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I encountered the Wikipedia article on scientific racism, which attests to some famous philosophers' racism (eg Kant, Voltaire), whose works I`ll read about while self-learning philosophy. Their turpitude appalls and repels me, but does this affect their ideas and works, and how an amateur like me should confront them?

I never ignore anyone's virtues, but given their brazen and outspoken infamy, what if they're wrong about something else? I don't want to be debauched unknowingly, but I don't know enough philosophy to judge and discriminate (pun intended) whether they're right or wrong.

  • Note to self: James Harvey PhD (Philosophy) also questioned this and inculpates Hume: blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=205. But my question concerns self-learning. Another link on Rousseau and other philosophers: forums.philosophyforums.com/… – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Mar 18 '15 at 2:12
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    It was a different time, and what was accepted as the truths of science was different then than now. Stephen Jay Gould wrote an interesting book on the subject entitled "The Mismeasure of Man" which is still available. 100 years from now, people will think it incredulous some of the science truths you believe in today. – Swami Vishwananda Mar 18 '15 at 6:13
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    Imagine if every philosopher had to stop reading other philosophers claiming that they could have wrong about something, philosophy would never have progressed (and this is the same for every domains), read them as you read any other philosopher. – Clippy Mar 18 '15 at 9:46
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    It was a different time and place with a different code of behaviour. It would be different if say it was a contemporary philosopher; and like @Keelan says focus on the ideas. – Mozibur Ullah Mar 18 '15 at 10:51
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Short answer: don't treat them different from other philosophers. Look at the ideas, not at the people who proposed them.


You could have a look at the recent question "Cherry Picking Fallacy (In a Social Media Debate)" and my answer to it. It is about an argument between two people concerning a writing by a Christian philosopher. One of the two (the 'dialogue partner' below) claims that, since the philosopher is a Christian, he is biased and his work is worthless / should not be considered.

I answered:

Propose your dialogue partner the following:

  • We define some unbiased machine M that outputs some theory T. This T is randomised.
  • Now suppose T is exactly the theory as described by the author you're discussing.
  • Since T was proposed by a christian, his work is deemed "worthless".
  • However, following the underlying assumption as I described before, since T was proposed by an unbiased author, his work needs to have some attribute to show that it's worthless.

In other words, ask your partner to precisely define his notion of worthlessness, and then ask him to show that the work you're discussing is worthless in a way irrelevant of who wrote it (to avoid the ad hominem).

If you would treat racist philosophers different from other philosophers, you are, as the dialogue partner in this story, doing Cherry Picking as well: you're considering only that which you like, which matches your own beliefs, et cetera.

Instead, you should consider everything equally. If you then have some argument against philosophical racism, that's okay. But it should be based on the works you have read, not on the word 'racism'.

Another example, say I claim:

  • It is moral to be nice to my neighbours.
  • It is moral to kill people from outside my country (I do not think so - this is an example)

Then, would you say all my claims are worthless because of the second one? That seems unfair, and most people would agree with the first one. Instead, you should consider all claims separately (but, with respect to the rest of the ideas to which they relate), because even racist philosophers can be right, sometimes.

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This is a significant question. On the one hand, each of us is embedded in the culture of a particular time and place, but on the other, our expectation of philosophers is that they stand outside the framework of ideas and assumptions that entraps everyone else. There's the added wrinkle that it isn't always clear how a philosopher's ideas will actually be implemented: Is it fair to blame Nietzsche for the Nazis?

I think we have to view each philosopher as a cultural vector, not a cultural fixed point. For each element of the prevailing culture, they either left things as they found them, moved them in a positive direction, or moved them in a negative direction. To judge someone like Kant or Voltaire, we need to ask to what extent their racist writings just parroted then-current ideas and to what extent they created, shaped or promoted them; to what extent those ideas were peripheral to their key concepts and to what extent they were central.

Personally, I do blame Nietzsche for the Nazis --I find the concept that some people are naturally superior to others to be absolutely central to Nietzsche's philosophy, and I consider his formulation of it to have outpaced the prevailing culture in pushing in that direction (in other words, I do find him a racist vector). On the other hand, I personally judge Kant's racism to be on the outside margins of his important contributions to philosophy, and not notably distinguishable from the attitudes of other thinkers of the time (so I find him racist, but not a racist vector).

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    I very much like the notion of "cultural vector". Is it a notion of yours or is there some literature on this? (Well, these two options are not mutually exclusive :)) – DBK Mar 19 '15 at 17:50
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    I didn't draw it from any specific source, but I'd be surprised if it's not an idea that's out there already. If it isn't, maybe I should work on developing it. :) – Chris Sunami Mar 19 '15 at 20:40
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I think we must consider how central the individual's racism is to the content and conclusions of their body of work. Incidental, acculturated racism may simply denote that they are a product of their time/society. However, if one were to have racism as a central pillar of their philosophical work it should not be ignored. We must also take into account their specific field/interest. Much like geocentrism did not inhibit the mathematics of ancient astronomers, I see little cause for concern if an epistemologist espouses racist views in their personal life. However, I would be more wary if a philosopher of ethics put forth different standards for different races.

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    Interesting... how then would you handle a philosopher whose core work was racist, but had ancillary work in epistemology that had nothing to do with race? Would the work not related to race be tainted? – James Kingsbery Mar 18 '15 at 18:44
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Everyone is biased in some way. Everyone has opinions/beliefs they hold for illogical reasons. Furthermore, intelligent people tend to be better at justifying and defending such beliefs.

Once you come to terms with that, it becomes easier to accept that "bad" people can have good ideas (and vice versa). Any idea or philosophy must be measured on its own merits, and, if it is sound, will stand alone regardless of the one who originally advocated it.

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There are theories created in the past that we now consider wrong. Some we still respect as a good approximation to current believes, some, like phrenology, we consider ridiculous, and some, like some racist theories, we consider nasty, uncivilised, repugnant.

But back when these theories were created, it's quite possible that their creators acted with the best intentions. And for example racist theories were not considered nasty, uncivilised, repugnant when they were created a long time ago. Nobody knows what we will consider decent behaviour in 100 years time. If one philosopher stated something that we today consider to be racist nonsense, and some other philosopher didn't, it is quite possible that the second philosopher didn't have more acceptable views than the first one, but that he was just not interested in the subject.

So reading a 200 year old philosophical work, you always need to consider that some of the ideas in that work might today be considered nonsense or worse. You always have to read a work carefully if you want to rely on it.

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