A Neglected Thinker of the Black Atlantic

Anténor Firmin in 1889. Photograph by C. Liebert.

Too few people today know of Anténor Firmin, a Haitian writer, anthropologist, and politician. He is important not just as an early anticolonial figure, but also as a thinker of what he himself termed an anthropologie positive. Firmin wrote his most famous work in 1885, De l’égalité des races humaines, a refutation of the classic 1855 racist tract by Arthur de Gobineau entitled De l’inégalité des races humaines. Firmin’s work is truly remarkable for its rigor and forethought. Scholarship over the past two decades has brought to light many of Firmin’s qualities, not least by issuing new editions of Firmin’s book and its first translation into English. Recent articles have also highlighted his surprising relationship to then-nascent Egyptology; his place in contemporary debates over Darwinism and polygenesis; and his philosophical heritage as traced back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The earliest of these was Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban 2002 article in the American Anthropologist, where she notes that Firmin provides a coherent challenge to race-thinking in anthropology decades before Boas. I want to delve a little deeper into Firmin’s work by highlighting a few passages that I think are particularly exceptional.

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Teleology, Hegel, and King

A critique of teleology is well-worn and is articulated particularly clearly by Thomas Trautmann and Dipesh Chakrabarty. Both contrast the “theory-deadness” of the Orient with the the centered dominance of Europe. This can be glossed as a teleology: theory is the telos. This is what Hegel is saying, too, in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History:

That world history is governed by an ultimate design, that it is a rational process – whose rationality is not that of a particular subject, but a divine and absolute reason – this is a proposition whose truth we must assume; its proof lies in the study of world history itself, which is the image and enactment of reason.

In other words, world history is

the rational and necessary evolution of the world spirit. This spirit [is] the substance of history; its nature is always one and the same; and it discloses this nature in the existence of the world. … World history travels from east to west; for Europe is the absolute end of history, just as Asia is the beginning.

In a very simple sense, reading Hegel is weird. The idea of progress is so unfashionable that it is hard to take Hegel seriously. Surely he doesn’t mean a world-spirit in a metaphysical sense. Surely he doesn’t really mean to put Europe above everything else (and thus provide an easy justification for colonial violence). This immediate reaction, once tempered by the considerations outlined earlier, becomes a question: what can we recuperate from Hegel?

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