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  • Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy by Justin E. H. Smith
  • John Nale (bio)
Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy.
By Justin E. H. Smith, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015. ISBN: 978-0691153643.

There has been no shortage of recent interest in the reality of “race” from those working in Anglo-American philosophy and other fields. One increasingly popular hypothesis states that although races have no objective reality, the idea persists because humans have evolved certain “mental machinery” or innate predispositions to process ethnic groups. This view takes a basic evolutionary assumption—that variations important to our survival are selected for and entrenched in a species—and applies it to racial categories. Since the ability to distinguish between social groupings was presumably important to our ancestors for survival, these theorists argue there has evolved an ability to process “in” and “out” groups, which we call “races.” This story is, in part, intended to explain why so many people still cling to racial identities even though it has been proven time and again that there are no naturally occurring races. Justin E.H. Smith’s new book seeks to contextualize, critique, and, in some ways, buttress this hypothesis with an historical perspective. The argument, which he develops over nine chapters, focuses on the early modern period and traces the development of race thinking through to the late eighteenth-century. Through his exceptional [End Page 272] scholarship, Smith makes a convincing argument that many of these so-called “innate” tendencies are actually relatively recent inventions, and are thus historically contingent. Smith contends that racial categories are not natural kinds—they are historically constructed—but, moreover, our perception of social groups are no more natural and they too are historically conditioned. Yet, as contingent as these racial categories may be, Smith is equally critical of those authors who see races as mere social constructs and thus easily disposable. As he argues throughout, much of the recent Anglo-American writing on race fails to recognize how race and racism “are deeply embedded in history and require historical research” (4). By reconstructing this history Smith provides a useful complement and critique of recent empirical research into the persistence of racialism and racism.

The thrust of the book lies in demonstrating how races are shifting categories that have taken on many meanings and served various functions over the course of recent centuries. The contingency of the race concept and its malleability is demonstrated through Smith’s tremendously erudite studies of early modern philosophy and natural history, a subject area in which Smith has an established track record as a Leibniz scholar and historian of the natural sciences. By reading both canonical and relatively minor authors in their historical contexts, Smith argues that the key shift in Europeans’ thinking on nature making the race idea possible is the collapse of the idea that each and every human is essentially a metaphysical soul that transcends any local environmental or physical peculiarities, and the subsequent rise of a conception of the human being that studies the species as a natural being and thus something to be classified along with any other animal. This shift occurs across three moments, beginning with the epoch of metaphysical dualism, which Smith argues serves as a kind of barrier to essentialist racial thinking, since dualism separates the essence of the person, the mind, from that that which is inessential, natural, and merely corporeal. This point, made by Eric Voegelin, Martial Gueroult, and others, is reevaluated and supported with new sources and contexts to a convincing effect. Specifically, Smith examines a French Jesuit, Gabriel Daniel, who in 1691 highlights the human-animal division in Descartes’s thinking that does not allow for any gradations of race within the human species. With this, historians and philosophers of race can add Daniel’s work to others who draw this conclusion from Descartes’s dualism, including Buffon and Poullain de la Barre. Second, Smith contends that the dualism of mind [End Page 273] and body is subverted by the naturalization of the whole human being, in both psyche and soma. According to Smith, this is...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2165-8692
Print ISSN
2165-8684
Pages
pp. 272-278
Launched on MUSE
2016-07-11
Open Access
No
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