Another Mind-Body Problem: A History of Racial Non-Being by John Harfouch
Despite ideals of philosophical objectivity, who speaks is as important as what is said, and those who fall outside the Eurocentric male norm often are not heard or invited to participate in theorizing. New work chronicling and challenging the creation of white supremacist ideology in philosophy is needed greatly. In this important book, Another Mind-Body Problem: A History of Racial Non-Being, John Harfouch reveals the hermeneutical injustice that obscures how professional philosophers understand the mind-body problem today and how the terms of that problem were created in the early modern period. Unlike the puzzle of causal relations between the mind and body canonized by white (mainly male) philosophers, Harfouch's book uncovers another mind-body problem subsumed by orthodox history. This mind-body problem can only be fully understood in relation to the history of racism and creation of race by Kant and other seventeenth-eighteenth century philosophers.
The book has three chapters: "Descartes's Fundamental Mind-Body Problem: The Question of Sex," "A Thing Not-Yet Human: Bonnet's Problem of the Egg," and "'All the races will be extinguished . . . only not that of the Whites': A Mind-Body Problem in the Kantian Tradition." Harfouch begins chapter one with the provocative assertion that Descartes's mind-body problem is misunderstood and appropriated anachronistically by contemporary epistemologists. Contemporary thinkers focus on the interaction of mind and body in fully-grown human beings and on bridging the gap between consciousness and brain states. Harfouch argues instead that understanding the natures of mind, body, and of their union requires investigating how Descartes believes each is generated. Harfouch demonstrates that Descartes has "a genealogical dualism, which posits distinct causes for mind and body" (6) and that the true foundation of the mind-body problem he faced turns on sexual reproduction, where the initial joining of mind and body must occur.
It is generally thought that one positive heritage of Cartesian dualism is the separation in principle of the human mind from alleged influence of the body, whether by sex or race: fundamentally, every human essence/ego comes from God and transcends bodily effects; all minds appear equal in principle qua intellectual nature. Pace authors who trumpet Descartes's isolation of the ego/mind from the body as leaving no room for racial distinctions [End Page 183] grounded in bodily differences to fuel racism, Harfouch shows how the eighteenth-century author Arthur de Gobineau uses a genealogical dualism similar to Descartes's to justify Aryanism. Even a doctrine of the mind as transcendentally generated by God, independent of the body, can be coopted in service of racism.
In chapter two, Harfouch turns to the works of eighteenth-century Genevan naturalist Charles Bonnet. Harfouch shows how a racist temporality takes hold in Bonnet's theories of mind-body union across generations. Bonnet beefs up the doctrine of preformation to offer a unique analysis of how mind and body relate. The mind's contents come from input and experiences via the body; so, the soul's perfection depends on the body's. Unfortunately, some people whose bodies and environment do not provide the needed stimulation to the mind, do not achieve rationality. On the evolutionary chain from beast to European, the inferior races fill in the gaps. And this necessary inferiority justifies the enslavement of those inferior beings as part of the natural order (90). Like Descartes, however, Bonnet fails to explain how the mind-body union begins during sexual reproduction.
In chapter three, Harfouch argues that Kant solves the problem of mind-body unity by transforming the question. Mind-body union is not discoverable through physiological structures or via any physical process, but through regeneration and repetition in time. Kant's essays on race reject his predecessors' and peers' approach to the mind-body question and focuses instead on the purposiveness of racial characteristics and natural history over natural description. Kant argues for the existence of racial types with heritable, immutable traits of body and mind. From a single original human type (required to have the different races belong to the same species), an original degeneration, brought about by adaptation to climate conditions and environment, created four races (124). Each race represents a permanent union of skin tone and physical characteristics with mental characteristics. For Kant's racist taxonomy, reason and culture are the ultimate purpose of the human species, but only the white race achieves their full development, and thus achieves the status of human being. Kant's racist legacy is the vision of "non-being" (being below human being) as hereditary and determinative of non-whites as empty beings with no worth.
Harfouch ends with a call to academic philosophy to turn its hiring and funding towards "the solution of one of philosophy's longstanding and most pressing problems. . . . With Kant's contribution, philosophers can recognize the univocity of this term 'mind-body problem' and the problem of racism" (163). Though he does not use the term, Harfouch successfully makes the case that philosophy's white (male) domination and resultant hermeneutical marginalization harms the field. To heal what European hubris has wrought, we must split the field wide open. Harfouch's book offers us a thread through racism's maze of obfuscation and this reviewer recommends it highly.