23 May 2018 from 16:15 to 17:15

PhD thesis defence Devin Vartija on common humanity and racial difference in Enlightenment thought

In his doctoral dissertation, Devin Vartija aims to make sense of the conflicting ideas of equality and inequality, common humanity and racial difference, in Enlightenment thought.    

During much of recorded history hierarchy and inequality were generally seen as both natural and inevitable. It was only during the eighteenth-century Enlightenment that equality was given the benefit of the doubt and inequality came to be seen as something abhorrent and in need of justification. Equality struck a deep emotional chord among an ever-broadening cross-section of European society and would be discussed and debated everywhere from the coffeehouses and the literary salons, to the universities and the scientific academies.

Racial classification

Yet, those very thinkers who defended the basic equality of all human beings invented a powerful discourse of inequality: modern racial classification. They grouped human beings into a finite number of categories based on shared physical features and ancestry in a system that was imbued with Eurocentric aesthetic and moral judgments. Vartija wanted to make sense of these conflicting ideas of equality and inequality.

Devin Vartija

Enlightenment encyclopaedias

Using three major Enlightenment encyclopaedias – Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopaedia, Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, and Fortunato Bartolomeo De Felice’s Encyclopédie d’Yverdon – Devin Vartija places ideas of cross-cultural equality and racial inequality in their historical context to shed light on the nature of the Enlightenment.

Vartija: “I found that equality gained greater traction in the eighteenth century because of an increasing number of social and cultural practices that taught Europeans how to empathize with people of another class or culture. But, given the commitment of many Enlightenment thinkers to equality, how could they justify their contributions to the inegalitarian discourse of nascent racial science?”


Natural historical development

Vartija discovered that Enlightenment thinkers did not usually use race as a justification or an explanation for inequality. Rather, they used the concept to place humanity within the purview of a long, natural historical development, in which the human species has undergone changes as a result of climatic influences. Race formed part of a new, secular perspective on the natural history of humanity that superseded a parochial Christian framework.

Humanities scholars nowadays argue that the concept of race can be explained by the workings of power alone. Race has served and continues to serve the interests of a ruling elite and justifies persistent inequalities. While this accurately describes the way in which race has often been used in the post-revolutionary world, it does not accurately capture the function of the race concept in the pre-revolutionary world of Enlightenment life science. Although race is a social construct, the eighteenth-century thinkers analysed in my dissertation sought to explain humanity’s physical diversity through naturalist causes, just as their twenty-first-century heirs, present-day paleoanthropologists and geneticists, continue to do.

A deeper emotional commitment to equality

Studying the history of the concept of equality reveals that support for equality does not come naturally or even easily. Vartija: “The Enlightenment was a crucial turning point that reveals that if we would like to reverse the tide of growing inequality of the past three to four decades, it requires a deeper emotional commitment to equality as part of how we conceive of justice. In The Social Contract, one of the most famous and influential Enlightenment political tracts, Jean-Jacques Rousseau stated that ‘because the force of things always tends to destroy equality, the force of legislation ought always to tend to maintain it.’ The Enlightenment’s most important legacy is to have taught us that it is within our power to remake society, founded on the principles of freedom and equality.”

Start date and time
23 May 2018 16:15
End date and time
23 May 2018 17:15
PhD candidate
Devin Vartija, MA
The Colour of Equality: Racial Classification and Natural Equality in Enlightenment Encyclopaedias
PhD supervisor(s)
Prof. Siep Stuurman
Prof. Paul Ziche