The relationship between race and culture in Enlightenment thought

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2015

24 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Race and culture put into context
2.1. Scientific racialism in the eighteenth century
2.2. From barbarism to civilisation

3. The relationship between race and culture in Enlightenment thought
3.1. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
3.2. Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803)
3.3. Christoph Meiners (1747-1810)
3.4. Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840)

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

„Wenn es [im 18. Jahrhundert] pejorative Stereotypen und herablassende Geringschätzung in der Beurteilung der Überseebewohner tatsächlich noch und noch gab, so entsprang dies nicht primär einem Bewusstsein des

weißen Menschen um seine rassisch-biologische Höherwertigkeit, wohl aber dem Bewußtsein des Zivilisierten um seine Führerrolle als Zivilisationsgeschöpf.“

- Bitterli, Die „Wilden“ und die „Zivilisierten“, p. 323.

Scholarly activity of the Enlightenment could be said to have carried the impulse to classify and organise the world around us and even beyond our immediate reach to extremes. However, tied to classification systems of any kind are incongruities and generalisations that do not necessarily, if at all, measure up to reality. Perhaps it is in these generalising descriptions, especially of foreign peoples and cultures, where one’s own self-conception surfaces most clearly. In order to gain insight into but a small fraction of the Enlightened mind, the analysis of some of the most influential and remarkable writings about the racial1 division of humankind could be a useful starting point. In reference to the above quotation by the Swiss historian Urs Bitterli this paper will revolve around the question of how the concepts of race and culture - encompassing the entirety of human behaviour, social practices, expressive forms and technologies - or civilisation - signifying the former’s upscaled and yet more complex version2 - might be interlinked in the anthropological and philosophical writings of four renowned German scholars: Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottfried Herder, Christoph Meiners and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. To this end, the intellectual preconditions for culture and civilisation need to be taken into account as well. All four of these scholars were deliberately chosen not only due to their pioneering contributions to scientific race and cultural theories, but also the controversial, at times perhaps even acrimonious debates they were engaged in with each other. To begin, an analysis of the importance and background of both concepts should be given: What influence did the concepts of culture and civilisation exert on the ways the Enlightenment scholars perceived different races or nations? Where did this concept come from? How did the idea of „race“ emerge, and in what ways was it essential to scholarly activity of the Enlightenment? Afterwards, an investigation follows regarding the relationship of both concepts in the writings of Kant, Herder, Meiners and Blumenbach, in the hopes of achieving a comparative analysis. Was the belief in the superiority of one’s own culture and civilisation a precondition for the concept of race to be developed? Did the perceived level of civilisation of different peoples affect the way they were racially classified by the scholars of Enlightenment?

The analysis of the primary sources form the basis upon which this paper is constructed. Yet without heavily relying on academic literature discussing these works, this paper would not have come to pass. Eze offers a useful starting point with his compendium of carefully selected and commented extracts from the work of Enlightenment thinkers who theorised about the classification of humans along racial lines. Baum has provided a major foundation for this paper with his work about „The rise and fall of the Caucasian race“, especially the chapter about Enlightenment science and the invention of the Caucasian race in which he detailedly traces and reconstructs the origins and predications of the most influential race theories of this era. Mosse’s important work dealing with the history of racism in Europe has given valuable orientation concerning the historical context of the sources herein discussed. While Bindman focuses on the interrelationship between highly ethnocentric aesthetic ideals and the classification of humans in „Ape to Apollo“, Bitterli takes on the mindset with which Europeans encountered non-European peoples throughout the centuries through the lense of culture and cultural supremacy. Both works provide interpretative analyses of different race theories within their respective historical background, thus considerably contributing to carving out the very essence of this paper.

2. Race and civilisation put into context

To start off, a general observation regarding an innate conflict of Enlightenment thought is in order, a conflict that, as will be shown, greatly impacts on this paper’s object of research:

„Enlightenment thought included, on the one hand, an impulse to differentiate, classify, and systematize the various elements of the natural world. [...] On the other hand, the Enlightenment postulated a universalistic and egalitarian ethos that has buttressed struggles for individual freedom, equality, democracy, and universal human rights.“3

These two branches of Enlightenment thought - human freedom and equality on the one hand, differentiation and classification on the other - coexisted alongside and only seemingly contradictory to each other4.

2.1. Scientific racialism in the eighteenth century

Against the background of increasing contact with the rest of the world, Europeans felt impelled to continuously negotiate their self-conceptions as well as their views on the foreign peoples and cultures they encountered. In their quest to understand the natural order of the world, Enlightenment thinkers reflected upon the status of humanity within this order, and then upon the status of different sections of humanity in comparison to each other5. The late seventeenth and the whole of the eighteenth centuries marked the birth and rise of the scientific division of human populations according to racial belonging and saw the emergence of new academic disciplines such as anthropology, the „study of humanity“, as well as physiognomy and phrenology which entailed the examination of the human facial structures and skull6. For thinkers participating in this academic endeavour, „race“ had a specific meaning as a category to subdivide humanity according to the observable facts of, primarily, physical characteristics. Therefore, „races“ signified „varieties“ or „subspecies“ of humankind7.

Monogenism has it that all human beings, irrespective of their racial belonging, stemmed from one common origin, thus more or less confirming the biblical story. All of the below discussed German scholars argued in monogenist terms, yet it will be demonstrated that notwithstanding their opinion regarding the primal unity of mankind there are overt instances of favouritism for European or white peoples in biological as well as cultural terms scattered throughout the texts. Its theoretical opponent, polygenism, attributes the observable differences between peoples from Europe in comparison to Africans, Asians and Americans to an altogether separate origin of the races, but would remain only a minority opinion.

However, common to both schools of thought is that in its orientation towards classical ideas and ideals in morality and aesthetics, the Enlightenment posited beauty as an indicator of virtue and intellect, applying this notion to all human beings8. As a result, peoples deviating from this ideal that was conceived to encompass all of humanity were necessarily considered inferior to those embodying it. Body and mind formed an inextricable unity, thereby permitting predictions and deductions from the outside to the inside9. With this, as Mosse argues, were already created the very basic groundwork of the emergence of scientific racism out of scientific racialism mere decades later10.

2.2. From barbarism to civilisation

Before delving into the following topic of culture and civilisation, clarifications regarding the terminology are in order. The term „civilisation“ first emerges only in the middle of the eighteenth century. Then, it already „indicated an advanced evolutionary stage of human societies“11 ; however, the concept that this term encompasses is much older. It dates back to Antiquity. Since then, supposedly advanced cultures had appointed themselves the superior counterpart of primitive or archaic cultures time and time again when it came to establishing one’s own claim to power12. Aristotle described what would today be summarised under the term „civilisation“ as a trait innate to the Greeks, whereas non-Greeks or „barbarians“ exhibited no such rational and cultural capabilities13. This mindset would survive not only into Roman times, but even until millenia later. Quite alike their classical predecessors, Enlightenment scholars drew a sharp line between the „cultured“ or „civilised“ and the „barbaric“, „savage“ or „primitive“ peoples14:

„It can be argued, in fact, that the Enlightenment’s declaration of itself as ‘the Age of Reason‘ was predicated upon precisely the assumption that reason could historically only come to maturity in modern Europe, while the inhabitants of areas outside Europe, who were considered to be of nonEuropean racial and cultural origins, were consistently described and theorized as rationally inferior and savage.“15

Thus, the high level of culture and the state of civilisation was the major characteristic that European scientists prided themselves with in comparison to other peoples during, though most certainly not exclusively, these days. Intellectual capabilities, creative talents, personal restraint and moral development are only the basic characteristics which Enlightenment scholars commonly, as will be gone into more deeply later, attribute to members of a cultured and civilised society. Eighteenth century Europeans thus did not conceptualise themselves and others by means of outward appearance alone, but also in cultural terms.

Indeed, Europe’s domineering status was, for the most part, taken for granted and considered the natural consequence of an innate superiority, although the outgrowths of the colonial enterprise with its violent exploitation of native communities - rather than barbarian ones - also drew heavy criticism. Still, the European elite commonly regarded their civilisation superior as opposed to societies less technically advanced16. Whether this belief stemmed from the mere fact of increasing domination of these civilisations over „non-white“ peoples on all continents or served as a very precondition for this in the first place cannot be wholly answered; however, the leading racial classifications certainly served to substantiate this domination scientifically by placing the white race at the very top of a hierarchically stratified humanity17. In this contradictory state of attitudes towards the big, wide world as well as towards the European civilisation itself, the images of the cruel „barbarian“ on the one hand and the „noble savage“ on the

other hand coexisted alongside each other during the eighteenth century18. Oddly enough, the European natives who lived close to nature, such as peasants and sheperds, were still considered superior to non-European natives perpetuating an equally primitive or archaic standard of living19. As will be shown in the course of this paper, some scholars even turned this idea upside-down by declaring the white peoples to be the primeval race out of which every other race evolved, thereby gradually forfeiting the perfection of their former existence in the process - yet this did not at all imply that a lower level of culture was preferable to the civilisation Europe had since evolved to.

3. The relationship between race and culture in Enlightenment thought

3.1. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

According to Kant’s race theory, the world is populated by four different main races - the white race, the Negro race, the Hunnic race and the Hindustanic race -, as well as the products of several amalgamations between them20. Because the mixture of different races produces fertile offspring, Kant argues that they all belong to the same stock, with „gelegentliche Ursachen“ such as climatic factors, but also a „gewisse Naturanlage“ inherent in the human body accounting for their phenotypical as well as „moral“ diversity21. Despite his assertion that Negroes and whites belong to the same species, thereby conforming to the biblical view of monogenism - without explicitly affirming its details, though - Kant expressed much disdain for the former, essentially stating that they comprise not only a separate, but inferior race within the human species22.

In general, though, Kant views humankind as a superior species that had been equipped with a variety of „Keime“ and „natürliche Anlagen“, rendering each and every climate suitable for human populating23. Even though the different peoples are but the products of their natural environment, with the specific „Nationalcharaktere“ and „Bildungen“


1 A word on terminology: This paper contains many problematic terms that the author has chosen not to always put in quotation marks due to the fact that they are used strictly in the context of the German sources from the eighteenth century.

2 For the sake of clarity as well as convenience, the terms „culture“ and „civilisation“ will thus be used in the contemporary and generalised sense throughout the paper. There are several reasons for this: Each thinker arguably attached to grand words such as these a different meaning that furthermore might have underwent significant changes. E. g., Kant’s usage of the term „civilisation“ bespeaks a highly negative connotation, one that might be summarised as „culture without morality“, whereas his definition of „Kultur“ is positive, yet in turn different from Herder’s own conceptualisation. Engaging with each of the different meanings ascribed to these terms throughout the writings would certainly go far beyond the scope of this paper. As will become clear, the term „civilisation“ itself does not appear often, if at all, in the writings of the scholars. This fact in no way diminishes the purpose of this paper, though, seeing as it is the meaning of a higher level within a cultural hierarchy, as opposed to barbarism and savagery, and not the mere term, that shall be investigated (cf. Lüsebrink, Hans-Jürgen: Barbarian and savage. Overview, in: Michel Delon, Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, Vol. I, A-L, London/New York 2013, p. 158). Furthermore, the mindset is sufficiently transported by other terms and paraphrases such as „Talent“, „Geisteskräfte“ and „Culturfähigkeit“, as well as their counterparts, „Wilde“ and „Barbaren“, to name but a few.

3 Baum, Bruce: The rise and fall of the Caucasian race. A political history of racial identity, New York/London 2006, p. 60.

4 Cf. ibid., pp. 59f.

5 Cf. ibid., p. 24.

6 Cf. Mosse, George L.: Die Geschichte des Rassismus in Europa. Frankfurt am Main 2006, p. 9.

7 Baum, Caucasian race, p. 63.

8 Cf. Mosse, Geschichte des Rassismus, p. 9.

9 Cf. ibid., p. 29.

10 Ibid., passim, e. g. p. 29.

11 Lüsebrink, Barbarian and savage, p. 158.

12 Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, e. g. when the crusaders took pride in the intended defamation as „barbarians“ hurled against them by the indeed culturally much more sophisticated Muslims in the Levant, cf. Bitterli, Urs: Die „Wilden“ und die „Zivilisierten“. Grundzüge einer Geistes- und Kulturgeschichte der europäisch-überseeischen Begegnung, 3. ed., München 2004,

p. 373.

13 Eze, Emmanuel Chukwudi (ed.): Race and the Enlightenment. A reader, Cambridge (MA) 1997, p. 4.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 Baum, Caucasian race, p. 58.

17 Cf. ibid., p. 59.

18 Cf. Lüsebrink, Barbarian and savage, passim.

19 Cf. Mosse, Geschichte des Rassismus, p. 35.

20 Kant, Immanuel: Von den verschiedenen Racen der Menschen, 1775. URL: (16.08.2015), p. 432.

21 Starke, Fr. Ch. (ed.): Immanuel Kants Menschenkunde, Hildesheim/New York 1976, p. 352 (hereafter shortened to Kant, Menschenkunde).

22 Cf. Baum, Caucasian race, p. 71.

23 Kant, Racen, p. 435.

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The relationship between race and culture in Enlightenment thought
University of Göttingen  (Seminar für Mittlere und Neuere Geschichte)
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Nejla Demirkaya (Author), 2015, The relationship between race and culture in Enlightenment thought, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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