Why don’t philosophers talk about slavery?


The emergence and rapid expansion in the 1600s of a transatlantic system of the enslavement of, and commercial trade in, people profoundly shaped the modern world, both materially and intellectually. Many of its effects still reverberate today. Yet when you turn to scholarship on the philosophy of the early modern period, you’ll find a gaping absence. Rarely, if at all, is slavery studied in the history of modern philosophy.

I am, by some counts, a scholar of early modern philosophy, so I’m professionally sensitive to the goings-on in this period. The fact bothers me. This article began as a string of tweets on how the topic of slavery is largely absent from scholarship and teaching of early modern philosophy. Since then I’ve become even more convinced there’s something wrong here.

During the past decade, from January 2007 up to and including December 2016, five top journals that publish articles in History of Early Modern Philosophy (Oxford Studies in Early Modern Philosophy, Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie, British Journal for the History of Philosophy, Journal of the History of Philosophy, and History of Philosophy Quarterly) published 990 original articles combined. Of these 990 articles, only five (0.5%) have slavery as their main theme. None of these five engages squarely with the early modern period. Two address Nietzsche’s tirade against slave mentality, two others cover ancient Aristotle, and a final one turns to the nineteenth-century libertarian John Stuart Mill.

The area 17th/18th Century Philosophy in the popular PhilPapers repository does not even have a leaf category for “Slavery”. For comparison, it does have dedicated subsections for Kant’s ideas on what it takes to be a genius (34 entries) and “The Is/Ought Gap” in Hume’s meta-ethics (27 entries).

Nor is the absence confined to research. A typical “Early Modern Philosophy 101” course will cover sceptical fantasies, social contracts and monadologies, but won’t say anything about enslavement. Even the Diversity and Inclusiveness Syllabus Collection of the American Philosophical Association falls short here. None of the syllabi listed under “History of Philosophy” addresses enslavement. Slavery comes up only twice in this collection, both for courses in social and political philosophy. Why is slavery missing from the history of early modern philosophy?

All this could be an accident. Scholars should just write on what they’re passionate about, right? No one is obliged to study any particular topic. But philosophers aren’t stupid. They’re trained to step back, reflect, and should notice when their passion-driven work morphs into a collective omission.

Perhaps there’s simply little to talk about. A lack of source materials. Did philosophers in early modern times even discuss enslavement?

They did. There are some big name philosophers we know and love. John Locke in his Second Treatise of Government (1690) insists that all “men” are naturally in “a state of perfect freedom … [and] equality”, and that no one could sell themselves into slavery for money, even if they wanted to. Some are quick to celebrate anti-slavery pamphlets, such as Montesquieu’s claim in 1748 that “The state of slavery is in its own nature bad”.

There are also less familiar names. Meet Phyllis Wheatley (1753–1784), one of the first African-American published authors, whose poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” reflects her own experience. Meet Quobna Ottobah Cugoano (1757–ca. 1791), born in present-day Ghana. He survived abduction and forced labour exploitation at the sugar plantations of Grenada. His Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (1787) refutes point-by-point all attempts of “barbarous inhuman Europeans” to justify slavery. Cugoano argued for a global duty to liberate enslaved people: “Wherefore it is as much the duty of a man who is robbed in that manner to get out of the hands of his enslaver, as it is for any honest community of men to get out of the hands of rogues and villains.” Meet also Olaudah Equiano’s (1746–1797), whose The Interesting Narrative and the Life of “Olaudah Equiano” or Gustavus Vassa, the African, published in 1789, presents a host of considerations about enslavement, dignity and empowerment. And meet Doctor of Philosophy, Anton Wilhelm Amo (1703–1759), originally from Axim (in today’s Ghana) and later associated with the German universities of Jena and Halle. Amo published against slavery, in addition to writing on philosophy of mind and philosophical method. Having experienced enslavement first-hand, these philosophers write from a position of epistemic authority.

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