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.
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.