The Roots Of Modern Racism

Early Modern Philosophers On Race

By Professor Julie K. Ward (Loyola University)

September 13, 2016         Picture: DEA /G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty.

This article is part of The Critique’s September/October 2016 Issue “The Bright Continent: Illuminating The Challenges, Opportunities & Promises Of A Rising Africa”.

I. Theoretical Background

In July 2007, then-French President Sarkozy delivered a public address at the University of Dakar, Senegal, that was expected to open a period of intellectual and cultural détente between France and its African ex-colony. However, his address contained various racially charged concepts and allusions that produced the opposite result. According to an article published in Reuters, the speech contained passages such as:

“The tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history … They have never really launched themselves into the future…The African peasant only knew the eternal renewal of time, marked by the endless repetition of the same gestures and the same words… In this realm of fancy … there is neither room for human endeavour nor the idea of progress.”[1]

The references to Africans’ inability to “enter into history,” to “launch themselves into the future” due to lacking “an idea of progress” and dwelling instead in a “realm of fancy” present disturbing images, eerily reminiscent of racist ideas about Africans familiar to scholars of Anglo-European history of philosophy. As the article noted, one of Senegal’s most prominent writers, Boubacar Boris Diop, stated: “maybe he does not realise the extent to which we felt insulted.” Indeed.

As a means of explaining the weight of such images, let us revisit the views of leading Enlightenment philosophers, specifically, John Locke (1632-1704), David Hume (1711-1776), and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), in writing on human nature, natural difference, and race. Of the three thinkers, I think that we will find the most difficulty with Kant, partly due to the influence his moral and political writings have had, so that we are less able to make sense of his racial theory, which leads us initially to split thinking about his position on race. In contrast, Hume’s reflections about racial difference are limited in number and constitute a consistent position, comprising what I shall describe shortly as “strong” racism. As with Kant, Locke’s view of race poses a problem for us, but as much from lack of explicit comment on the issue of race as from textual conflict. With Locke, there is the problem of marrying his theory of freedom and natural rights with the rejection of slavery in the Second Treatise on Government with his activity as a secretary to the proprietors for the colony of the Carolinas, including his role in penning the Constitutions of Carolina which provides for slavery. Compounding the weight of his liberal political theory is an epistemological skepticism about real essences and so, about human essence—all of this has to be balanced against his actions as a private citizen, the provision for slavery in the Constitutions of Carolina, and his views about English dispossession of Native American land.

Despite their differing positions on questions of human nature and racial difference, a common thread running through the three Enlightenment philosophers’ writing about non-Europeans, including Africans and Native Americans, is the idea of “the savage”, a notion with a long history in Western literary and philosophical thought.[2] This finding accords with conclusions of critical race theorists about the idea of the savage having an ancestry in European writing about non-Europeans.[3]

In the Renaissance period, beginning with fifteenth century travelogues, we find European writers describing the inhabitants of Africa and the “New World,” namely, the Americas, as backward and uncivilized, needing the civilizing effects of Western laws and Christianity. Of course, historically, the notion of the savage includes a range of meanings, sometimes signifying what may be considered positive traits, as suggested by the idea of the “noble” savage, as by the 16th century English geographer, Richard Hakluyt (1552-1616). His two well-read works on English travel and conquest reflect both aspects of the savage, as he writes that “they are most gentle, loving, faithful, void of all guile and treason,” as well as “they are of much simplicity and great cowards, void of all valor, and are great witches.”[4] Following the Renaissance, the idea of the savage becomes frequently deployed as a means to invoke negative ideas about humans lacking (singly or together): intellect, morality, character, written language, civil laws, organized society, and Christianity. And while the idea of the savage is connected to dark skin color, namely, black or brown, the skin color is a mere sign of the more central, and deficient, inner characteristics of mind and character.

In the period of the Enlightenment, the term “savage” and its equivalent, are employed typically to connote qualities like being wild, primitive, and illiterate, characteristics that English and European thinkers wish to contrast with their own “civilized” qualities.[5] With centuries of English and European writers describing the inhabitants of Africa and the “New” World as backward, barbaric, and in need of the civilizing effects of Western law and Christianity, it comes as no surprise to find assumptions about European cultural superiority and ethnocentrism in the writings of Enlightenment thinkers. Yet while the traditional representation of the savage carries with it an assumption of cultural privilege, the theoretical issue before us becomes whether we can find a stronger position, namely, an adherence to an explicit theory about racial superiority and inferiority in these philosophers, particularly as it bears on the status of Africans and Native Americans. To answer this question, let us set out what is commonly considered to comprise racist thinking, philosophically speaking, to provide a framework for future discussion.

To begin with, we characterize the theoretical notion of race as consisting in the connection between superficial physical differences, such as skin color, with deep, innate abilities, such as intellectual and moral capacities, so as to justify a hierarchical ranking of groups. From this description, we may distinguish two strands in racial thinking, a weak and a strong form, that have tended to emerge repeatedly across Western intellectual history. The weaker variant, loosely described, can be characterized by the belief that a specific culture, as it is exhibited by a specific group, represents the highest level of human development. I will call this view “weak” racism; it resembles cultural elitism, but goes beyond it by connecting cultural identity with some non-cultural, physical set of characteristics.[6]

Another form is characterized by the idea that intellectual, moral, and political capacities are causally determined by innate biological (heritable) characteristics such that different “races” possess different levels of human ability. This version is what I will call “strong,” or “biological,” racism. Historically, this second version has been connected to a developed theory of racial types and natural capacities, as will be discussed in connection to the scientific racism of the 18th century.

According to the biological theory, Africans and Native Americans occupy the lowest levels and Northern Europeans, the highest, most “developed,” levels of racial groups; this racial ranking corresponds with ranking moral and intellectual abilities. Both forms of racism promulgate the connection among the ideas of whiteness, progress, and civilization—as well as their contraries, darkness, primitiveness, and savagery—which have become inextricably connected in Western thought for the last five hundred years. For purposes of this paper, however, it may be useful to refer specifically to “cultural” or to “biological” racism in our discussion. Again, we need to note that what I have described as cultural racism implies the idea that a specific culture as represented by a specific group with certain physical properties is the highest cultural expression, whereas cultural elitism need not make this connection.

In Western intellectual history, the view I have called “weak” racism can be seen to approximate what has been termed “monogenetic” theory. The common feature in monogenetic theory, also referred to as “degeneracy” theory, is that humans have the same origin, and that both physical differences, like skin color, as well as cultural differences, develop over time due to environmental factors. The position thus described is not to be identified with cultural elitism inasmuch as it clearly implies not only cultural, but racial, ranking.

One expression of the view is that developed by the French biologist, Buffon, in his Histoire Naturelle (1749): he reasons that original human skin color is white, but that various factors including climate, food, mode of living (etc.), produce darkness of skin, which is like a heritable suntan.[7] In brief, the theory connects cultural with racial ranking: European culture is linked to racial identity, namely, whiteness, and European culture is considered the highest level of human development. Buffon, like other degeneracy theorists, holds that non-European races can be remediated by cultural and environmental influences.

Degeneracy theory comprises a form of what I have termed “weak” racism, and however elitist and objectionable this view, we may contrast it with what I have called “biological” racism, according to which races reflect differences in essence: moral and intellectual capacities are considered causally determined by inherited biological properties. This view, comprising “strong” racism, appears across the history of race in the West in different forms, one of them being polygenism, a theory about races having different human origins.[8]

According to the theory, Africans and Europeans are supposed to have distinct, unequal origins to underscore the idea that racial differences are fixed, and non-European races have a secondary, or lower, origin that determines their lesser moral and intellectual abilities. One of the 17th century versions of the theory uses Biblical texts to establish the various origins.[9] By the 18th century, proponents employ supposed scientific, biological arguments to establish the distinction among races for ranking. So, while we find the roots of strong racism prior to the Enlightenment, it seems to attain its most odious expression in the 18th century when it becomes linked with modern biological science and the notion of race becomes a fixed, theoretical entity. As one historian of philosophy remarks, the 18th century marks the advent of what has been termed “scientific” racism.[10]   Having set out the basic elements of theoretical racism and distinguished cultural from biological racism, we are in a better position to find points of continuity or difference between these positions and the views developed in Locke, Hume, and Kant.


II. Locke

Scholars who have addressed the issue of Locke’s position on race have failed to come to a consensus; my conclusions about Locke are similarly inconclusive. To begin, Locke scholars differ about what texts are pivotal in determining his views on race and human nature—for example, whether the Second Treatise (1690) outweighs the Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689). The problem of interpretation is compounded by factors such as differing claims made in different texts, the range of subjects addressed, the importance of his actions as a colonial administrator against his written texts, and finally, the issue of authorial status in regard to the Constitutions of Carolina (1669).

Predictably enough, scholarly opinion about Locke’s view of racial difference remains divided, some finding texts to show that Locke holds some form of racist position, others discovering texts that undermine the same charges of racism. For example, scholars such as Arneil (1996), Bracken (1978), Popkin (1980, 85) and Tully (1993) who concentrate on his theory of property and wastage in Second Treatise of Government (1690), as well as the Constitutions of Carolina (1669), conclude that Locke is an apologist for African slavery and supportive of English disposition of Native American land. In contrast, other scholars like Farr (1986), Uzgalis (1988, 2002), and Wood (1983, 81-2) focus on Locke’s liberalism, his theory of individual freedom and equality at the heart of Second Treatise, and argue that the claims about Locke’s racism are unsupported. Some of this group also contend that Locke’s epistemological view about real essences, namely, his well-known philosophical skepticism concerning what properties are supposed to belong to the human essence, should be understood as undermining the charge that he holds racist views. For, presumably, if Locke is a skeptic about what properties human beings as such possess, he will also be a skeptic about what properties a specific race possesses, and indeed, be skeptical about the notion of human essence, in general.

Nevertheless, if we wish to give the matter a hearing, there are three textual issues that must be re-considered as weighing upon our conclusions regarding Locke and racism.[11] The first one involves the explicit provision for slavery in the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina (1669), the second, the justification for slavery in the Second Treatise, and the third, the issue of English dispossession of Native American land. Let us consider the evidence of the Constitutions. This document seems to provide decisive evidence on the side of those who find Locke an apologist for slavery in the Americas. For, Article CX of this document makes a provision for slavery, explicitly stating that freemen will have absolute power and authority, including that of life and death, over their Negro slaves.[12]

While this evidence seems incontrovertible, scholars have raised the question about the authorship of the Constitutions of Carolina, specifically, whose view, or views, the document represents. While a copy of the work appears with his name, Locke seems to have penned it under the direction of the Earl of Shaftesbury while he was acting as the secretary for the proprietors of the Carolina colony, a post awarded to him by Shaftsbury. According to one scholar, “we shall never know how far the Constitutions represented Locke’s or Shaftesbury’s views on how a society newly set up … should be ideally constituted or how far it was a compromise between them and the other proprietors,” and adding that if the Constitutions did represent Locke’s thinking in 1669, it had changed profoundly a decade later.[13]

If we set aside the issue of authorship of the Constitutions as unresolved, we return to the main philosophical difficulty, that of squaring Article CX of the Constitutions with Locke’s statements about natural rights and the injustice of slavery in the Second Treatise.[14] For there he states that all men are naturally in: “a State of perfect Freedom to order their actions and dispose of their Possessions and Persons as they think fit, without asking leave, or depending on the Will of any other Man” (II, ii, 4), and again, that “All men by nature are equal” (II, vi, 54). Regarding the unjust conditions of slavery, he writes:

“For a Man, not having the Power of his own Life, cannot by Compact, or his own Consent, enslave himself to any one, nor put himself under the Absolute, Arbitrary Power, of another, to take away his Life, when he pleases” (II, 23).

Furthermore, Locke supports the natural liberty of those who would be oppressed by another:

“he who attempts to get another Man into his Absolute Power, does thereby put himself into a State of War with him…I have reason to conclude that he who would get me into his Power without my consent, would use me as he pleased, and destroy me too, when he had a fancy to it: for no body can desire to have me in his Absolute Power, unless it be to compel me by force to that, which is against the Right of my Freedom, i.e., to make me a Slave” (II, 17).

Furthermore, for Locke, “…Slavery is “nothing else, but the State of War continued between a lawful Conqueror and a Captive…” (II, 23, ll. 1-3).

If we consider Locke’s theory of natural rights as extending to all human beings, as seems reasonable, nothing in Locke’s discussion of slavery can be used to imply he would find enslavement of Africans to be just. For, Africans have done nothing to forfeit their rights and deserve enslavement, as would be the case if they had been the aggressors in an unjust war, for example. Rather, historical facts bear out the reverse: Africans, having natural rights to freedom and equality, are captured in war, sold into slavery, transported to the Americas, and therefore, are unjustly enslaved.

Can it be argued, on the contrary, that for Locke Africans have by some action forfeit their natural rights, and thus, are justly enslaved? So some scholars have maintained, claiming that if an aggressor in an unjust war is defeated, he may be enslaved as his aggressive action has forfeit his own life. [15] According to Locke, if someone “having by his fault, forfeited his own Life, by some Act that deserves Death; he, to whom he has forfeited it, may… delay to take it and make use of him to his own Service, and he does him no injury by it” (II, 23, ll. 10-15). To this argument, others have replied that it is not plausible that Locke considered all Africans enslaved in the English colonies to be guilty of “an act deserving of Death” (II, 23, 11-12) and so, justly enslaved.[16]

To suppose that all Africans transported to the colonies had been guilty of some action “deserving of death,” as Locke stipulates necessary for just enslavement, would require further explanation—for, of what act were these millions guilty? One supposition is that Africans had been “captives taken in a just war” (Laslett 1965, 325-26), and so were justly enslaved when they were sold to the English; yet this suggestion seems implausible for the numbers and duration of time Africans are being captured and enslaved. In this question, then, the burden of proof seems to remain on the side of those who argue that Locke thought all Africans were guilty of some “act deserving death,” for which a reasonable candidate has not been provided.

In addition to the matter of Africans enslaved in American colonies, we have the third issue, whether Locke supports the dispossession of Native American land by the English. In large part, this question turns on whether Locke’s theory of property in the Second Treatise can be extended to Native American forms of land ownership or whether it excludes them. Again, Locke scholars are divided on this issue. Some thinkers, like Squadrito (2002), claim that we need to answer a prior question concerning Locke’s view about the human capacities of Native Americans. Yet we need to put her view into perspective: Locke seems to have had a good deal of information available to him about the culture, practices, and society of Native Americans. In addition, his first-hand experience as administrator and secretary of the Carolina colonies, and particularly the evidence from the content of the Constitutions, namely, that Native Americans are not to be enslaved, suggest that he need not subscribe to racist ideas about them.[17]

However, Squadrito suggests that we examine the references to “Indians” in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (henceforth, Essay): she finds that they appear to fall into the conventional mold of the savage. For example, he combines Indians in a group with “children, idiots, and the grossly illiterate” to make the point that there are humans who lack innate ideas (Essay I, 2, 27). More to the point, Squadrito finds Locke’s comparison as implying that Indians lack complex, abstract, ideas, and so are closer to non-rational animals than humans (Essay II, 11, 10). In a similar vein, Locke compares Native American religious belief to superstition or atheism, stating that Indians lack an adequate idea of God, one that is obtained by thought and reason, not by common tradition (Essay I, 4, 15-16). If the negative views of Indians in the Essay—those of savages who are ignorant, deficient in reason, lacking an idea of God—are taken as basic to Locke’s understanding in the Second Treatise, it will come as no surprise to find him arguing on the side of the English for dispossession of Native American land.[18] But what, exactly, is the argument, or arguments, from Locke said to support dispossession of Native American land?

The dispossession position rests on three separate, but mutually supportive, arguments. First, there is an economic argument: since English methods of agriculture are more efficient and productive than Native American ones, English have a right to farm “vacant” land so as to produce more crops, and more wealth. For, as Locke notes:

“…several of the Nations of the Americas are of this, [who] are rich in land, and poor in all the comforts of life… yet for want of improving it by labour, have not one hundredth part of the conveniences we enjoy” (II, 41).

The implication of Locke’s passage seems to be that Native Americans are not using the land properly: they should “improve” the land by agriculture, and failing to do so makes the land open for appropriation.

Second, the property argument: according to Locke’s theory, one can appropriate any land comprising part of common land (land not owned by any individual) by means of mixing one’s labor with it (II, 5, 27-28). The labor theory of property rests on a prior assumption, namely, that the purpose of land is for human use:

“God gave the World to Men in Common, but since he gave it to them for their benefit… it cannot be supposed that he meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it to the Industrious and the Rational” (II, 5, 34).

And, of course, Locke’s stipulates that there must be “enough, and as good left in common for others” (II, 27). Third, the just seizure argument: although one’s property right cannot be made forfeit without just cause, if someone resists being removed from vacant land, he is in the wrong, and the land can be taken from him. The line of defense for dispossession depends on two issues that intersect with the property argument: (i) whether Locke thinks Native Americans are living on “vacant” land, and (ii) whether they have natural rights, including property. As will be developed below, in my view Locke answers affirmatively on the second, and most likely, on the first issue, which causes some difficulty in reaching a definite conclusion about his view on the dispossession of Native American land.

The three arguments can work independently of one another or together: English colonists may make the case that the land of which they are taking possession by planting crops, for example, is empty land belonging to the commons, “where there is enough, and as good left in common for others” (II, 5, 27). Equally, they may argue, as Locke maintains, that God gave humans land for humans’ benefit and preservation, to those who are “Industrious and Rational” (II, 5, 34), and since English agriculture is more productive than that of Indians, it is more in keeping with God’s purpose that the English work the land than Indians. While the third argument has no clear textual basis in the Second Treatise, scholars like Arneil and Tully lend it tacit support by arguing that Locke’s theory of natural rights in the Second Treatise does not apply to Native Americans, anyway. They claim Locke does not maintain that Native Americans possess a natural right to own their land, but acquire it by consenting to the European “system of commercial agriculture” (Tully 1993, 170), and so, English colonization by commerce represents the best means open to them (Arneil 1992, 603).

While the idea that Locke supports the economic interests of the English in the colonies seems a reasonable assumption to make, the scholarly claim that he thinks Native Americans do not possess a natural right to their land can be challenged on three points. First, in the Second Treatise, Locke exemplifies the right of property specifically mentioning Native Americans: “The Fruit, or Venison, which nourishes the wild Indian, who knows no Inclosure … must be his, i.e., a part of him, that another can no longer have any right to it” (II, 26), and “Thus, this Law of reason makes the Deer the Indian’s who hath killed it: ‘tis allowed to be his goods who hath bestowed his labour upon it, though before it was the common right of every one” (II, 30). Locke’s examples of Indians having property to things by means of their labor would make no sense if we were to assume that they lack natural rights, specifically, the right to property. Second, it would be unclear why the right to own land, say, would be a different right than that to what one gathers by one’s labor, such as acorns and apples, (II, 26, 28) or what one hunts (II, 26, 30) since it stems from the same principle, namely, that we own the right to our own labor (II, 27). Third, even if Locke thinks that Native Americans hunt animals and gather fruit and nuts on common lands which they do not “inclose,” nothing precludes that they could enclose it by planting crops. In fact, since Native American tribes engaged in agriculture, especially along the Eastern coasts and woods where the English colonized, it seems likely Locke had knowledge about their practices. Therefore, the English dispossession of Native American land cannot be made on the argument that Locke thinks they lack natural rights and the right to property.

However, if we interpret Locke as holding that where Native Americans reside is “vacant,” a part of the commons, then it is not unjust on his theory for English to plant crops and in so doing, appropriate the land.[19] Again, the reasoning is that the land is “wasteland,” and that there is “enough and as good” (II, 27) land remaining for others. Although the idea that land is empty, or vacant, is often factually untrue, being based on a misconception of Native American land use, [20] he may have thought they did so live. But the central point is that Locke does not seem to argue for English appropriation of land on the basis of racial notions about Native Americans, especially given his ideas about them as being humans in the state of nature (cf. II, 26, 28, 30). As a result, while some would interpret Locke as adhering to a view similar to cultural racism, in my mind, the evidence suggests a weaker view, something akin to cultural elitism, given his lack of explicit discussion anywhere on the topic of race. So, I suspect that the problem of interpretation will persist, given the difficulty of finding consistency among items as different as, for example, the theory of natural rights in the Second Treatise and the provision of slavery in Article CX in the Constitutions of Carolina.


III. Eighteenth Century Biological Theories: Linnaeus, Buffon

The three centuries prior to the 18th century comprises a period of European conquest of Africa and the New World during which explorers and scientists publish accounts of indigenous nations and cultures vastly different from those of Europe. Yet a change is at work in European conceptions of non-Europeans. For whereas 16th and 17th century travel accounts of the cultures in Africa and the Americas are received so as to support a cosmopolitan view of humanity, the ideas about human nature from middle and late 18th century reflect a deep shift in thinking about race. One historian observes that the change in the late 18th century idea of race coincides with the loss of African national identity due to the effects of the slave trade (Hudson 1996, 251). In any case, a distinctive feature of the philosophical theories about race of this period consists in them having a “scientific” angle—making the hierarchical ranking of races supported by authoritative, “scientific” bases supplied by then-prevalent biological theories, mainly the climate theory or the “seed” theory. So, although the background information for race includes the complex array of religious and secular sources, Hume and Kant rely on non-religious sources, especially the current biological theories.

In terms of “biological” accounts of the human races, the two dominant figures of the period are Karl Linnaeus, the Swedish biologist (1707-1778) and Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, the French naturalist (1707-1788) known as Buffon, both of whom influence Hume and Kant. In the first edition of his work, Systema Naturae (1735), Linnaeus gives an account of four human races linking skin color and continent, as follows: white/European, red/ American, brown/Asian, and black/African. In the 10th edition of this work (1758), Linnaeus then associates stereotypical traits, relating temperament with race, Europeans being at the pinnacle of the ranking. Thus, the European (homo Europaeus) is “gentle, acute, inventive, and governed by custom or religious observance,” while the Native American (homo americanus) is “obstinate, content, free, and governed by habit,” the Asian (homo Asiaticus) is “severe, haughty, covetous, and governed by opinion” and the African (homo Africanus) is “crafty, indolent, negligent, and governed by caprice.”[21] This work thus presents a classification of racial differences linking physical with moral and psychological characteristics.

Buffon’s wide-ranging work, Histoire Naturelle (36 vol., 1749-1788), complements Linnaeus’ work. Buffon’s work is characterized by its non-theological, naturalistic description of human beings by considering them alongside the rest of the biological world.[22] More specifically, Buffon seeks to account for racial differences by environmental factors, such as social and political institutions, as well as climate, specifying three laws driving human differences and similarities: (1) degeneration, based on climatic differences consisting of skin color modifications due to climate and latitude; (2) uniformity of body-type due to way of life; (3) correlation of human forms and level of society.[23] Buffon’s theory of climate shows a debt to earlier such accounts, such as the Hippocratic account from the 5th cen. B. C. E. linking variations in climate to temperamental differences (cf. Ward 2002, 20-21).

More specifically, Buffon holds that while humans have a single common origin, differences in climate lead to biological effects resulting in physical differences, such as skin color. Assuming that white skin is the “original” skin color, Buffon reasons that non-Europeans have undergone “various changes by the influences of climate, food, mode of living, epidemic disease, and the mixture of dissimilar individuals” (Natural History of Man, v. 3, sec. 9, 207). In turn, these environmental influences have led to physical and physiological changes among humans. Buffon’s work, considered to be based on the most current empirical research, reflects the view called “degeneracy theory,” according to which not only pallor of skin color but a certain level of European culture is assumed to represent the standard of developed civilization. In comparison with European culture, cultures of non-white, non-European peoples are considered to comprise “degenerate” forms of culture since they belong to degenerate races.

Buffon, like other proponents of degeneracy theory, holds that racial differences can be changed over time, erased through exposure to different climate and cultures. More central to our purpose, Buffon’s theory recovers the Linnaean account of differing temperaments that fixes them to specific groups. However, if we compare the works of Buffon and Linnaeus on race, we find that the theory of racial differences is further developed in Linnaeus than in Buffon. Specifically, we find that Buffon does not seem to be especially interested in fixing the concept of race with physical properties, but uses the term in various, inexact senses, in contrast to the more precise way that Linnaeus employs it. Finally, in addition to the biologists Buffon and Linnaeus, various other scientific thinkers have influenced the thinking of Hume and Kant on race including Johan Blumenbach (1752-1840), a German physician and naturalist, whose work, including his racial theory, proves to have great influence on Kant.


IV. Hume and Kant on Racial Difference


In our examination of 18th century philosophical views of race, we begin with Hume (1711-1776), and then turn to examine Kant (1724-1804) whose views on race present a more complex problem of interpretation. While Hume’s position on race is not without difficulty, his explicit writing on the topic is slight, reducing to one long, oft-quoted footnote in his essay “Of National Character,” originally published in the work Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects (1753-4).[24] In the essay, Hume attempts to account for differences and similarities of human beings on the basis of the two kinds of causes he admits, moral and physical ones. What he describes as “moral” causes we would likely refer to as psychological causes. As he explains what he takes to be moral causes, “… I mean all circumstances which are fitted to work on the mind as motives or reasons, and which render a peculiar set of manners to us” (Of National Character, 113).

For Hume, moral causes operate by means of their effect on the mind by means of an association of ideas, and the uniform principle that “like causes produce like effects” (Treatise of Human Nature, III, ii, 1). So, Hume explains, when we observe several actions occurring together over time, our imagination gives rise to the idea of a necessary connection of actions and motives. As he mentions by way of example, “A man, who gives orders for his dinner, doubts not of the obedience of his servants” (Treatise III, ii, 1). Note that our expectation of others’ actions is based on the mind combining the ideas so as to produce the notions of character and motive that we use to make predictions about future actions.

In contrast, physical causes for Hume refer to external, environmental factors, like climate, and also to internal, physical causes. So, he specifies physical causes as:

“the qualities of air and climate that are supposed to work insensibly on the temper, by altering the tone and habit of the body, and giving a particular complexion, which, though reflection and reason may overcome it, will yet prevail among the generality of mankind, and have an influence on their manners” (Of National Character, 113).

Thus, physical causes include factors like the air, the climate—factors Buffon mentions in his theory of racial difference—and from Hume’s phrasing here, factors “that are supposed to work…” indicates his skepticism about the climate theory.

In fact, as it turns out, Hume finds only a small amount of influence on human character as due to what he describes as physical causes. In fact, he states that he is “inclined to doubt altogether of their operation… nor do I think men owe anything of their temper or their genius to the air, food or climate” (Of National Character, 115)—in what appears to be a reference to Buffon’s theory. Of greater causative influence for Hume are what he terms moral causes, and specifically, “the causes arising from character states, what we may call virtues or vices, and sentiments, or feelings, that affect individuals sharing time or work together as companions or as “united into one political body” (Of National Character, 115). As we shall see, Hume’s concept of national character is based on what he finds to be the human tendency towards habit and imitation of others. In his view, people who live and associate with one another have a propensity to adopt similar feelings, what he calls “sentiments,” and these, in turn, become shared traits. At last, as Hume sees it, “causes like passions and inclinations run…by contagion, through the whole club or knot of companions” (Of National Character, 115).

Broadly speaking, Hume finds this tendency toward adopting a similarity of habit, character, and behavior to be a constant and universal cause of human nature. As he states, with another reference to Buffon:

“if we run over the globe, or revolve the annals of history, we shall discover everywhere signs of a sympathy or contagion of manners, none of the influence of air or climate” (Of National Character, 116).

Hume explains the tendency to develop similarities and differences in human traits by means of similarities and differences in political governments, languages, and cultures, but not in climates.

Furthermore, in his view, political variation is the most central in explaining other differences. For example, the reason for which England has the greatest diversity of national character, according to Hume, stems from its mixture of government, it being “a mixture of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy” (Of National Character, 119). So, while allowing that cultures inhabiting either the far northern and southern latitudes can be negatively affected by the excesses of the climate, Hume prefers giving non-physical causes for their characteristics. It is at this juncture in the discussion that Hume interposes the following, much discussed, footnote in the 1753 edition of his essay, which is stated in full:

“I am apt to suspect the negroes, and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as ancient Germans, the present Tartars, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, forms of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are Negro slaves dispersed all over Europe, of which none ever discovered any symptom of ingenuity; tho’ low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning, but ‘tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly” (Of National Character, 125n).

This long footnote has given rise to a great deal of scholarly comment, both on the side of those who find it determinative of Hume’s thinking, and on the side of those who would diminish its importance to his thinking. On its face, the content of the note reflects what I have termed “strong” racism, and in this regard, Hume’s comment stands out among modern philosophers. But it comprises one footnote, and as such, its importance may be liable to be over-stated in relation to the rest of Hume’s writings. Having said this, what specific implications can we draw from the footnote?

We need to point out, to begin, that in the later 1770 edition of the essay (published posthumously in 1777), the footnote becomes an endnote that Hume revises, omitting the phrase “and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds)” altogether and slightly modifying some other wording (Garrett 2000, 172). There are substantive differences between the wording of the two versions: the original wording of the note reflects adherence to a theory that recalls the racial classifications of Linnaeus and Buffon, while the later version omits this wording. The phrasing in the original note about “the other species of men” also gives rise to the question of whether this version reveals Hume’s view about humans having distinct origins, namely, polygenetic theory, which was a position often supported by anti-abolitionists. On this issue, it may be remarked that Hume’s cousin, Lord Kames, subscribes to this view in his work, Sketches of the History of Man, I, 20. [25] Whether Lord Kames’ view is the source, or motivation, for what seems to be the notion that different races belong to different species in the original note remains unclear, in part due to the later date of Kame’s work.[26]

For some scholars, the later version of the note that omits the phrase “the species of man (for there are four or five different kinds)” effectively weakens the scope of the claim about racial inferiority. According to one scholar, by dropping the reference to different human species, Hume’s note about racial differences is limited to a specific argument against Africans (Immerwahr 1992, 483). While the scope of Hume’ negative claims about race may be limited—as the abovementioned interpretation holds—the view ascribed to Hume is not without difficulties, to my mind.

First, it does not put to rest the charge of Hume’s racism, as his claim about Africans’ inferiority remains. Second, it fails to observe Hume’s philosophical error in generalizing about the causes of the character of groups while ignoring the effect that adverse social and political conditions have on them. It is precisely because his stated principles stress the causal efficacy of political forms of governance on national character that we can fault Hume’s reasoning in the above passage. For what kind of shared governance is open to slaves and servants in the colonies or in Europe? Clearly, there is none. Thus, Hume fails to reason consistently given his own terms of explanation stated in “On National Character.” Instead of trying to explain the shared character of the slaves he notes are in “our colonies” and dispersed “all over Europe”, by looking to their civil status as slaves—which means lacking any political standing—he engages in generalizing from racial stereotypes. In this way, he might have applied the principles of explanation that he specifies in “On National Character” to the situation of those enslaved.

Had Hume done so, he might have arrived at an analysis of behavior similar to the one given by James Beattie, a contemporary thinker known to Hume. In contrast with Hume, Beattie gives what modern audiences would consider to be the more penetrating analysis of the cause of what Hume described as: “no ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences.” As Beattie observes:

“That a negro-slave, who can neither read nor write, nor speak any European language, who is not permitted to do anything but what his master commands, and who has not a single friend on earth, but is universally considered and treated as if he were a species inferior to human; —that such a creature should so distinguish himself among Europeans, as to be talked of through the world as a man of genius, is surely no reasonable expectation” (Beattie 1776, 312).[27]

Beattie’s point being made clearly on its own needs no further explanation.



The discussion of Kant’s views on race must be prefaced with noting that scholarship is greatly divided, largely due to the tensions with his major contributions in moral and political theory, especially the ideas of universalism and cosmopolitan right. In brief, Kant’s early, pre-critical views (1775-9) on the subject of race, namely, his theory of races, seem to stand in contradiction with his later ethical and political writings (1790-1800) about moral equality, dignity of persons, and cosmopolitan right. But which side of his thinking, egalitarian or racist, is the fundamental one?

In response, two groups of scholars have emerged, one group, including Hill and Boxill (2001), reads Kant as an inconsistent universalist, and another, including Bernasconi (2001) and Eze (1997), sees Kant as a consistent in-egalitarian. A third position holds that Kant is neither a consistent in-egalitarian nor an inconsistent universalist, but a thinker who changes his views on race over time. [28] On this view, Kant moves from a “standard” European theory of racial superiority in the early, pre-critical writings (1775-79) to a positive re-evaluation in the later writing (1790-1800), including that on cosmopolitan right. Although surely a thinker with as wide a philosophical scope and as long a career as Kant may change his position, in my view, the evidence for Kant reversing his thinking on race is not supported. To begin with, Kant makes no comments in his later writings to the effect that he has changed his views on race. So, the first problem for the “reversal” view is that it depends on negative evidence: on what Kant does not say about race in his later political writings. Considering that Kant has a long writing career to repudiate his earlier, explicit statements about the heritability of racial differences, the absence of comments about race in later writing is hardly evidence of a conversion. In fact, a more natural inference to draw from a lack of comment is that he remains unchanged in his earlier views on race.

The greater difficulty, in fact, to support the view that Kant reverses his views on race in his later period is that some of these later period works, such as The Critique of Judgment (1790) and Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (1798, 1800) are fully consistent with his early writings. For example, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (1800) reflects Kant’s view about heritability of race in sections entitled “Anthropological Considerations,” “On Physiognomy,” and especially in “On the Character of Races.” While this late work comprises material from lectures gathered over many years—perhaps formulated in his early period—the dates of publication (1798, 1800) are well after the date of Toward Perpetual Peace (1795), and show that, had he so wanted, he might have taken the time in the later editions to retract his earlier racial theories. Since we find theories in late writing that support the racist theory he advanced in the early period, it becomes difficult to see how to justify the separation of Kant’s later and earlier writing on race. So, in all, I find the evidence for the “reversal” view of Kant to be weak.

If we eliminate the view that Kant reverses his position, we are left with the problem of apparent inconsistency across Kant’s writings on human nature. As a result, we need to weigh the evidence for one of two alternatives: Kant as a consistent in-egalitarian or as an inconsistent egalitarian. That is, we argue either: (i) that Kant’s views do not contradict one another because his moral universalism is not in fact universal in scope but restricted by race, or (ii) that Kant’s theory of racial difference does contradict his moral universalism, but we should count his universalism as comprising his fundamental view of human beings.

The most damaging problem for the view of Kant as an inconsistent egalitarian concerns what many take to be one of the core ideas in his universalism, namely, cosmopolitan right. In brief, the chief difficulty with subscribing to the egalitarian view is that Kant’s theories of cosmopolitan right and sovereignty conflict internally so that they cannot support the alleged universalism. This difficulty arises from the fact that the claim of cosmopolitan right reduces to the proposition that different nations should stand in open trade relations with one other, a requirement that allows individuals of these nations to travel abroad and engage in commerce, but this right does not imply a duty to treat others in a moral fashion, as, for example, according to Kant’s categorical imperative of treating persons as “ends and not merely as means”.

The reason is that cosmopolitan right lacks a higher sovereign power to enforce it, for cosmopolitan right and sovereignty are, in fact, in opposition to one another. Kant’s theory of sovereignty prevents him from providing any international body or institution that has jurisdictional authority to enforce cosmopolitan right, and since any right that is unenforceable is empty, cosmopolitan right becomes an empty right.[29] The problem of cosmopolitan right, then, is that it requires an international sovereign power or institution to enforce, yet this power cannot be justified on Kant’s principle of sovereignty. Thus, two conclusions follow: the primary one is that Kant’s cosmopolitanism and moral universalism do not support one another, and as a result, the later political writings, including on cosmopolitan right, cannot bear the weight to serve as the moral corrective to his early writing on race, as some have maintained.

Let us now turn to examine, at least briefly, Kant’s theory of human differences from his earlier, pre-critical period. The two main works concerning racial differences in the early writings include an early work, Observations on the Beautiful and the Sublime (1764),[30] and an essay, Of the Different Human Races (1775, 1777).[31] In the earlier work on aesthetics, in a sec. entitled “Of National Characteristics,” Kant sketches a theory about the temperaments of European inhabitants using an ancient Greek theory of bodily humors that links humors to types of character—namely, sanguineous, bilious, melancholic, and phlegmatic—in his account of aesthetic capacity. For Kant, the melancholic temperament characterized by the Germans, English, and Spanish is what provides a capacity for the sublime, the sanguineous temperament of the Italians and French for the beautiful, and the phlegmatic temperament of the Dutch for neither. Nested among these remarks about Europeans are other, perhaps more predictable, comments about Africans, such as:

“The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling. Mr. Hume challenges anyone to cite a single example in which a Negro has shown talents, and asserts that among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who are transported elsewhere from their countries, although many of them have even been set free, still not a single one was ever found who presented anything great in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality, even though among the whites some continually rise aloft from the lowest rabble, and through superior gifts earn respect in the world. So fundamental is the difference between these two races of man, and it appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in color. The religion of fetishes so widespread among them is perhaps a sort of idolatry that sinks as deeply into the trifling as appears to be possible to human nature” (Observations on the Beautiful and the Sublime, sec. iv, 111).

Noting Kant’s reference to Hume’s footnote, we need to supplement these racial comments with the theory about races he develops in his early essay, On the Different Human Races (1775, 1777). In this work, Kant uses biological concepts derived from Buffon’s work, Natural History of Man (1749) to distinguishes four human races: “We only need assume four races in order to derive all the enduring distinctions … recognizable within the human genus,” which are: (i) “the noble, blond (northern Europe)” (ii) “the copper-red (America),” (iii) “the black (Senegambia),” and (iv) “the olive-yellow (Asia-India)” (On the Different Human Races, 11). Overall, Kant, like Blumenbach, Buffon and others subscribe to monogenism, the view of a common origin for human beings, [32] and finds that racial differences that develop over time from the environment become fixed, or ineradicable.

For Kant, organic development comes about through an interplay of “formative drives” (a concept derived from Blumenbach), what are called “structuring powers,” or “predispositions,” with seeds such that the predispositions determine the development of the organism.[33] Thus, in Of the Different Human Races (1775/1777), Kant develops the notion that racial characteristics have a biological basis given that some human traits that are invariably inherited comprise the basis for a race; others that are not inherited fall outside racial classification. Using the notion of heritability of variation, he claims that:

“An animal genus, which at the same time has a common line of descent, is not comprised of different species…but their divergences from one another are called deviations when they are inheritable…if the deviation can no longer produce the original formation of the line, it would be called a degeneration” (Of the Different Human Races, 9).

In this way, Kant catalogues in a descending fashion: species, deviations, races, variations, varieties, and stocks, such that races fall under deviations, and are defined as follows:

“Among the deviations we find in animals that belong to a single line of descent are those called races. Races are deviations that are constantly preserved over many generations and come about as a consequence of migration or through interbreeding with other deviations of the same line…Those deviate forms that always preserve the distinction of their deviation are called variations” (Of the Different Human Races, 9).

Kant gives an example:

“Negroes and whites are clearly not different species of human beings (since they presumably belong to one line of descent), but they do comprise two different races. This is because…they both, when they interbreed, necessarily produce half-breed children, or blends (Mulattoes),”

whereas, he continues,

“blonds and brunettes are not… different races of whites. Because a blond man who is the child of a brunette woman can also have distinctly blond children…” (Of the Different Human Races, 10).

Here Kant’s point appears to be that the “blending” of races is evidence of the invariance of racial differences—where Kant’s marker of racial difference reduces to difference in skin color. So, he distinguishes difference in skin color from that of hair color as being more invariant an accidental feature.

Kant’s deeper explanation for racial difference depends on the idea that the original seed undergoes changes, or modifications, resulting from environmental factors, like climate, acting on it, and these changes are permanent. As Kant states:

“Air and sun appear to be the sort of causes that influence intimately the reproductive power. They also seem to produce a long-lasting development on the seeds and predispositions. This is to say they could be the factors responsible for establishing a race” (Of the Different Human Races, 14-15).

According to Kant, once a race establishes itself, further climatic change cannot change it back:

“in those regions where a race has become deeply rooted and stifled the other seeds, it resists further transformation, because the character of the race has become predominant in the reproductive powers” (Of the Different Human Races, 21).

This conclusion allows Kant to explain the otherwise troubling fact for his explanation that humans living in the same latitude do not exhibit the same racial characteristics.

Thus, in Kant’s account of the nature and origin of races in the 1777 essay, environmental factors like climate directly affect the seeds and predispositions in the “original lineal formation,” leading to permanent changes in these seeds, producing invariant racial differences (Of the Different Human Races, 21). Once environmental factors cause changes that distinguish groups into races, they cannot be undone. Kant’s early racial view builds upon previous climate theories; like Buffon, he assumes that the “white race” is original and others have been generated by way of biological reduction from the original line. Unlike Buffon who thinks that non-white races can be remediated by northern climate and European culture, a view we called “weak” racism, Kant’s view is that due to biological changes in the seed, racial properties are heritable and invariant, a position we have termed “strong,” or biological racism. Furthermore, we have good evidence that the strong racism evident in Kant’s early writing is supported by writing in his late period. So, Kant’s observations about species variation in the late work, Critique of Judgement (1790) contains the idea that human variations, including what Kant considers to constitute differences in race, are fixed and teleological, good “for the preservation of the race” (Critique of Judgement sec. 81, 284).

In summary, regarding the apparent inconsistency between Kant’s moral theory and his racial views, I have argued, first, that various late works provide theoretical support for his early views on race, and second, that the ideas of universalism, like cosmopolitan right, are ineffectual in regard to establishing universal moral standing. As a result, I concur with the scholars who think that Kant should be interpreted as a consistent in-egalitarian.

In summary, for a comparison among our three thinkers, Kant and Hume appear to hold a similar position on race and human difference, namely, “strong” or biological, racism. In contrast, while Locke expresses racial prejudice against Africans, and at times, against Native Americans, he may more accurately be described as adhering, not to cultural racism, but to cultural elitism. [34]

Taken together, however, we may be better able to appreciate Diop’s remarks concerning the weight of disparaging comments by European thinkers against Africans and other non-European peoples.

Footnotes & References

[1] Sept. 5, 2007; see

[2] So, an idea analogous to the savage arises in classical Greek thought (5th – 4th cen. B. C. E.) with the idea of the barbarian, a notion that Greek tragedians, as well as philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, employ throughout their writings to signify what is uncivilized, primitive, and non-Greek. For discussion, see Hall (1989), Kamtekar (2002), Ward (2002).

[3] For discussion of the savage, see Squadrito (2002, 102-103); for the savage as the natural man, or “missing link,” see Moran III (2002,130-133).

[4] The two works of Hakluyt, also read later by Locke, are entitled Divers Voiages Touching the Discoverie of America (1582) and The Principal Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques and Discoueries of the English Nation (1589–1600). The quotations about savages are from the second of his works, quoted in Squadrito (2002, 102).

[5] At times, Locke is the exception as in Second Treatise in regard to the colonies, “savage” is used to signify an “Indian,” a human in “the state of nature.”

[6] I have intentionally characterized this weaker variant as implying some connection between a specific culture and human physical properties, but have omitted the idea that the connection is a fixed, determinate one such that having specific biological properties is necessary for belonging or failing to belong to a cultural group. This view is distinct from cultural elitism, which implies a ranking of cultures but does not imply the linkage to any biological differences, as forms of racism do.

[7] As I describe (Ward 1998, 86-87), “degeneracy” theory refers to the view of non-white races stem from an original white race and are considered degenerate forms, yet for Buffon and other 18th century thinkers, including Thomas Jefferson, non-white, non-European societies can be remediated by the acquisition of European culture. For further discussion on the historical development, see Popkin (1980), Ward (1998, and forthcoming).

[8] For example, versions of what the theory are found in writing by advocates of African slavery either Ham or Cain, who are said to be recipients of curses (cf. Genesis 4:15, 9:25-27). For discussion, see Ward (1998, 82-83), Popkin (1980, 79-102).

[9] According to the work entitled Prae-Adamitae (1655), the author, Isaac La Peyrere, claims that Europeans are descendants of an earlier creation than Adam.

[10] See Bernasconi (2002, 12-13).

[11] Here I am setting aside Locke’s reference to the Negro in his discussion about deductive reasoning where one ignores cases of equivocation: he gives as example an English child who has seen only white men, and forms an idea of humanity with white skin as an essential feature and then infers a Negro is not a man—this inference Locke clearly states is false (Essay Concerning Human Understanding IV, 7, sec. 16). For discussion, see Uzgalis 1998, 57-58.

[12] Thus, Article 110 states: “Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves, of what opinion or religion soever.”

[13] This view of Laslett (1965, 42-43, modern editor of Locke’s Two Treatises on Government.

[14] References to passages in Second Treatise follow the convention of stating first the treatise number, then section number (at times adding line number suing ‘ll.’).

[15] This view is supported by Laslett, who suggests in his Instructions to Governor Nicholson of Virginia that Locke had a hand in drafting in 1698, we see him viewing African slaves in the colonies as captives taken in a just war who had forfeited their lives by “some act that deserves death” (Locke, Second Treatise, 23, ll. 11-12); see Laslett (1965, 325-326, N 24, 1-9).

[16] See, for example, Uzgalis’ argument against the forfeiture claim by various scholars like Farr (1986) in Uzgalis (1998, 59-62).

[17] According to Farr, Locke helped draft some temporary laws on the basis of the Constitutions of Carolina that prohibited Native Americans from being enslaved: “No Indian upon any occasion or pretense whatever, is to be made a slave…” (Farr 1986, 266), quoted in Uzgalis (1998, 60).

[18] Squadrito develops this line in her essay (2002, esp. 102-103).

[19] Note that in this case it would not count as “dispossession” since from the English perspective, the land in question was “vacant,” or common.

[20] For excellent discussion of the conflict between Native American and English ideas of property, see Cronon (2003) Ch. 4, “Bounding the Land”.

[21] See Bernasconi (2001, 15, n. 24) who cites text of the 1758 edition.

[22] See Blanckaert (1993, 15, 34, 35).

[23] See Blanckaert (1993, 36).

[24] Hume’s essay Of National Character is reprinted in Hume, Selected Essays (1993), to which my page references of this essay refer.

[25] Garret (2000, 177, n. 8) questions Hume’s connection to polygenism.

[26] Note that Kames’ publication date, 1788, shows his work is not the source of the wording in Hume’s 1753 version of the note; also, what Hume means by “species” in “all the other species of men” remains unclear.

[27] Quoted in Garrett 2000, 175-6.

[28] These three positions are so named by Kleingeld, who favors the third (2006, 573-5).

[29] As one scholar note, this right is “normatively binding in name only” (Thompson 2008, 317). In addition, however, the notion of cosmopolitan right requires already implies the notion of sovereignty, since any right requires a power to enforce.

[30] See Kant 1764/2003.

[31] See Kant 1777/2000, Of the Different Human Races (repr. Bernasconi, Lott 2000, 8-26).

[32] All these reject polygenism, the view supported by Lord Kames, Christoph Meiners, and Samuel von Sommerring, among others Lord Kames, Six Sketches of Man (1774), and perhaps by Hume. See Bernasconi (2001), 19-20.

[33] See Cohen (2006), 680.

[34] This essay, esp. the sections on Hume and Kant, is based on my earlier work on the history of Western philosophical racism (see Ward 1998, 2002, and forthcoming).


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Julie Ward
Julie Ward
Dr. Julie Ward is currently Professor in the Philosophy Department at Loyola University, Chicago, where she teaches Greek philosophy, ethics, and political philosophy. Along with her research in Greek philosophy, she has a long-standing interest in philosophical race theory. She has co-edited Philosophers on Race: Critical Essays with Tommy Lott (Blackwell, 2002), authored Aristotle on Homonymy: Dialectic and Science (Cambridge, 2008), and edited Feminism and Ancient Philosophy (Routledge, 1996), as well as articles on Greek philosophy, feminism, and history of race theory.

“How many newsworthy issues, which should have been the rightful domain of philosophy, have been usurped in recent years by religion, law, and psychology?”

Lee McIntyre

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