In the previous essays in this series, I looked at the invention of race and some defenses offered against charges of racism directed at Modern era philosophers. In this essay, I’ll discuss the subject of what to do when a Modern era philosopher has been proven to be a racist. This would also apply, in some cases, to philosophers of other eras, including today.

One extreme option is to purge works by racist philosophers and racist works from academic philosophy. In practical terms, this would mean these philosophers would not be mentioned in institutes of learning, and their works would not be taught. A moderate option is to keep these works in the academic curriculum but address the racism or racist content honestly and directly. In my Modern Philosophy class (and others) I have opted for the second approach.

First, I need to distinguish between the non-racist ideas of a philosopher and their racist ideas or personal racism. Even major philosophers of the Modern era who were racists or who wrote racist content had considerable bodies of work devoid of racism. Hume, for example, has some explicitly racist content and appears to have been a racist. But he also wrote extensively on subjects such as metaphysics and epistemology without racist content. As a specific example, his famous analysis of causation is obviously not a racist doctrine.  

 If someone were to reject the philosophical claims and arguments of a philosopher because of their alleged racism would be to fall for the ad hominem fallacy (concluding that a claim is false because of an alleged defect in the person making the claim). To reject all philosophy by white Europeans from the Modern era on the grounds that their work originated in a racist time and place would be to fall for the genetic fallacy (concluding that something must defective simply because of its genesis). If their works have merit, then this merit exists independent of their racism and thus such works can be worth studying. Going back to Hume, his philosophical arguments have considerable merit and importance, and these warrant their inclusion in a class on Modern philosophy. But this merit should not excuse racism or racist conte. So, the racist elements should not be hidden away and should be subject to due criticism.

Second, these major philosophical figures are historically important, and their ideas shaped the world today (for good or bad). Engaging with these ideas is essential if people are going to criticize them and the world views they shaped. Ironically, if a philosopher’s views are racist and helped form the basis of white supremacy, then it would be even more important to know their works to get to the conceptual roots of racism. Care should, of course, be taken when teaching such figures to avoid indoctrination. After all, just as we would not want to brainwash students into being vegan Marxists, we would also want to avoid brainwashing them into becoming meat loving white supremacists.

Third, while inclusion in the canon might be seen as honoring these philosophers they are included not because they are right or we agree with them, but because of their importance and influence. To use an extreme example, when one studies Hitler or Stalin one is not endorsing their views. I hope.  Philosophy is, in part, about criticizing ideas and to study a philosophical view is not to praise it or honor the philosopher who created it.

But there are reasonable concerns about why thinkers are seen as important enough to include or unimportant enough to exclude. For example, many Modern philosophy classes focus entirely on the usual dead white guys and exclude women and people of color, perhaps only mentioning them in passing.  One can justly make the criticism that by including a racist in a modern philosophy class, one is excluding a non-racist who should be included. That is a reasonable point and the matter of who should be included and who should be excluded from the course content is a matter that should be discussed and re-assessed on a regular basis. This is something I have done, resulting in changes to my class. In my final essay in this series, I’ll discuss how I decided on the content for my Modern Philosophy class