John Locke, the Enlightenment and racism

The Enlightenment was a truly historic achievement, promoting rational thinking, empiricism and the scientific method as opposed to religious superstition and monarchical absolutism. However, we cannot ignore the racism in the writings of its leading lights.

The writings of John Locke (1632-1704), English philosopher and businessman, were assigned to us at university by the bucketload. His work, along with David Hume, were considered exemplars of Enlightenment rationalism. That is true enough, but we must also highlight the racism included in the works of Enlightenment philosophers. To ignore this racial prejudice distorts our understanding of this tumultuous historical period.

What was the Enlightenment?

Let’s begin with a broad definition of the Enlightenment; this was a historical period of bourgeois revolution, (in the 17th century) which witnessed the rise of secular and rationalist ideologies, challenges to religious-political rule by the feudal class, and the adoption of the scientific method. Obviously this is a huge subject and much more can be said. However, these are the general outlines of the intellectual and social changes involved in the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment thinkers, though varied in their ideas, all advocated basic propositions – the natural world could be understood through reason and empirical evidence; that religious authority and superstition could be challenged by rational thinking; and that human beings possess universal and inalienable rights. The rising capitalist mode of production tore apart not only feudal social relations, but also the religious ideology which buttressed it.

However, it was on the question of universal human rights – and in particular about the notion of race – where the Enlightenment leaves a divided legacy. For while there were philosophers who advocated the equality of races (and genders), such as the Marquis de Condorcet, the Enlightenment’s mainstream thinkers accepted slavery and proposed a racialised classification of human beings.

John Locke and white racial solidarity

It is worth stressing that prior to the Enlightenment, there was no concept of systematised human races. John Locke, whom we mentioned earlier, has been upheld as the philosopher who provided the main ideological underpinning of the American revolution, articulating doctrines of liberty and prosperity. Locke, himself involved in the slave trade, elaborated a doctrine that provided liberty and economic well-being – based on an intra-European truce as ‘whites’, to conquer the indigenous American nations.

Locke regarded the indigenous Americans as nothing more than ‘savages’, whose connection to the land was tenuous at best, because they failed to cultivate it, as he saw it. It was the small settler, the farmer who tilled the land who actually owned it, by virtue of his labour. Yes, his labour, not hers – he never acknowledged equality of the sexes.

Locke has been selected as a hero of liberty because his doctrines of classical liberalism have provided a rationalisation of the enslavement of black and indigenous people. Locke’s pamphlet A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) was written as a way to reconcile the previously warring European Christian denominations – now confronting the non-white indigenous and black African civilisations.

It is true that Locke criticised slavery in his book Two Treatises of Government – but not the transatlantic slave trade. He denounced ‘slavery’ of the English people to an absolutist monarch, and advocated the separation of religious authority from the state. Confronting the overarching power of the church – and throwing off the shackles of that particular ‘slavery’ – advanced the interests of the rising mercantile class.

Locke was not the only racist thinker from the Enlightenment – Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804), a central thinker from that age, created a formalised hierarchy of human races. Kant, who elaborated moral and social philosophy – and had an enormously impact on epistemology – opined that human beings achieved true perfection in the white race.

While there were proto-racial ideas prior to the rise of capitalist settler-colonialism, it took the Enlightenment to create a pseudoscientific racial taxonomy of humankind. This was the era of colonial expansion – European powers were encountering civilisations completely unknown to them – absent from biblical and religious accounts of human history. A new philosophy of humanity had to be constructed to make sense of these discoveries – that there are human civilisations outside the narrow framework of biblical literalism.

A contested legacy

Non-European civilisations – the ancient Indian, Chinese, Islamic, and numerous African and indigenous nations – all developed philosophy, empirical techniques and rational thinking. These intellectual and ethical values are not the exclusive preserve of the West, no matter how much white Europeans like to think so. Centuries before the Enlightenment and Renaissance, Islamic philosopher and astronomer Al-Haytham (965-1040) – sometimes latinised as Al Hazen – was a pioneer of the scientific method, combining theorising with experimentation. He is rightly regarded as the father of modern optics, and his writings influenced generations of scientists and philosophers.

Every era passes on its legacy – and that inheritance can be contaminated by the obsolete ideas and ethically repugnant practices of the past. While the Enlightenment was an outstanding social and ideology achievement, we should not be reticent in criticising its flaws. Let’s remember that Enlightenment thinkers, such as Spinoza, advocated a radical vision of equality, at odds with those like Locke who have been heroised by posterity.

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