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Bracken, “Essence, Accident and Race”

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1 Bracken, “Essence, Accident and Race”
Philosophy 224 Bracken, “Essence, Accident and Race”

2 Assumptions Bracken begins by laying out some operating assumptions:
Racism is endemic to our (western) culture. We are generally interested in mitigating and/or eliminating racism; for philosophers that requires consideration of the philosophical sources of racism. Racism is a complex concept, but for purposes of this discussion we will focus on racism as doctrines or beliefs articulated to justify oppression of individuals or groups based on an account of human nature (essence) of the oppressed individual or group. Can you think of an example?

3 Forms of Racism One historical form that racism has taken is the belief that different forms of linguistic expression highlight different levels of intellectual ability or character. Consider Hume’s remarks on p. 259. Debate about ‘Ebonics.’ A more absolute form is seen in the insistence that non-whites are intellectually inferior. Yet another links non-white racial identity to environmental degeneracy (people born closer to the equator are lazy, criminals, etc.) Still another links non-whites to lower levels of evolution. Finally, we have a specific religious form (Adamic vs. Non-Adamic peoples).

4 A Racist History This typology of racist ideologies allows us to review the history of philosophy (and the thinking or race more generally) and locate seminal figures in the typology. Hume advances a general inferiority thesis; Voltaire denies the ‘climate theory,’ instead advocating an evolutionary thesis; Berkeley rejected any account of different natures, but still supported slavery; somewhat surprisingly, Darwin was an advocate of the linguistic theory.

5 A Philosophical History
As Bracken notes, the concept of race as well as the various forms of racism are a relatively modern invention. Earlier theories of human nature (specifically the religious accounts with which we began the semester) seem to be relatively free of racism. Bracken accounts for this through there universalistic aspirations (desire for converts). It’s no accident, he insists, that we see racist ideology and racism become prevalent when the new world opened up for colonization. It’s no accident either that racism makes inroads only as philosophical theories of human nature shift their focus in the 18th century. Bracken claims that a mind/body dualism like Descartes provides no purchase for racist ideology.

6 John Locke Particularly important in this shift, according to Bracken, is the theory of human nature offered by John Locke (an early empiricist, predecessor of Berkeley and Hume). His doctrine of primary and secondary qualities (real vs. merely accidental qualities of a substance) is a persisting empiricist dogma. The key point is that we cannot ever exhaust the secondary qualities of a substance and even if we could, they would not provide us with a true account of the substance itself. The doctrine has far reaching implications: no property can be ruled essential or unessential. As a result, there are no properties that would mark the distinctly human from the non-human. In one way, this view avoids the trap of treating linguistic competence (for example) as the mark of the fully human. In another way, it limits the ability of people to definitively include non-whites in the human community.

7 Locke the Colonialist This flexibility in his thinking made Locke an ideal functionary in Great Britain's colonial administration. Locke did in fact justify slavery, not on the basis of any natural deficiency or lack of development on the part of non-whites, but as the rightful plunder of a just war. Why just? Because Locke held that undeveloped land was ‘waste land,’ and could rightfully be appropriated by anyone who would develop it. Those who resisted this appropriation could be justly captured and enslaved for life.

8 Concept Acquisition Without pushing the connection too far, we can perhaps note a point of proximity between the just acquisition of slaves, and Locke’s account of how we come to form concepts. This account is a basically empiricist one: on the basis of repeated experience, we generalize from individual instances to concepts. The key to this account is that once again there is nothing essential or necessary about this acquisition. It’s just a natural product of ‘working’ on our experiences. Different contexts/forms or ‘work’ produce different concepts.

9 The idea of ‘Humanity’ The empiricist model of concept acquisition has clear implications for an account of humanity. Without oversimplifying, Bracken insists that this model lends itself to various forms of manipulation of concepts like ‘human.’ This manipulation has become increasingly dominant in our contemporary world, with humans being refigured as ‘consumers,’ ‘customers,’ and even ‘commodities.’

10 Normative v. Descriptive
Non-empiricists accounts of human nature have clear normative consequences. If humans are ‘rational animals’ then forms of life that privilege or emphasize our rationality are clearly morally preferable to those that don’t. A common virtue claimed for empiricistic approaches is that they are descriptive, not normative, thus making their claims ‘value-free.’ However, if you describe a people as inferior (because for example they lack a monetary system), it makes it easy to treat them as inferiors. Recent examples: The Bell Curve, by Hermstein and Murray; the journal Mankind Quarterly.

11 A New Cartesianism? Given these implications of the the empiricist model of concept acquisition, Bracken considers the corresponding implications of a rationalist account like that offered by Descartes. What this account seems to show is that even concepts that are strongly connected to the senses like color concepts can be developed and employed by those who lack the corresponding capacity for sense (e.g., blind people). The key to this account is the recognition of the qualitative difference of human intelligence, particularly as revealed in language. Alternative accounts (like Kant’s) locate the difference in freedom.

12 Radical Freedom In both cases (language acquisition and freedom) the deck seems stacked against racists ideologies and the corresponding political repression. We can’t without begging the question argue for the dominance of one linguistic form over another (thus undercutting linguistic racism). The claim that people are autonomous is clearly inconsistent with the claim that some people are by right or nature slaves (or defined by consumption, or as commodities, etc.). Of course, history reveals a wealth of such inconsistencies, and so Bracken is not surprised by the success of the empiricistic model relative to this rationalist one.

13 Racist Science Propelled by empiricist assumptions, the 19th century saw an incredible outpouring of racist ‘science.’ Craniology (an early example of anthropometry: measurement and accumulation of statistical data about the distribution of body dimensions in a population) is a paradigmatic example of such ‘science.’ Cf., the discussion on pp Early linguistic theory was another apt example, as we’ve already noted (267-8).

14 The Upshot Bracken provides us with a concise summary of his argument on p As he indicates there, his essay proceeds in three steps: The elucidation of the complicity of empiricism with the advance of racism. His insistence that empiricism's model of concept acquisition is particularly troublesome (manipulation/denial of freedom). The cover which the dominance of an empiricist ideal provides for past and current pseudo-scientific justifications of racism.

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