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Racial Difference and Biological Taxonomy in Early Modern Philosophy

Justin E.H. Smith
University of Paris 7 - Denis Diderot Department of History and Philosophy of Science

It is widely believed that although prejudice and xenophobia thrived in the ancient world, what we today think of as "racism" would only emerge over the course of the early modern period.

Why is this?

In part, it is because racism involves an explicit accounting of the subdivisions of the human species– something that could not be undertaken prior to the era of globalized exchange and the wide-focused perspective on humanity as a whole this afforded. It could not be undertaken, moreover, prior to the emergence of the systematic project of laying out the divisions within living nature as a whole, a project we call "taxonomy".

Yet, it is not evident, even once this project was underway in the work of Renaissance figures such as Andrea Cesalpino, that taxonomy ought to take humanity as among the proper objects of its study, positioning the human species in relation to other animals (if it is animals that we are), and in turn making finer-grained subspecies distinctions within humanity. But this is precisely what Carl Linnaeus would propose to do in his Systema Naturae of 1739: placing 'Man' among the 'Anthropomorpha', and, in subsequent editions, distinguishing within the category of 'Man' such 'racial' subtypes as 'Homo afer', 'Homo americanus', 'Homo europaeus', etc.

In this talk, Professor Smith will shine some light on the philosophical transformations in the period immediately preceding Linnaeus's work that made this double move --the insertion of 'Man' into nature, and the division of 'Man' into purportedly natural subtypes-- appear necessary.