In the mid to late twentieth century, we witnessed a return to studies on Herder; this was best expressed in the works of Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997). Berlin thought that Herder's ideas on the concept of humanity, pluralism, and the futility of Race would aid us in avoiding the atrocities of the early twentieth century. These ideas are most clearly stated in Herder's Another Philosophy of History (1774) and Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Humankind (1784-1791).

Herder, rejecting the notion of Race, continually stresses the idea of peoples (whereas Kant held to a notion of race based on skin color). Unlike Kant, Herder argued that a culture held greater importance than geographical location. No one people is superior to another. Furthermore, no people is without culture and no culture is better than another. Cultures differ from one another, 'but these differences [are] of degree, not of kind.'[10] 'Overall and in the end,' writes Herder, 'everything is only a shade of one and the same great portrait that extends across all the spaces and times of the earth.'[11] All peoples contribute to humankind and encourage the progression toward humanity, 'not as straight, nor as uniform, but as stretching in all directions, will all manner of turns and twists.'[12] Moreover, as Herder writes, 'Every nation has its center of happiness within itself, as every ball has its center of gravity!'[13] In other words, Herder was interested in the internal and external influences on a culture and emphasized the individuality of a given culture.

For Herder, humanity remains an immature potential within all human beings and needs to be developed over time. Herder states, 'All your questions concerning the progress of our species, which really would call for a book in response, are answered, it seems to me, by one word, humanity, to be human.'[14] The goal of history, for Herder, is for each individual to become truly human, living a full life. 'Perfection in an individual human being,' Herder writes, 'is found in that he, in the course of his existence, be himself and continue to become himself.'[15] Such development concretizes in the perfection of humankind and the harmonization (plurality) of cultures so that 'we are friends to all men and citizens of the world.'[16]

According to Herder, we should empathize with each culture from the point of view of the respective peoples. A culture should be evaluated based on its own terms by its own values. Even within a given culture, one should seek to grasp the culture in terms of the specific stage of development in which it exists at a given point. This, however, was the exact thing that philosophers in the Enlightenment (and earlier) failed to do. Their ethnocentrism corrupted the possibility for them to study any other culture on its own terms. Unfortunately, many seem to be continuing this tradition.

Hopefully this reflection will cause a few of us to rethink the idea of Race. In the twenty-first century, our denial of the existence of racial categorization is the first step in embracing human difference and pluralism. We may not be able to have a perfect world, but we can strive for a harmonious pluralistic world in which every culture is equal, understood, and appreciated. If there exists any such characteristic as perfection, perhaps Herder's Humanitat is such a thing. The first step in achieving this would be to rid ourselves of thinking that Race exists. Yes, the idea of Race exists, the experience of Race exists, a racialized world exists. But, Race itself does not; it is only an idea brought about during a time in world history when human difference was first realized on a global scale. We shall conclude with a thought from Herder:

Perfectibility, therefore, is not a deception; it is the means and final end to all that is called for and made possible by the character of our kind, by our humanity.'[17]


1. Frederick M. Barnard, Herder on Nationality, Humanity, and History (Ithaca: McGill-Queen's UP, 2003), 144.

2. Pluralism and cultural cosmopolitanism have distinct definitions in contemporary Race Theory. For our purposes, these terms, however, will be used interchangeably.

3. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History: Introduction, trans. H.B. Nisbet (New York: Cambridge UP, 2002), 124.

4. Johann Gottfried Herder, On World History, 'On the Character of Humankind,' eds. Hans Adler and Ernest A. Menze (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1997), 99.

5. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, 150.

6. See Bernier's 'A New Division of the Earth According to the Different Species or Races of Men' (1684). Translated by T. Bendyshe in Memoirs Read Before the Anthropological Society in London, vol 1, 1863-64, pp. 360-364.

7. See Linnaeus's System of Nature Through the Three Kingdoms of Nature (12 editions. 1735-1778), eds. M.S.J. Engel-Ledeboer and H. Engel, Nieuwkoop, B. de Graaf, 1964.

8. Buffon's Natural History: General and Particular was collected in over 44 volumes. 36 volumes were published between 1749 and 1788, 8 volumes were published posthumously.

9. See Bernasconi, 'Who Invented the Concept of Race? Kant's Role in the Enlightenment Construction of Race' in Race, edited by Robert Bernasconi (Malden: Blackwell, 2001).

10. Barnard, 134.

11. Johann Gottfried Herder, Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind, ed. Frank E. Manuel, trans. T.O. Churchill (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1968), 7.

12. Johann Gottfried Herder, On World History, 'On the Character of Humankind,' 101.

13. Johann Gottfried Herder, Another Philosophy of History and Selected Political Writings, trans. Ioannis D. Evrigenis and Daniel Pellerin (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004), 29.

14. Herder, On World History, 'On the Character of Humankind,' 99.

15. Ibid., 100.

16. Herder, Another Philosophy of History, 64.

17. Herder, On World History, 'On the Character of Humankind,' 104.

© Mark Westmoreland 2008


Mark W. Westmoreland
Adjunct Professor of Philosophy
Neumann College
Aston PA USA