How did the Enlightenment Philosophers View Race?

Hegel's Lectures on the Philosophy of History (1837)

Part of the central thrust of Enlightenment thought was the idea of the essential nature of man. It was thought that if knowledge could be possessed, if society could be imagined, then man stood at the core of that achievement. Previous to this moment in Western conceptions of society, knowledge was considered the preserve of the Divine. Enlightenment presaged a secular authority for knowing. Knowledge was the way that humans could encounter reality. The logical extension of these notions was that whatever needed to be could be known and that reality could be measured. This mode of inquiry was never to be pursued solely for its own sake. Knowledge of the world was organized with the objective of ordering society. Out of the logic of Enlightenment thinking emerged political orders. The most well-known of these was the enlightened despotism of the Prussian state. But it was not limited to the Germanies. The modern nation-state, is thus, an Enlightenment-inspired creation. For many, it was not until the “age of revolution” that light of Enlightenment was first shown. This reading suggests that it was the flowering of these new ideas that inspired and created the space for self-government, for democracy. In this reading, the American Revolution, rather than the French, was Enlightenment’s crowning achievement. It would take a much lengthier analysis to range through the variations of meanings ascribed to Enlightenment. But these readings are interesting for a number of reasons. In some ways, it reifies and extends George W.F. Hegel’s Philosophy of History (1837). In others, it privileges American exceptionalism. But what such readings almost always decenter is how the Enlightenment dealt with the fundamental question of human nature. Such questions were always racialized.

On Human Nature

In order to build a society that was governed by human knowledge, there needed to be a declaration of the meaning of “the human.” Human nature had to be understood, if not codified, such that what passes for order could be not only justified, but contained. In coming upon such definitions, however, Western philosophers creative a normative version of “man” that stemmed in large part from their own experiences. Normative man became grafted upon Western man, and all other versions of man were defined utilizing the category of “race.” All other human encounters had racial meanings. During this era, scholars constructed various taxonomies with humans, animals, and other living things ranked according to intellectual capacity. Curiously, non-European men and all women were rarely ranked upon the same levels as European men. Perhaps, encoded in such misapprehensions are later forms of denials about their fitness for civilization. And thus, their capacity for “Enlightenment.” Beyond the ways in which these categories emerged, it is important to understand that normative man based on assumptions of Western cultural experiences. The result of that philosophizing produced norms for human culture and behavior that inspired how institutions and structures that guided society were to be constructed. Such conversations then birthed disciplines such as anthropology, economics, and political science that sought to understand culture, “rational man,” and human behavior generally. These were disciplines, as Michel Foucault, has shown that were in service to power.

Enlightenment Philosophers on Race


It is important to clarify, also, that Enlightenment philosophers were products of their environment. It may be inaccurate and presentist to frame them as “racist” in the senses that the term is used today. However, their ideas helped to reify race and racial categories at a critical time in the modern age. Emmanuel C. Eze’s reader, Race and the Enlightenment, collects the ideas of these philosophers regarding the question of race. It is hard to ignore the aforementioned Hegel’s statement that “Africa has no history.” Or to dismiss as immaterial and inconsequential Immanuel Kant’s assertions concerning the capabilities and abilities of Black people, which stated that they were “quite stupid.” Less commented upon and perhaps most critical is the “natural history” of Comte de Buffon. This collection also includes statements about race from thinkers like David Hume, Thomas Jefferson, and others who extolled the inferiority of races, “other” than European. Interestingly, while scholars have extolled the secular bona fides of Enlightenment thought, much of the rationales for Negro and other races’ inferiority still stemmed from a religious zeal for civilizing missions. By the mid-nineteenth century, the legacies of Enlightenment thought were transferred to what has been called “race science.” The latter was an attempt to concretize and offer empirical support to the philosophical musings of thinkers for whom Enlightenment was their aim. Race science emerged at a moment in time where colonialism, dispossession, and enslavement were emerging to prop up the empires of Western Europe. These philosophical musings and empirical studies—if they can be called that—were utilized in order to offer rationales for European conquest. So the argument went, that civilization was the preserve of rational and enlightened men, and these were not found among the “savages” beyond European shores. Race science has been largely discredited. The Enlightenment, however, continues to resonate among partisans of Western thought. It remains the lodestar for how to reason, how to arrive at knowledge. Intellectual historians like Jonathan Israel have recently argued that Enlightenment was radical and responsible for advances in human relationships and societal changes. For instance, what has become known as positive liberalism, following the famous split envisaged by Isaiah Berlin, is considered part of the same Enlightenment project as negative liberalism. Israel has advanced an argument that claims an Enlightenment that makes possible everything from the abolition of enslavement to modern notions of human rights. These newer works have not been able to see how race and racial thinking were co-articulated with Enlightenment conceptions of human nature. And thus, they have not been able to see racism as one of its products, as one of its continued legacies. Alternative intellectual histories have offered important responses.

Anti-Racist Thought

The genealogy of anti-racist thinking ranges broadly and deeply. Some of the earliest examples come from within Western thought. Not all philosophers believed that Western man constituted the normative human. However, their ideas were muted in service to larger, demonstrably political ambitions. If we take the anti-racist foundations of different thinking traditions to heart, it allows us to look at the emergence of Enlightenment thought in a different register. African American intellectual history is replete with examples of anti-racist thinking. From David Walker to W.E.B. Du Bois, there has been a long history of engaging the racial legacies of the West. Not all of these thinkers, however, have engaged the racial foundations of Enlightenment. In order to do so, intellectuals would have needed to clarify the ways in which the category of “human” was understood and commented upon. Further, one would need to expound upon the political economies that constituted and converged upon the societies of the West.

Cedric Robinson

The ideas of Cedric Robinson are critical to understanding much of this context. In his Black Marxism, he argues that racism was at the core of Western civilizations, and that it predates the emergence of the modern world. If this is true, then both the religious and secular authorities that governed the production of knowledge would have understood the human through racial lenses. For Robinson, this would have implications for how race was utilized and extended in the wake of the advent of modernity. The result was a concerted effort to “transmute” the image of the African. The transmutation came at the same time that enslavement was moving apace and was co-articulated with images of the indigenous peoples of the New World as well as poor Europeans. With regard to Enlightenment thought, then, Robinson’s argument implicates both materialist and idealist renderings of human nature as complicit in racist thinking. Racism supported the materialist pursuit of wealth. Racism was also a way of seeing “the other.” It was not solely a function of either—the two were productive of each other.

Sylvia Wynter

Another crucial voice is that of Sylvia Wynter. Over the course of her long writing career, Wynter has stipulated that Western thought produces an image of “the human” that serves as the justification for how we conceive of being and freedom. Wynter locates much of the roots of elevation of the human in the secularization and the “degodding” of European thought—though much of the kernel for what came later was rooted in the religious imagination. In her work, she argues that in order to produce the modern world, “other” humans’ humanity was negated—philosophically and categorically. Those abstract negations of humanity produced the violence that settler colonialism and enslavement begat. Beyond the racist attitudes possessed by many, Wynter located the problem as an epistemic one. Thus, her contribution to the genealogy of anti-racist thought is profound and critical in ways that are still being explored.


A simple syllogism: Enlightenment produced modernity. Modernity is characterized by the racialization of humanity. The problem of race then stems in part, if not wholly, from the desire to construct categories of difference, which served attempts to define the human. Western intellectual history narrates the evolution of the ideas that structure human societies. “Race” is unfortunately one of those ideas. Yet, the prominence of anti-racist thought has offered alternative ways of seeing difference. While there may never be a consensus on how these ideas evolve, by starting from the very question of what it means to be human and possess intellectual capacity, more intellectual historians might gain the insight that has been heretofore explained away.


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Israel, Jonathan. A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.

--. Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Eze, Emmanuel, ed. Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1997.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage, 1970.

Robinson, Cedric J. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

--. Forgeries of Memory and Meaning: Blacks & The Regimes of Race in American Theater and Film Before World War II. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Schmidt, James, ed. What is Enlightenment? Eighteenth Century Answers and Twentieth Century Questions. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996.

Stanton, William. The Leopard’s Spots: Scientific Attitudes Toward Race in America, 1815-1859. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Wynter, Sylvia. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, It’s Overrepresentration—An Argument.” CR: The New Centennial Review 3 (Fall 2003): 257-337.