Transcript: 31. Justin Smith on Amo and Race in Early Modern Philosophy

Justin E.H. Smith joins us to discuss Anton Wilhelm Amo against the background of ideas about race in early modern philosophy, including Leibniz.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: We are going to be talking not only about Amo, but also about themes in your book, which you published a few years ago, an amazing book, which I really liked, called Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy. But perhaps we should also just mention briefly that you, together with Stephen Menn, are working on a kind of intellectual biography and translation of Amo. Is that right?

Justin Smith: That's right. It's a critical edition and translation of two of his treatises, the two philosophical dissertations of 1734 on mind and body, together with a very long biographical introduction.

Peter Adamson: Okay, great. But let's start by setting the scene for Amo. One of the disputes you talk about in that earlier book is one that unfolded in early modern Europe between two ideas really about where humans come from or how races evolve. One is called monogenesis, the other theory is called polygenesis. Can you explain this contrast and say something about how these two views were supported by their adherents?

Justin Smith: Sure. Well, the very short definition of these two views is that monogenesis is the theory according to which all human beings are descended from the same first parents, and polygenesis is the view that either there are different sets of first parents for different groups of people, or at least potentially there are some people – or maybe what appear to be people, but in fact are something ontologically quite distinct – who were born of the earth, or emerged out of mud and slime spontaneously in some way or other. Now, it should be noted that at least in the 17th and 18th centuries, far and away the default position, the mainstream view is monogenesis. That is to say, that in part because very few people in the 17th and 18th centuries were able to overtly contradict the account of human origins given in scripture in the book of Genesis, almost every mainstream thinker in the 17th and 18th centuries, at least in, let's say, written or published work, came out in favor of the view that all human groups, however different they appear, however different the cultures are or their geographical region is, descend from Adam and Eve. The only people who are polygenesists in the era are what you might call radical thinkers, libertines, and this in particular in the 16th century, in the Renaissance, and most of all in Italy. Names like Lucilio Vanini and although he's somewhat more cagey on the question, Giordano Bruno are associated with the theory of polygenesis. What Vanini says is that the Native Americans – and this is the middle of the 16th century, so what he knows about the lived reality of Native Americans in Italy in the 1550s or thereabouts is very, very minimal. So I take it as a sort of thought experiment to propose that somewhere in the far corner of the world recently discovered to us, it is possible that what appear to be people there in fact emerged out of the earth and are not descended from Adam and Eve. This is a variety of polygenesis, and it's also of course associated with the theory of giants, which is common throughout a number of different authors who are not writing explicitly on the question of polygenesis. For example, in the early 18th century in Giambattista Vico, what is a giant? It is someone who is literally gigantes, which is the Latinization of the Greek word for born of the earth or born out of the earth. So thinking about giants as the libertine polygenesists were inclined to do, was a way of, I think, opening the door to a naturalistic interpretation of the origins of human beings, but doing it in a way that is at the same time, in hindsight, grossly racist, because it's effectively saying we're descended from Adam and Eve, those folks over there far away are born of mud and slime. Now, of course, we're all born of mud and slime, and so which direction you want to take this in is an interesting question, I think, but it's the sort of thing that you really have to understand in its historical context.

Peter Adamson: Wouldn't there be an implication that the polygenesis theory that the Native Americans, let's say, would not be subject to original sin, if sin comes down to us from Adam and Eve?

Justin Smith: Certainly, though, of course, there's also in some authors the implication that a simulacrum of a human being is something that couldn't just be spontaneously generated out of the earth, but must also be something for whose production the devil has some responsibility. And so there's sin there, but in a different sense than our own original sin and our own fall. And then there are, of course, other theories such as, for example, Isaac La Peyrère, the so-called pre-Adamite theory, according to which there were several different atoms and that La Peyrère wants to find scriptural justification for this view. And in this case, if this were correct, the implication would be that Native Americans have their own atom, presumably sub-Saharan Africans have their own atom. Now, this is the middle of the 17th century, and this is also a kind of radical position to take up. It's less interesting to me than what Vanini and Bruno are toying with 100 years earlier. But in this case, you certainly wouldn't be able to get around original sin, because they're also equally human beings, just human beings who have a different set of first parents on the pre-Adamite view.

Peter Adamson: Another point you make in your book is that certain philosophers, because of their metaphysical presuppositions, may sort of be inclined to certain views about race. And one of the kind of leitmotifs of the book is that people who are dualists, like Amo, so who think that the mind and the body are fundamentally different kinds of things, may have a certain perspective on race, and that it might even lead them to think that race just makes no fundamental moral difference at all. Can you kind of explain why that would be?

Justin Smith: Well, I think one thing is, one motivation for pursuing this line of thought is just that dualism gets such a bad rap today. I think we're all so kind of knee-jerk opponents of race, opposed to the thought of it, and we transmit this to our students in Intro to Philosophy courses, whereas I think a pretty strong case can be made that the naturalization of the human being over the course of the modern period goes hand in hand, historically, with the rise of theories of human inequality. And if you think about it for just a second, the connection is obvious. If a human being is nothing but a soul, and if the body is only contingently connected to what actually makes the human being what they are, then no outer marker of bodily difference is going to be plausibly taken as relevant for placing any individual human being within a hierarchy of better and worse. And I actually have very strong evidence that the implications, the racial implications of anti-dualism are something that were on people's minds, consciously and explicitly, in the early modern period. I can just give you one example. Gabriel Daniel, who was a Jesuit priest, a French Jesuit, at the end of the 17th century, who wrote a hilarious satire of Descartes's metaphysics and published it in 1690. It's called Le Voyage du Monde de Descartes. He gives this scenario where there's an African servant who learns the secret of ambulation of the soul, how to make the soul leave the body and go wandering around. He learns this from the Cartesian sort of sect that keeps the secret because they enjoy going soul-walking at night like witches. When the African learns this, he starts doing this, and one day his soul is out wandering and his body is sleeping under a tree. And a mob of people comes along and effectively lynches him because they believe he has raped a young woman. His body is left there, killed by the mob, and his soul is left to wander and can't die because it can't go back into a body that dies. Eventually Descartes dies too, and Descartes is a dualist. He encounters the soul of this African, and there's a long scene where they go to the moon, and on the moon they encounter the souls of the other dead philosophers like Aristotle and Plato, and the other philosophers shun Descartes because Descartes has a friend who is an African, or Descartes' soul has a friend who is an African soul. Let me put it that way. The joke in all of this, Daniel’s joke, is that Descartes is the only philosopher who would make friends with the soul of an African because he is a dualist and therefore doesn't care what race the body of the formerly living African was. So if that's not, I think, a pretty knockdown proof that this connection between anti-dualism and the rise of, let's say, an explicitly racialized theory of human inequality was not on people's minds in the early modern period. I don't know what is.

Peter Adamson: That's incredible. Actually, can I just point out a little irony there, which is that there's something that we discussed in an earlier episode when we were talking about pre-colonial African traditional ideas about the soul, which is that there's anthropological and ethnographic reports about African peoples who believe that the soul can leave the body. And there's been arguments in contemporary African philosophy, scholarship, about whether this commits them to a Cartesian theory of soul. It's amazing to hear that there's an early modern text pointing out that it's sort of going the other way, like this is an African character learning from Descartes about the idea of soul-walking.

Justin Smith: Right. I mean, it's hard to say what Daniel's sources for this were, but presumably just kind of widespread folk ideas about witchcraft and kind of peasant sorcery of the sort that the scholars like Carlo Ginzburg have nicely brought back to life for us. But let me just add one more thing about the connection between naturalization of human beings and the rise of racism. The other smoking gun, if you will, I think is in the early 18th century in the work of Linnaeus. Where you have a kind of double movement that Linnaeus effects in the system of nature. One is to go against the tradition of earlier systems of nature and to include Homo as something that is solidly within the order of nature. And that is to say, next to Homo now figures next to the various other what Linnaeus called Anthropomorpha, which is to say the great apes. So that's one motion. And then the other parallel motion within Linnaeus is to include further subdivisions of Homo, like Homo Afer, that is the African man, Homo Europaeus, Homo Asiaticus, Homo Americanus, and so on. So you see, the idea is that once you have a naturalized human being, there is, the way I see it, no obstacle to continuing with the further naturalization of even finer grained differences within humankind. And that's the history of the rise of scientific racism. Now, of course, whether scientific racism must be present in order for there to be racism is another big question that I'm not going to address unless you make me.

Peter Adamson: No, I won't make you. Don't worry. Before we get on to talking about Homo, I just wanted to ask you about one other figure just because he plays such a big role in your book, and this is Leibniz, who from 1646 to 1716, I had to write that down, by the way. I don't have it memorized. What were Leibniz's views on race? And actually, how did they relate to his views on the philosophy of mind, which is what we've just been discussing?

Justin Smith: Okay, it's a very complicated question. And I have sometimes thought that in that book, I might have portrayed Leibniz in too positive a light, because I am just kind of such a Leibnizian and have been for so long. I read him charitably. And there has been some criticism, and indeed some shock and horror at an early text that Leibniz wrote in which he – this is really bad – he basically says that he would like to see a European colonial power conquer the island of Madagascar and bring groups of boys not older than 12 years old to be segregated into their respective nations or linguistic communities and trained up as great warrior slaves who could then conquer the world. Not a very good start to Leibniz's career of thinking about human difference.

Peter Adamson: Both evil and impractical.

Justin Smith: Right. Well, so as with everything, I put this in context, and I think I fleshed out what was actually going on here. One thing that he was doing was trying to make a case that France should follow Spain's example in the conquest of the Canary Islands between 100 and 200 years prior, and using the Canary Islands as a sort of jumping off point for the conquest of the Americas. And it was like directly from that example. But the other thing that I think is really important for understanding the way 17th-century German authors and even early 18th-century German authors, including by the way Amo, the way these authors wrote about and thought about slavery was, by and large, not on the example of the transatlantic slave trade. It was on the example of the Ottoman Empire. And they saw the Ottoman institutions of slavery as the modern world's living descendant of ancient slavery, of ancient Roman slavery. And they were particularly interested authors like Leibniz, but also Thomasius and also Jacobus Capitein, the Ghanaian author in Amsterdam in the early 18th century. They were particularly interested in the institution of the Janissaries who were, strictly speaking, slaves. They were kidnapped under orders of the Sultan and brought back to the Sultan's palace, whether they wanted to go or not, as little boys. But then they were trained up in a kind of corps of elite bodyguards. And they were in a certain respect the heroes of the nation. So the term “slave” in this German context is very, very, let's say, much in need of being fleshed out according to what the preoccupations in the time and place were. And they were different in Germany at the time than they were in France and England, and to some extent in the Netherlands. And this is, in part, for geographical and economic reasons. So Leibniz doesn't make a good first impression if you're looking for his earliest writings about human diversity, let's say. I think that Leibniz indeed is a dualist of a very particular sort, and I'm not going to give you the full kind of elaboration of the way the body flows from the perceptual activity of incorporeal monads. We can skip all of that. But suffice it to say that the basic metaphysical commitment that Leibniz has is that, at bottom, every perceiving subject, which is to say really everything that actually exists, including but not limited to all human beings, is in the end in a certain respect identical to every other and is differentiated only according to point of view on the order of coexistence of other substances. That's Leibniz's basic metaphysical commitment. And I think this translates into his theory of human diversity and human equality in a very interesting way. And I think we can see this in particular in his New Essays Concerning Human Understanding, which is a 1704 response to John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding of 1690. Locke is already dead when Leibniz comes out with this work in 1704, but it's basically an attempt to deal with basically every aspect of Locke's empiricist philosophy that Leibniz does not like. Now, there's a part in which Leibniz is responding to something that Locke had said about a rumor or, let's say, something he had heard travelers from Africa say that in Africa, Locke believes there are women who have offspring with apes. And this is like a proto-King Kong sort of thing. The apes come and ravage the women. And so there are all these ape-human hybrids in Africa, Locke thinks. Are they human beings or not? Well, here you get the theory of nominal versus real essences. Locke thinks ultimately nature is not going to dictate the answer to that question. It's up to us to decide whether they should count as human beings or not. Now, Leibniz comes back and says many interesting things taking off from this question about what it is to be a human being, and about whether there are outward signs in the body, or perhaps in the conduct of the body, that can reveal whether what we're dealing with is a human being or not. And he says not necessarily. He thinks that there's no kind of cutoff point for amount of body hair, or perhaps a little stub of a tail or something like that, at which point you would say, sorry, not a human being any longer. Now, in this discussion, he's not primarily interested in the question of ape-human hybrids. He's not primarily interested in the question of lower races as his contemporaries might have seen them. What he is interested in is what we today would think of as disability. That is, cases in which people are born, human beings are born, without the capacity to convey to those around them that there is an inhering faculty of reason in there. But in such cases, it is nevertheless, for Leibniz, a threshold matter, whether we're dealing with a human being or not. And the threshold is something that need not be empirically discernible or not, but it is something that gives us, that dictates, an absolute yes or no to the question, is this a human being or not? So this is something that interests Leibniz in the context, mostly as concerns disability or developmental impediments to what we think of as normal for a human being, but it also extends, or is extensible, to a general theory of human equality.

Peter Adamson: Turning then now to Amo, we talked about him in the last episode, but can you remind the listeners about what works we have from him and how they interrelate or build on each other?

Justin Smith: Sure. There are three extant works. There is a possible fourth that I'll get back to soon enough. There are two philosophical dissertations on mind and body, both written in 1734. The first is what we commonly refer to as the Apatheia or also the Impassivity. The full title is On the Impassivity of the Human Mind. And it's a, let's say a defense of a radical dualism that goes beyond Descartes to the extent that it excludes the possibility of what Descartes would have called passions of the soul. And the other is one that had sometimes been mistakenly attributed to someone named Meiner. And the reason is that Meiner was the person who defended this dissertation under Amo's supervision. And in the 1730s, in German universities, it was quite common when you go to defend a thesis that you're not defending your own thesis, you're defending your superior's thesis. Why would you have your own thesis if you're just a student? And so there are several references in this work. The title is very long, but we call it sometimes the Concrete Idea. The fuller title is a Dissertation Containing a Distinction of the Concrete Idea of the Mind and That of the Living Organic Body, or something like that. I'm forgetting the title. I've translated it, but it's too long to remember. And there are several references in there to “my apatheia,” which are, I think, a knockdown argument that the author is the person who wrote the Apatheia, which is to say Amo. Now, there are references in these works to another work that is not complete, and that is called the Tractatus de arte sobrie et accurate philosophandi, the Treatise on the Art of Soberly and Accurately Philosophizing, which comes out in 1738, four years later. It is much, much longer. It's about 200 pages. And it's a treatise of logic, which is a very curious, very original work on many diverse topics, including hermeneutics, but also syllogism and other more traditional things. So those are the three known treatises of Amo. There might be a fourth, but I'm inclined to doubt it, a 1729 legal dissertation called De iure maurorum in Europa, On the Rights of Moors in Europe. Why do I doubt that it exists and we just haven't found it? Well, in part for reasons that I've already explained. It's quite likely that when they say that he defended this thesis in the legal faculty in 1729, what this means is that there was an event where Amo spoke, but there may not necessarily be a written text based on that, either a transcript or a treatise that he had written in advance. It could just be that the only written work that ever existed were the summaries and announcements that we do have.

Peter Adamson: And how far do you think the description we have about the argument he put forth in that takes us in understanding what he actually argued? I mean, even assuming it was a verbal presentation, do you think we know what he said?

Justin Smith: I think we do. Yes. And I think it's largely thanks to this remarkable publication, that helps us a lot to make sense of Amo's context, called the Wöchentliche Hallesche Anzeigung, so the weekly Haller News, the Bulletin, which tells us everything that was going on. I mean, it tells us every musical instrument that was for sale in the musical instrument store, on such-and-such street in Halle, and it also tells us what classes were being offered in the law faculty and summarizes the lectures. And we know that Amo's advisor, a fellow by the name of von Ludewig, that's with an E in the middle, Ludewig, during the semester that Amo defended that dissertation, or that thesis, I should say, was lecturing, von Ludewig was lecturing on Justinian law and on the so-called enfeoffment of African kings under Justinian law, which is to say that, it seems that because Germany was basically under Roman law, and they conceived of this as continuous with the Codex Justinianus from late antiquity, what Justinian spelled out as to the status of sovereign African kings still held in Germany today, in the early 18th century, which is remarkable. And what we learn from the Codex Justinianus is that the idea seems to be that once the African kings were enfeoffed, this meant that they had a kind of sovereign status alongside any other noble who might be traveling in Europe. And this makes me think in turn, makes us think – I've talked to Stephen Menn a lot about this, and we've consulted law historians who know a lot more about this than we do – that Amo was almost certainly the son of an African noble, and he was likely in Europe as a representative of an important family. Now, how much weight this had, how much carte blanche this gave him for entry into various social circles he moved in, we don't know, but it seems quite likely that when he's talking about the status of Africans in Europe, he has in mind a particular class of Africans.

Peter Adamson: That's really interesting because one of the things we mentioned in our episode is that there was this kind of proposal that, because Amo came from an Akan background in what is now Ghana, there might be some kind of distinctively Akan or African ideas floating around that might have pushed him towards dualism or whatever. And you're skeptical about that, and we're also kind of skeptical about it because he moved there so young, but actually what you're saying there implies that his particular background in Africa maybe did have an impact on the way he thought about actually this issue of slavery.

Justin Smith: Well, one thing that we have discovered – and I still haven't seen the document, I have to go to the Netherlands state archives to really nail this down – but I've seen enough evidence to be morally certain, that in late 1746, Amo wrote to the Dutch West Indies Company from Jena, he wrote to Amsterdam requesting passage on a Dutch West Indies ship back to Africa. And by early 1747, that's what happened. We don't know how he got from Jena to Amsterdam. There are a lot of gaps here, but that's how he got back to Africa. If this is the case, then even though he had been in Germany for 40 years, it seems likely that the administrators at the Dutch West Indies Company knew who he was. So this is an African in Europe requesting passage on a slave ship back to Africa. So that's one bit of evidence that throughout his life in Germany, he has some kind of continuing connection to a network of people with connections in Africa. Another thing is that there is a Swiss traveler who gives us a report from the early 1750s about his meeting with Amo, once Amo is back in West Africa. And the Swiss traveler tells us: this is remarkable, that he's met the most incredible man who speaks high and low Dutch, as he puts it. He speaks French and Latin and Greek and Hebrew, and he is currently making his living as a soothsayer. So this means, and I don't know whose fortunes he was telling, but likely he was telling the fortunes of local Africans of the same ethnic group he came from, which means that he probably still had the idiom. He still knew how to talk to people. And that is a pretty strong piece of evidence that throughout his years in Germany, he was not unaware of who he was. That said, I do not find a single trace of evidence in any of his written works that he's putting his own history, his own identity, or reflections thereupon out there for the world to read. I just don't see it.

Peter Adamson: You talk in the book about how his dualism kind of responds to various threads of his German context, right?

Justin Smith: Yeah, I think I am not entirely satisfied with what I say in my Amo chapter of that 2015 book. And that's in part why I'm still working on him. Because when I finished that book, I had only recently started reading and thinking about Amo, and there were a lot of holes I still needed to fill in, in particular about the context in Halle. And I think that at the time I took Amo to have been in a camp at the University of Halle that was on the other side of an ideological divide from figures like Georg Ernst Stahl, whom I took to be conservatives of a certain sort. And I think the picture of Halle in the 1730s is much murkier than that. There was the opposition between the pietists and the Enlightenment-oriented Wolfians. But at the same time, it was the pietists who were so gung-ho about what we would call, using the historical term, Orientalism. That is to say, learning about cultures beyond Europe and, in this broad sense, West Africa is included within the Orients, partially for missionary reasons, but also partially for pure intellectual reasons. So Halle became a center, a pietist center of, let's say, early proto-anthropological curiosity. So I'm not convinced that Amo was on the opposite side from these people I depicted in the 2015 book as his foes.

Peter Adamson: Okay. So research continuing there on Amo.

Justin Smith: Exactly.

Peter Adamson: And for the first story, we'll have to wait for your book with Stephen about him. But before we wrap up, I just wanted to ask you to sketch some of the other things you say in your earlier book about what happened after Amo. So he died in the middle of the 18th century. He didn't really see the full fruition of more naturalist approaches to human nature, but those naturalists' ideas are going to provide a context for a lot of what we're going to be looking at in future episodes because we're going to be looking at the 18th and 19th centuries. So what, just very briefly, what sort of things happened there and how does naturalism affect ideas about race?

Justin Smith: Well, I think I've already alluded to that somewhat in the example of Linnaeus, but just again, my broad historical thesis is that you can't have scientific racism before you have a global conceptual scheme that places all human beings within a taxonomy that also includes non-human beings, that is, plants and animals in particular. And this really only gets going over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries. So in that respect, I take scientific racism to be a direct side effect of the naturalization of human beings. Now, does this mean that we should not have naturalized human beings, and we should have gone on thinking that human beings are half-god, half-brute, and that it's the immaterial eternal soul that makes us what we are and not any connection we appear to have to animals? No, I'm glad naturalism came along. I'm glad we have evolutionary accounts of how, as we put it earlier, at the end of the day, we're all born of mud and slime. That is to say, we're all evolved from single-celled organisms. That's fine with me. But I do think that it means that we're being too simplistic when we think that dualism is a primary culprit in the history of racism. And also we're being offered here, in this example that I've just given, a really kind of vivid case study and an important case study of the way in which science can – and in its history, in fact, does – give us a complex mixture of truth and, at the same time, new opportunities for ideological distortion of that truth. And that's how I see the history of scientific racism.


Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.