- Is Royce’s Philosophy of Loyalty Another white Man’s Burden?
Identity politics has become dangerous and toxic. How should one respond to the current American psychosocial attitudes and mood swings? Should I keep my circle large or small? Professor Royce might respond: “It depends upon the community ideal that fosters one’s identity and individuality.” But from the perspectives and experiences of marginalized peoples, the answer is not so simple. A prominent Africana scholar retorts: “Keep your circle plastic!” Such is the distinction brought out in Tommy Curry’s investigative study of Royce’s philosophy of white racial empire. Focusing on assimilation and Royce’s advocacy of practicing the “Dark Arts” of imperial rule, which Royce modeled on a system of British administrative procedure, Curry rebukes Royce on several points: his antiblack racism; his lack of knowledge and appreciation for cultures of African-descended peoples; his dogmatic praise of British exceptionalism and Anglo-Saxon superiority; his belittlement and intolerance toward the ways of the stranger; and his having defined self-determination in terms of Euro-American cultural ideals. Royce locates the pride of a nation in its power to assimilate outsiders, whereas Curry finds Black autonomy in Pan-African contributions that have been silently adopted and absorbed as white American culture.
Curry’s eye-opening study of Royce’s efforts to advance a philosophy of white racial empire is an exercise in Frederick Douglass-style learning. Another white Man’s Burden engages scholars and readers in a praxis of coming to recognize how we have been mis-educated, in the hope of being re-educated for the better. Curry’s ability to track down what many all too easily dismiss as anecdotal evidence, from so-called marginal scholars who took up debunked nineteenth-century theories and debates, is a rare feat in philosophy. As [End Page 59] practicing philosophers, we are often unwilling or unable to look back and question ourselves in the reflection (however hypocritical this may sound to every undergrad who was told differently at the beginning of a philosophy course!).
Another white Man’s Burden is not a love story as told by John Kaag, nor a pragmatic appeal to indigenous and colored peoples as echoed in the logical and aesthetic writings of Scott Pratt and Richard Shusterman. It is rather the untold story about the colder truths that motivated and provided cover for views that are held dear by much of the philosophical community. Curry’s project is an exercise in resistance against scholars who irresponsibly rehabilitate, or worse, sanitize philosophers’ views in order to present these views as politically correct or compatible with the liberal progressive trends of our time.
Royce scholars have largely ignored the significance that prior ethno-logical studies played in the anthropological debates at the beginning of the twentieth century, and Curry argues that these debates influenced Royce’s sense of identity and of what it means to constitute a people. Curry writes:
While there are vast amounts of scholarship that revolve around the contributions of Royce’s thought to American philosophy, to date, in the four years since I announced and have written about Royce’s Aberdeen speech, there has yet to be an exploration of the colonial logic at the heart of Royce’s thinking about America.(67–68)
The provincial revision in Royce studies neglects how much racial determinism supports Royce’s philosophy of loyalty, and how that philosophy is predicated on a colonial logic that presupposes ethnic and linguistic essentialisms. For example, Curry thinks that “[s]ituating Royce’s rejection of Chamberlain is of the utmost importance” since it provides a window into the racial psychology that Royce promotes. While Royce rejects Houston Chamberlain’s blood-based essentialism, Curry links more relevant ethnological and anthropological studies with Royce’s conception of natural science, as it reinforces the colonial ideal:
It is generally assumed that Royce’s rejection of the dominant racist theories (which argue for superior racial stocks of men) as well as his suspicion as to the biases of such theories place Royce on the side of racial equality. Such assumptions tend to err in privileging the dogmas of twenty...