Race and Progress: Towards an Epistemological History of the Race Concept

Race and Progress: Towards an Epistemological History of the Race Concept

Staffan Mueller-Wille

The concept of race certainly constitutes one of the most problematic legacies of the Enlightenment. Most existing historiography on this concept frames its subject by two discontinuities. At the beginning of the story, we have the invention of race by European naturalists and anthropologists, marked by the publication of the book Systema naturae in 1735, in which the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus proposed a classification of humankind into four distinct races. At its end stands the demise of race as a viable biological concept after World War II in favor of population-genetic conceptions of human diversity, again prominently marked by the UNESCO Statement on Race issued in 1950. Race is thus insulated from properly conducted, rational discourse, and treated as a subject that, if at all, can only be understood as a residue of long outdated forms of typological and hierarchical thinking.

During his stay with the Independent Research Group, Staffan Mueller-Wille undertook conceptual and empirical work aimed at challenging some common assumptions that underwrite the standard historiography, not in order to legitimize racialism, but in order to understand better why race has been, and continues to be, such a politically explosive concept. Conceptually, Mueller-Wille tried to develop an approach to the history of race based on an understanding of concepts as mental tools, rather than mental representations. A concept in this understanding does not somehow mirror its object, but rather serves as an anchoring point for evaluations and judgments. The racial classifications of humans according to skin color that were proposed in the eighteenth century, for example, did not serve the identification of discrete and stable types, but bore more similarity with the abstract grid of parallels and meridians that underly geographical maps. Rather than depicting some reality “out there,” they served as tools for ordering existing knowledge and providing orientation for future action.

Empirical work during the project was conducted at two levels. On a first level, bibliographic research tried to uncover the sources on which some early critical work on the history of race and racism, especially by Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault, relied. This revealed that the late nineteenth and early twentieth century already knew of some astoundingly dynamic and highly reflective notions of race. On a second level, Mueller-Wille carried out some focused case studies. One of these concerned Franz Boas' (1858–1942) anthropometric studies on a number of First Nations. A detailed study of the original data sheets, which are preserved at the American Philosophical Library, and their statistical processing revealed how key elements of the concept of “family line,” which Boas later developed in the context of his critique of racial formalism, grew inadvertently from the data collection and processing practices of these anthropometric studies.