CCEP-Lecture: ‘Race’ in the History of Philosophy

Monday 13 May 2024, 3:30 pm - 5 pm
A Humboldtian Perspective Beyond the Kantian Frame

When the question of race is raised in regard to the history of philosophy, focus has overwhelmingly been on Immanuel Kant and the relation between the universalism of his political philosophy and his natural-historical conception of racial difference. In this talk, I will look beyond that frame yet stay close to both the period and the milieu in which Kant was writing. I will do so, to show that a different approach to the question of race also began to circulate in this period, one that is much closer to the one we today know from critical philosophies of race.

Contemporary critical philosophies of race are characterised in part by a dual approach to their object: a rejection of the old pseudoscientific concept of race, paired with analyses of the experiential and socio-political reality of racial divisions and their historical, institutional, economic, and political conditions. I will argue that we also find traces of this dual approach in the writings of the polymath Prussian abolitionist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), in particular if we read his popular scientific work Cosmos (1845) in conjunction with his essays on the Spanish colonial viceroyalties and the slave trade, most notably Political Essay in the Kingdom of New Spain (1811)and Political Essay on The Island of Cuba (1826). To make this case, I will first show how his critique of purportedly scientific natural-historical concepts of race not only placed their scientific legitimacy in question, but also explicitly decried the way these theories of race were employed to enforce the Aristotelian notion of ‘natural slaves’, which in turn was used in paternalistic defences of slavery. Thereafter, I will discuss Humboldt’s assessment of what he called the ‘institutionalised barbarity’ of modern-day slavery.  In this context, the term ‘race’ takes on another meaning in his texts, and seemingly comes to function interchangeably with terms like ‘caste’ and ‘class’. I will show how, in these political essays, ‘race’ figures not as a natural-historical category, but as a statistical one, drawn from the census materials Humboldt consulted when writing the essays. While it would be an overstatement to claim that these text contain anything close to the theories of the social and juridical construction of race found in much contemporary critical philosophy of race, I will emphasise that they show a sensitivity to the mutual reinforcement between ideas of white superiority and the ‘racial’ divides written into law.


Marie Louise Krogh is University Lecturer in Continental Philosophy at the Institute for Philosophy at Leiden University. She teaches and conducts research in modern and contemporary political philosophy and is particularly interested in questions of history, emancipation, and decolonisation. She is currently completing a book manuscript, with the provisional title Temporality and Territory: The Geopolitical Imaginaries of Kant, Hegel, and the Humboldt Brothers.


For this lecture, no registration is required.

Monday 13 May 2024, 3:30 pm - 5 pm
E2.12 (Erasmus Building)
Contact information

katrine.smiet [at]