logo Sphere
Logo Université Paris-Diderot Logo Université Paris1-Panthéon-Sorbonne


On this website

On the whole CNRS Web

Home > Publications > Published books > Published Books of researchers of SPHERE: 2015-... > Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference

Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference

Justin E. H. Smith (University Paris Diderot, HPS & SPHERE, UMR 7219)

Download the introduction

:: Princeton University Press
:: 312 p.
:: ISBN: 9780691153643 & eISBN

:: June 2015

People have always been xenophobic, but an explicit philosophical and scientific view of human racial difference only began to emerge during the modern period. Why and how did this happen? Surveying a range of philosophical and natural-scientific texts, dating from the Spanish Renaissance to the German Enlightenment, Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference charts the evolution of the modern concept of race and shows that natural philosophy, particularly efforts to taxonomize and to order nature, played a crucial role.

Smith demonstrates how the denial of moral equality between Europeans and non-Europeans resulted from converging philosophical and scientific developments, including a declining belief in human nature’s universality and the rise of biological classification. The racial typing of human beings grew from the need to understand humanity within an all-encompassing system of nature, alongside plants, minerals, primates, and other animals. While racial difference as seen through science did not arise in order to justify the enslavement of people, it became a rationalization and buttress for the practices of trans-Atlantic slavery. From the work of François Bernier to G. W. Leibniz, Immanuel Kant, and others, Smith delves into philosophy’s part in the legacy and damages of modern racism.

With a broad narrative stretching over two centuries, Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference takes a critical historical look at how the racial categories that we divide ourselves into came into being.


"Combining philosophical and historical analysis and a mine of research, this book documents the evolution of the race construct in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. At a time when the philosophy of race is vigorously reinventing itself, Justin Smith provides readers with an insightful foray into the modern European mindset constructing non-European otherness."

Koffi N. Maglo, University of Cincinnati

"Charting the discourse on human race in early modern philosophy, this book makes important contributions to the history and philosophy of race—a subject that continues to haunt contemporary debates. Smith covers an exceedingly complex terrain of disparate ideas and arguments, stretching across centuries and a wide range of national contexts. This is a valuable, thought-provoking, and innovative addition to the literature."

Staffan Müller-Wille, University of Exeter

Justin E. H. Smith is university professor of the history and philosophy of science at the Université Paris Diderot—Paris VII. He is the author of Divine Machines: Leibniz and the Sciences of Life (Princeton), coeditor and cotranslator of The Leibniz-Stahl Controversy, and a regular contributor to the New York Times and other publications.
To more books authored or coauthored by J. E. H.Smith

TABLE OF CONTENTS (Download the pdf)

Acknowledgments, p. ix

A Note on Citations and Terminology, p. x

Introduction, p. 1

  • -* I.1 Nature, p. 1
  • I.2 Historical Ontology, p. 2
  • I.3 The History of Science and the History of Philosophy, p. 10
  • I.4 Aims and Outline, p. 17

Chapter 1: Curious Kinks, p. 24

  • 1.1 Essence, p. 24
  • 1.2 Race and Cognition, p. 28
  • 1.3 Race without a Theory of Essences; or, Liberal Racism, p. 32
  • 1.4 Constructionism and Eliminativism, p. 38
  • 1.5 Natural Construction, p. 47
  • 1.6 Conclusion, p. 54

Chapter 2: Toward a Historical Ontology of Race, p. 56

  • 2.1 False Positives in the History of Race, p. 56
  • 2.2 "Erst Spruce, Now Rusty and Squalid", p. 58
  • 2.3 Race and Dualism, p. 64
  • 2.4 Conclusion, p. 68

Chapter 3: New Worlds, p. 70

  • 3.1 "I Had to Laugh Vehemently at Aristotle’s Meteorological Philosophy", p. 70
  • 3.2 America and the Limits of Philosophy, p. 72
  • 3.3 Native Knowledge, p. 78
  • 3.4 Conclusion, p. 90

Chapter 4: The Specter of Polygenesis, p. 92

  • 4.1 Libertinism and Naturalism from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century, p. 92
  • 4.2 Pre-Adamism, p. 102
  • 4.3 Diffusionist Models, p. 105
  • 4.4 Conclusion, p. 113

Chapter 5: Diversity as Degeneration, p. 114

  • 5.1 The "History of Abused Nature", p. 114
  • 5.2 Diet and Custom, p. 123
  • 5.3 Hybridism and the Threat of Ape-Human Kinship, p. 129
  • 5.4 Conclusion, p. 138

Chapter 6: From Lineage to Biogeography, p. 140

  • 6.1 Race, Species, Breed, p. 140
  • 6.2 François Bernier’s Racial Geography, p. 143
  • 6.3 A Gassendian Natural Philosopher in the Court of the Grand Moghul, p. 149
  • 6.4 Bernier and Leibniz, p. 155
  • 6.5 Conclusion, p. 158

Chapter 7: Leibniz on Human Equality and Human Domination, p. 160

  • 7.1 Introduction, p. 160
  • 7.2 Chains: Leibniz on the Series Generationum, p. 163
  • 7.3 Chains, Continued: Leibniz on Slavery, p. 170
  • 7.4 The Science of Singular Things, p. 183
  • 7.5 Mapping the Diversity of the Russian Empire, p. 187
  • 7.6 Conclusion: Diversity without Race, p. 202

Chapter 8: Anton Wilhelm Amo, p. 207

  • 8.1 "The Natural Genius of Africa", p. 207
  • 8.2 Amo’s Legacy, p. 215
  • 8.3 The Impassivity of the Human Mind, p. 221
  • 8.4 Conclusion: From Philippi to Kant, p. 227

Chapter 9: Race and Its Discontents in the Enlightenment, p. 231

  • 9.1 Introduction, p. 231
  • 9.2 The Significance of Skin Color, p. 235
  • 9.3 Kant: From Non Sequitur to Critique? , p. 241
  • 9.4 J. G. Herder: The Expectation of Brotherhood, p. 248
  • 9.5 J. F. Blumenbach: Variety without Plurality, p. 252

Conclusion, p. 264
Biographical Notes, p. 269
Bibliography, p. 273
Index, p. 293