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  • From “Nation” to “Race”: The Origin of Racial Classification in Eighteenth-Century Thought
  • Nicholas Hudson (bio)

Did the modern concept of race exist in the eighteenth century? It is certain, at least, that no eighteenth-century dictionary defined “race” in the modern sense of a subdivision of the human species, identified by a shared appearance and other inherited traits. Samuel Johnson’s definitions of “race” conformed with previous English dictionaries in confining the application of this term to family lines or breeds of animals. 1 The same is true of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française, where “race” is defined in the first edition of 1694 as “lignée, lignage, extraction” in relation to either families or beasts. This definition was repeated under the heading “Race” in the Encyclopédie (vol. 13, 1765), where this term is closely linked with the idea of a “noble race” or family. 2 The first recognizably modern definition of race does not appear until the 1835 sixth edition of the Dictionnaire: “Une multitude d’hommes qui sont originaires du même pays, et se ressemblent par les traits du visage, par la conformation extérieure” (A multitude of men who originate from the same country, and resemble each other by facial features and by exterior conformity). The introduction of a similar definition of “race” in any English dictionary came even later. 3

It is clear, however, that the dictionaries were lagging well behind the use of “race” in science and belles-lettres. Certainly, by the mid nineteenth century, “race” had become one of the most used, and abused, terms of ethnographic [End Page 247] literature. As the Scottish anatomist Robert Knox declared in 1850, “Race or hereditary descent is everything; it stamps the man.” 4 But at what point did “race” gain this currency in popular and scientific discourse? Historians of science and anthropology have often noted that the idea of race began to emerge at some point in the eighteenth century, particularly in the work of Linnaeus and of authors who advocated polygenist theories of human origin. Yet the details of this origin, and the factors that promoted a new scientific and popular language of “race,” have been little studied. 5

I will focus here on one central and revealing development in the history of racial classification—the changing meaning of the term “race,” along with the associated terms “nation” and “tribe,” from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. This evolution is marked particularly by the use of the term “race” to describe ever larger populations. Travel literature of the seventeenth century contains a wealth of detailed description of innumerable “nations” in the non-European world. Writers of the Enlightenment, on the contrary, were more inclined to dismiss these national differences as insignificant, and to describe “Negroes,” “Americans,” or other continental groups as “races” with essentially common traits of body and mind. Significantly, “race” and “nation” derive from the same concept of “lineage” or “stock.” Yet it was “race” that ultimately became the major term of ethnographic scholarship, while “nation” was reserved to describe the political and social divisions of Europe. “Tribe,” in turn, was increasingly used to replace “nation” in descriptions of “savage” peoples outside of Europe.

In our century, the close relation of “race” and “nation” has proved to be an especially volatile source of political passion and conflict. The Nazi slogan of Volkstum affirmed the absolute identity of “race” and “nation.” In much “New Right” ideology, as Etienne Balibar has pointed out, “the discourses of ‘race’ and ‘nation’ are never far apart.” 6 We will see, however, that the first stage towards this modern combination was the gradual separation of “race” and “nation” during the Enlightenment. It was only at a later stage, when “race” had been established as a term for the biological subdivision of humanity, that it was rejoined with “nation” in a new and explosive mixture.

In classical and Medieval literature, the major term in ethnographic descriptions was gens—a Latin word that is usually translated as “people” or “nation.” Significantly, gens connotes a common ancestry or stock (hence its etymological link with genero, to beget or produce), reflecting an ancient way of understanding a nation...

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pp. 247-264
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