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  • White Imagination in Search of a Canon
  • Kevin J. Harrelson

I. Introduction

Tommy J. Curry’s Another white Man’s Burden (AwMB) presents a rigorous intellectual history of Josiah Royce’s essays on race. Curry explains the several arguments that Royce made on this topic between 1900 and 1908, and he situates these within Royce’s social philosophy and some contemporaneous literatures on racism. The result is a comprehensive theory of cultural assimilation informed by an idealist metaphysics. Royce, namely, disdained segregation and rejected biological accounts of racial difference. But Royce scholars have wrongly taken these observations, Curry argues, as evidence that their hero held progressive views on race. Royce rather began from the premise of Anglo-American cultural superiority, and only on that basis did he ask how Americans should confront the issue of human diversity. His answer was a very unequal brand of assimilation: we Anglos must inculcate in “foreigners” a loyalty to our causes. The American republic, Royce hoped, could become a Great Community more successful than the British Empire by being more thoroughly an Empire of the Mind.

Curry’s methodology is heavily contextualist, and his intervention in the Royce literature is welcome for it. He presents Royce not as anyone wishes to see him, but rather as someone immersed in nineteenth-century ethnology would be prone to do. The contexts to which Curry appeals will be informative for most, so much so that he gives a few warnings and near-apologies on this point (Another white Man’s Burden 42–43). In the course of presenting a unified portrait of Royce on race, AwMB also provides an introduction to nineteenth-century ethnologic theories, as well as briefer primers on related topics: the differences between southern and northern contexts of racial integration, the various senses of equality advocated by Black authors, the differences between [End Page 39] British and American contexts of colonization, and many others. That readers of AwMB will be educated by it is, I hope, a compliment worthy of such a thorough historiographic performance. That readers will be convinced by it, on the other hand, is something about which Curry expresses much skepticism (Another white Man’s Burden 185–92). For my part, however, I find the account of Royce’s social philosophy to be fair and accurate in its general outline, and more than sufficiently precise in its finer details.

Another white Man’s Burden does more than just correct the record about the real meaning of Royce’s theory of race. It also offers a thorough rebuke, running through various debates with Royce scholars, of certain interpretive strategies common to discussions of racism in the history of philosophy.1 The analysis largely concerns the racial dynamics of interpretation, and this will be the focus of my commentary. Why is it that white scholars wish to protect white philosophers from charges of racism? What are the effects of their doing so? Curry’s reflections on these questions introduce a number of conceptual tools (e.g., ideo-racial apartheid) that should give us pause when defending canonical philosophers against charges of racism. In outline, what Curry claims is that rescuing white philosophers from such accusations enables us—white historians of philosophy—to insulate our canons from challenges by non-white thinkers, and thus to promote a curriculum of exclusively white authors for our own edification and, more insidiously, the easy exclusion of non-white philosophers from the profession.

These charges are profound, and I wish to take them seriously in the following. My plan is first to follow a brief summary (sec. II: Contextualization) of Curry’s theses and methodology with a review (sec. III: Sanitization) of common defensive strategies of interpretation. I conclude that while Curry lacks a basic semantic justification for his methodology, he does offer three successful pragmatic arguments that helpfully illuminate his rhetorical situation. I then consider (sec. IV: Canonization) Curry’s objections to the integration of Royce into an American Canon. Finally, I will consider (sec. V: Imagination) some of Curry’s remaining methodological remarks in light of problems pertaining to authorship. These reflections call for a more detailed, scientifically defensible theory of the white imagination as it...


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