Dialectics of Enlightenment

How enlightened was the Enlightenment? Not a few critics have seen it as profoundly benighted. For some, it was a seedbed for modern racism and imperialism; the light in the Enlightenment, one recent scholar has suggested, essentially meant “white.” Voltaire emphatically believed in the inherent inferiority of les Nègres, who belonged to a separate species, or at least breed, from Europeans—as different from Europeans, he said, as spaniels from greyhounds. Kant remarked, of something a Negro carpenter opined, that “the fact that he was black from head to toe was proof that what he said was stupid.” And David Hume wrote, in a notorious footnote, that he was “apt to suspect” that nonwhites were “naturally inferior to the whites,” devoid of arts and science and “ingenious manufactures.”

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