Goldstein, Jan. "Toward an Empirical History of Moral Thinking: The Case of Racial Theory in Mid Nineteenth-Century France." AHR Feb 2015.
How should historians approach moral evaluation of positions that operate in fields which we now broadly agree are morally reprehensible? Given that historians cannot avoid and ought not reduce their work to moral judgment on their subjects, what is the responsible approach? This is the broad guiding question that Jan Goldstein frames for herself in her address as president of the AHA. She proposes an “empirical history of moral thinking” and provides an example of this with a work-in-progress on mid-19th century French race science. Here, she says, the broad and correct rejection of race science on the part of the contemporary historical community actually poses a methodological problem. The essay and the material are quite wonderful. Apparently reactionaries have been bravely pointing to ‘science’ to justify racialized hierarchy and regretfully shrugging their shoulders since at least 1847. The paper starts with a debate at the ethnographic society of Paris in that year, then looks at the reaction to Gobineau’s book, especially from Tocqueville, and finally considers Renan. I look forward with great anticipation to the book. And yet. I’m not sure that I understand the methodological intervention that is supposed to be happening here.
Certainly the problem itself—as I understand it, of moral judgment in historiography—is interesting. And the alternatives of either condemning outright all who seemed to accept race-thinking or of pretending not to pass any judgment at all, are not satisfactory. But is this really the alternative with which we are faced? Do practicing historians actually require additional methodological equipment in order to make moral distinctions between racists (or people making moral decisions more generally)? I’m not so sure. Goldstein’s approach sounds vaguely Foucaultian: “I have tentatively concluded that the moral field in question was structured by at least four...considerations, which constituted lines of force within it.” Goldstein is distinguishing between a space of moral decision and an intellectual field. I’m not sure that there is such a distinction, methodologically speaking. The tools developed within sociology of knowledge and the history of science seem to me reasonable well suited here to a reconstruction of the discursive space or the problem situation, and therefore to allow for evaluation of the positions taken. How is what Goldstein is doing here different from other excellently practiced intellectual history?
The talk is elegantly constructed and rich. The four “lines of force” according to which she believes the moral field around race science at this time organized itself are as follows. First, the ethos of scientific objectivity. This, she says, is basically at this moment Comtean. Second, the question of responsibility--that is, is it legitimate, or morally acceptable or necessary, to reject a scientific finding because it would have negative political or social consequences? Third is the Cousinian distinction between spirit and matter. To take a philosophical or scientific position arguing on the basis of material—race—was to deny spirit, mind, and so was (to Cousinians) inherently immoral. Fourth was the widely held belief that, as it is written somewhere, all men are created equal. This comes both in Christian and Republican or Enlightenment flavors.
Goldstein takes us first into the 1847 debate at the Ethnographic society on “the distinctive characteristics of the white and black races and the conditions of association of these two races.” This was presided over by Gustav d’Eichthal, a Saint-Simonian, and featured Victor Schoelcher who would soon, after the revolution, successfully campaign for the abolition of slavery in the French colonies as well as Courtet de l’Isle, who Goldstein describes as a lapsed Saint-Simonian and a major source of inspiration for Gobineau. Among the many interesting things to come out of this debate is the basic assumption, voiced by d’Eichthal, that there is a fundamental incompatibility between a scientific approach to race and the assumption of inequality. In the wake of the ’48 revolution and a wide acceptance of abolition, ethnography comes to seem, Broca says, “not a science, but as a cross between politics, sociology, and philanthropy.” As a result, for Broca, Renan, and others, a strong effort will be made to maintain that the two can simply coexist.
Goldstein turns next to the reception of Gobineau’s work on the inequality of races. She is especially interested in Tocqueville’s response. Partly because he is so eloquent and otherwise influential, but also because he is one of relatively few people—although he does this mostly in private—to reject on moral grounds the whole project that Gobineau pursues because of its negative socio-political consequences. Others draw, although not very effectively, on the axiomatic equality of human beings. Then there is the more powerful argument from dualism. Perhaps my favorite quote in a text rich with wonderful ones: “All of philosophy resides in…its being distinct from phrenology.” Here, especially, it is clear—as Goldstein argues explicitly at the end of the paper—that the language of science has extraordinary moral power. Only drawing on a combination of other arguments is it possible to contest it. Goldstein thus has some sympathy for those who are not quite able to convince themselves that something accepted as science—race—however repugnant it might be, is really to be rejected on moral or practical grounds.
She turns, finally, to Renan. I won’t try to reconstruct her arguments in any detail, although I’m very pleased to see him taken so seriously. That she finds Renan “interminably equivocal” is not surprising, this was a common judgment at the time. But I am a little surprised if the real point of the argument—as seems to be the case—is to wonder whether one can be justified in finding Renan, at all, an attractive figure given how easily he was folded into the world of Edouard Drumont. Certainly understanding the structure and ordering of Renan’s writing on (what turned out to be) race is important. That he struggled with the consequences of his own positions is surely important. I am not sure that I’m convinced by the argument Goldstein seems to be making here about the power of Comtean science. Comtean positivism, she writes, was “all about” hierarchy. Yes. Is this really enough to explain the importance, for Renan, of maintaining the superiority of the Aryan over the Semitic language/race groupings? I don’t know.
Certainly it seems to me that the clear supplement for this sort of recovery of moral judgment is to understand where this field itself came from. How is it that not only science, but this particular kind of science, completely committed to hierarchy, came to possess such moral prestige? This is a contextual argument. We get some of this in discussions of Schoelcher and then Bonapart. But if, as seems to be the case, a great deal is going to be laid at Comte’s door, then some powerful explanation for his success has got to found.
I kept thinking, because it’s a good book, and because it’s also about the rise of racial thinking, about Tom Holt’s The Problem of Freedom. (Holt is another former president of the AHA). He is not so interested in recovering moral judgment. And he wrote specifically about the British context. I don’t know the scholarship well enough, but I wonder if anyone has evaluated how those arguments fit into a French context? Quite differently, of course, but the question of post-emancipation labor must surely have arisen? Or perhaps the French case can be a test of some kind for his arguments?