- Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy: Racism and the Formation of the Philosophical Canon, 1780–1820 by Peter K. J. Park
By Peter K. J. Park. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013.
In the introduction to his exemplary study, Peter Park dryly cites almost interchangeable passages from two radically different thinkers: “Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy (1945) states, ‘Philosophy begins with Thales.’ Martin Heidegger said in a lecture at Cerisy-la-Salle, France, in 1955: ‘The often heard expression “Western-European philosophy” is, in truth, a tautology. Why? Because philosophy is Greek in its nature; Greek, in this instance, means that in origin the nature of philosophy is of such a kind that it first appropriated the Greek world, and only it, in order to unfold’” (5). There is perhaps no other thesis that would generate agreement between Russell and Heidegger. Writing in the mid-twentieth century, the two philosophers agree that there was no such thing as philosophy before the wise men of ancient Greece began to inquire into the ways of nature. Two hundred years earlier there would have been no such consensus. Not only were names such as Adam and Moses generally included among the list of early philosophers; but it was also assumed that philosophy flourished in many other civilizations, especially Egyptian, Indian, and Chinese. This was certainly the viewpoint of Jacob Brucker, whose Historia critica philosophiæ (1742–1767) instructed two generations of European writers and scholars, [End Page 152] including Goethe and Kant, in the history of philosophy. For Brucker, there was no doubt that the sages of ancient Greece drew on African and Asian sources, even if, as he also claims, there was something new and different in Greek modes of philosophizing. In the second half of the eighteenth century, however, Brucker’s perspective was forcefully challenged and eventually eclipsed. Just as the first volume of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena shows how historians in the late eighteenth century began to disparage an earlier view, authorized by the Greeks themselves, which held that classical civilization originated in Africa and Asia, so Peter Park demonstrates in Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy that, during the same period, non-European philosophy was excluded from the most influential accounts of the history of philosophy. The process of exclusion begins with Kant’s conviction that philosophy has a pure Greek origin and culminates in Hegel’s lectures on the history of philosophy. Park argues that race was the primary motivation for this alteration. As he writes at the end of his penultimate chapter, “Hegel’s history of philosophy is the consolidation, four decades later, of the ‘radical modification’ of the history of philosophy” (130).
Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy deserves a broad readership. Beyond the immense benefit the author has conferred upon the scholarly community by analyzing massive histories of philosophy that no longer speak to any audience, he has presented the results of his research in readable and emphatic form. He also draws special attention to a little-studied but highly influential eighteenth-century professor of philosophy, Christoph Meiner, who was instrumental in the establishment of what came to be known as the “Göttingen Historical School”—and who, as Park explains, promulgated a theory of racial superiority in all of his writings, including and especially Geschichte des Ursprungs, Fortgangs und Verfalls der Wissenschaften in Griechenland und Rom (History of the origin, progress, and decline of the sciences in Greece and Rome), which was published in the same year as the original publication of the Critique of Pure Reason. This date, 1781, is more than mere coincidence for Park: Kant’s reasons for making the origin of philosophy into a purely Greek affair are drawn from Meiner, who was himself indebted to Kant’s essays on race. Drawing on the research of, among many others, Robert Bernasconi and Frank Dougherty—it is Dougherty who uncovers Meiner’s debt to Kant, and the research as a whole is indebted to Bernasconi’s groundbreaking studies—Park proposes the following...