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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 18.2 (2004) 129-148

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Between Hume and Cugoano:

Race, Ethnicity and Philosophical Entrapment

Brown University

Our notions of race and ethnicity are not particularistic leftovers from the premodern past, but important classificatory and discursive constructions of our modern era. In particular, they were among the founding categories of the origin narratives of European modernity, and hence integral to the latter's birth, self-understanding, and development. Much older are our notions of philosophy, as these traditions of thought have clearly identifiable roots in the premodern phases of African, Asian, Middle Eastern, American, and European societies. Without the early sages of these societies, modern philosophy, with its references to Buddha, Shankara, Confucius, Mencius, Socrates, and others, would be unthinkable. However, in spite of the continuing vibrancy of many of these philosophical traditions, the emergence of race/ethnic discourses from inside the imperial projects of modern European capitalism produced epistemic earthquakes that shook the ground beneath these ancient systems of thought. The epicenter of these seismic upheavals was the imperial elevating of European culture, making it the gold standard in terms of which the value of all other cultures would be measured. Like money to commodities, all cultures would now have a common medium in which the value of their members and their achievements would be established.

The primary purpose of this paper is an examination of some of the epistemic and discursive changes that this new racialized order introduced into the production of philosophical knowledge both in Europe and in the African regions of the world it had colonized.

Using the cases of Hume, Kant, and Hegel, I will show that these emerging race/ethnic categories entered the field of their philosophies through the changing "We," or collective identity, that supported the philosophical "I" out of which they produced their work. I will also show that the necessary oppositional mode in which these new race/ethnic groups were being discursively represented made race and ethnicity knowledge-constitutive categories of a transcendental paradigm of self-deflection rather than of self-reflection. As such, they were error-producing [End Page 129] rather than truth-producing. They systematically distorted their objects and subjects of representation and so ran up high credibility costs for the European philosophical tradition. In the case of the Africana philosophical tradition, I will focus on the work of Ottobah Cugoano as an example of the impact of cultural recentering and racialization on this tradition, and the manner in which it has responded to this problem. However, before turning directly to these philosophical tasks, we must make a brief sociological detour, and undertake a discussion of culture and modern ethnogenesis.

Culture and Ethnogenesis

Cultures are the raw material out of which modern races and ethnicities have been produced. Races and ethnicities are indeed specific transformations of cultures, and hence are inconceivable without them. In the modern era, races and ethnicities have emerged from the supernationalizing or the denationalizing of autonomous cultures within the framework of the European expansions noted above. These expansions were outward movements in search of land, agricultural staples, and raw materials, which required the establishing of European sovereignty over conquered territories. This pursuit of sovereignty established the imperial contexts in which the local cultures of Europe would be globally centered, supernationalized, and attributed universal significance. This universalizing of European culture required that the cultures of colonized states be correspondingly deterritorialized, cut off from state power, with their significance, both local and global, proportionately reduced. In time, these outward expansions also generated inward patterns of labor migration from across the globe in response to demands from European and American markets. The influx of these migrants to the cities of the imperial centers soon constituted another set of locations for race/ethnic production via strategies of denationalizing formerly autonomous cultures. In short, the economic, political, and cultural dynamics of these outward and inward movements are largely responsible for our present race/ethnic configurations.

What is it about cultures that requires their racialization or ethnicization in the context of modern imperial...


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