Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy


The Introduction from Justin E. H. Smith's new book, over at Princeton University Press:

In 1782, in the journal of an obscure Dutch scientific society, we find a relation of the voyage of a European seafarer to the Gold Coast of Africa some decades earlier. In the town of Axim in present-day Ghana, we learn, at some point in the late 1750s, David Henri Gallandat met a man he describes as a “hermit” and a “soothsayer.” “His father and a sister were still alive,” Gallandat relates, “and lived a four-days’ journey inland. He had a brother who was a slave in the colony of Suriname.” So far, there is nothing exceptional in this relation: countless families were broken up by the slave trade in just this way. But we also learn that the hermit’s soothsaying practice was deeply informed by “philosophy.” Gallandat is not using this term in a loose sense, either. The man he meets, we are told, “spoke various languages—Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, High and Low German; he was very knowledgeable in astrology and astronomy, and a great philosopher.” In fact, this man, we learn, “had been sent to study at Halle and in Wittenberg, where in 1727 he was promoted to Doctor of Philosophy and Master of Liberal Arts.” On a certain understanding, there have been countless philosophers in Africa, whose status as such required no recognition by European institutions, no conferral of rank. On a narrower understanding, however, Anton Wilhelm Amo may rightly be held up as the first African philosopher in modern history. Gallandat tells us that after the death of Amo’s “master,” Duke August Wilhelm of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, the philosopher slave grew “melancholy,” and “decided to return to his home country.”

What Gallandat fails to mention is that between the time of August Wilhelm’s death and Amo’s departure from Germany, a scurrilous Spottgedicht, a satirical and libelous poem, was published in 1747 by a certain Johann Ernst Philippi. It is not clear whether the events described in the poem ever took place, but this is a question of secondary importance. Amo is accused in the poem of falling in love with a certain Mademoiselle Astrine, a German brunette. At some point the goddess Venus comes to resolve the problematic case, judging unsympathetically that “a Moor is something foreign to German maidens.” She then condemns him to a life of sorrow:

You, Amo, are mistaken; with your vile nature

Your heart will never be content.

More here.