The History Of The Race Idea: From Ray To Carus

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In The History of the Race Idea: From Ray to Carus , Eric Voegelin places the rise of the race idea in the context of the development of modern philosophy. The history of the race idea, according to Voegelin, begins with the post-Christian orientation toward a natural system of living forms. In the late seventeenth century, philosophy set about a new task--to oppose the devaluation of man's physical nature. By the middle of the eighteenth century the effort of philosophy was to place man, with his variety of physical manifestations throughout the world, within a systemic order of nature. Voegelin perceives the problem of race as the epitome of the difficulties presented by this new theoretical approach.

Part I covers the development of race theories from the English naturalist John Ray to Blumenbach and Kant. Voegelin, anticipating fairly recent genetic insights, explains that human beings must be seen as one species, different races must not be interpreted as emerging from separate species. In Part II, Voegelin discusses the evolution of the concepts of the body, the organism, and the person. The finite image of the person as a body-mind unit in which body is equal to mind in value provides the basis for Carl Gustav Carus' theory of race, the first significant racial ideology, in Voegelin's estimation.

Voegelin's complex analysis levels a scathing critique at Nazi pretensions. He writes: "Compared to its classical form, the current condition of race theory is one of decay. . . . [T]hese men, with no eyes for the brilliance of the German spirit, want to interfere in human relations and ultimately presume to explicate the German nation to us and to the world--an undertaking with evil consequences. . . . [The] great thinkers of the past would have been horrified at somebody finding in himself all the traits of the Nordic race with the help of a book on anthropology and then imagining himself to be somebody special who does not have to do anything else.

"Let us now take a look at contemporary race theory--we will see an image of destruction. . . . It is a nightmare to think that we should recognize the people whom we follow and whom we allow to come near us not by their looks, their words, and their gestures, but by their cranial index." Ultimately, Voegelin dismisses any attempt to reduce the human being-his existence, appearance, or actionsto a lower level: "Man as mind-body and historical substance cannot be explained' by an element that is less than man himself.

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Louisiana State University Press
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