Jan E. Goldstein

President of the Association, 2014Jan Goldstein. Photo by Bill Sewell

This presidential address was delivered at the 129th annual meeting of the American Historical Association, held in New York City, on January 3, 2015. You can also watch a video of the address.

Toward an Empirical History of Moral Thinking: The Case of Racial Theory in Mid-Nineteenth-Century France

History does not play a prominent role in American public life, I think we would all agree. But one place where it is routinely invoked is in the news media, when the question of the true significance of some current event is raised. Then we are reminded that a judgment of this sort cannot be made instantaneously, but only after the passage of time—that we must await the “verdict of history.” This sounds like an obvious truth until we start to analyze it from our position as working historians. For the so-called verdict of history is not, despite its name, something uttered plainly by an objective process. Rather, it is delivered in the plural, by all the individual historians who write about a given topic; and culling it, in the singular, from those disparate accounts is usually an impossible task. Pronouncing the verdict of history doesn’t sound like an accurate job description for a historian. Paul Ricoeur’s metaphor, of events “leaving their mark” on time and thereby detaching themselves in fixed or permanent form from the fleeting actions of the past, suggests a more realistic job description. It assumes that the marks discerned by historians in the documentary record always remain amenable to interpretive practices, that more than one interpretation has plausibility—indeed, that human deeds are “open work” waiting for fresh interpretations to plumb their meaning—and that the historian should not aspire to the definitive closure of a judge’s ruling in a court of law.1

Still, in certain areas, the collectivity of historians does seem to speak with a single voice, producing something like the clarity of a judicial verdict. One of those areas is our current view of the rise of racial theory and its harnessing for explanatory purposes, a process that began in Western Europe in the early decades of the nineteenth century and reached its apogee during the Second World War. This discursive trend, historians concur, turned out to be disastrous. It aided genocidal projects, making them thinkable and enlisting support for them, even if it did not singlehandedly cause them. Ironically, such consensus produces methodological problems of its own. Given the very stability of the prevailing opinion as well as its moral unassailability, what stance is the historian to take toward the early participants in that trend? I am not thinking here of those who engaged in a rabble-rousing, hatemongering racial politics, but of those who confined themselves to pursuing a scholarly investigation of race along lines that they believed scientific. They did not attempt to apply their doctrines; indeed, they sometimes seem to have lacked the imagination or motivation even to picture what such an application might entail. But knowing the use to which their discursive productions were eventually put, we are tempted to write their history as if delivering a verdict from the lofty heights of our retrospective knowledge; we become self-righteous owls of Minerva taking flight at dusk.

In what follows, I draw on material from my current research to ponder this delicate problem of the historian’s moral stance when investigating an area in which the so-called verdict of history is loud and clear. I would like to propose that, between the extremes of a blanket condemnation of all the contributors to an intellectual trend that had reprehensible consequences and a hands-off stance maintaining that moral criteria shift over time and should not concern us per se as historians, there is a specifically historical level of analysis that I call the empirical history of moral thinking—thinking as practice, rather than thought as product. Avoiding both blame and exoneration, this form of inquiry would attempt to specify, in empirical terms, the parameters of moral judgment on certain topics at certain historical moments. With respect to the example at hand, it could help us to comprehend how an intellectual landscape that now appears so unsavory to us took shape in the past. To paraphrase Didier Fassin—who, I recently learned, has called for a similar program in the discipline of anthropology—this approach would not ask historians to become moralists, but rather to study morals as we study politics, institutions, or social groups. Fassin usefully distinguishes between moral discourse itself and a critical analysis of a moral topic. The first, he says, evaluates, judges, and simplifies on the basis of prior principles, while the second proposes, after careful examination, a possible intelligibility for a moral phenomenon and thereby captures its complexity.2

My case study in this experiment in the empirical history of moral thinking is the engagement with race of the French intelligentsia of the mid-nineteenth century. I begin in 1847 and make a foray into the 1880s. But I focus on the roughly two decades following the dramatic failure of the Revolution of 1848 to move France in a progressive direction, either to establish a political democracy or to mandate a social republic pledged to alleviate the hardships of the working poor. Instead the country yielded to what Marx saw as the “farcical” compulsion to repeat past history, installing a second authoritarian Bonapartist empire under the nephew of the first Napoleon. By the 1850s, French writers began to testify to an intellectual sea-change, one probably linked to the disillusionment with politics attending the return of Bonapartism: a felt imperative to introduce racial categories into reflections on politics and society.3 In a private letter, for example, Alexis de Tocqueville saw it as a sign of the times that the highly promising son of a prominent liberal intellectual had chosen to make his literary debut with—of all things—a conspicuously placed review of scholarship about the human races.4 A few years later, that prominent liberal intellectual himself, Charles de Rémusat, reviewed Henry Buckle’s History of Civilization in England, faulting it for neglecting the new science of “ethnography,” which had, he said, shown the indelible nature of race and thus irrevocably changed the historian’s craft.5 A more obscure commentator, one Alfred Sudre, confronted with two massive works of the early 1850s, Arthur de Gobineau’s Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines (Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races) and Ernest Renan’s Histoire générale et système comparé des langues sémitiques (General History and Comparative Analysis of the Semitic Languages), cast them as representatives of an utterly new and strange genre: the philosophy of history that adopted race as its causal principle.6

We can turn to these latter two books to take a sounding of the social conventions of intellectuals of the day with respect to racial theory. Gobineau’s Essai (1853–55) had a notorious career decades after its publication, first winning the admiration of Richard Wagner, then aiding the bellicose Pan-Germanism of the Second Reich before 1914, and finally becoming integrated into Nazi ideology.7 It would certainly qualify as “racist” by today’s standards, in that it postulates a permanent biological hierarchy of human races based on supposedly hereditary traits said to justify the placement of their members in correspondingly hierarchized social roles. Renan’s Histoire générale (1855), marshaled as evidence by the rabid antisemite Edouard Drumont in his book-length screed of 1886, La France juive (Jewish France), might qualify as racist as well, though it was, as we will see, considerably more ambiguous.8 French commentators of the 1850s did not, of course, have the language of “racism” at their disposal. The terms raciste and racisme entered the French lexicon surprisingly early, with a sprinkling of instances from the period 1895–1902; however, the terms were not yet derogatory, but rather served as a neutral description of a heightened attention to race, or in the case of some French nationalists who identified la patrie with the French “race,” as a proud self-labeling. Even when the term raciste became common in the interwar years and acquired a negative connotation, it was applied exclusively to far-right Germans and used as a translation of their keyword völkisch.9 To be sure, these tomes of the 1850s by Gobineau and Renan attracted moral criticism in France immediately upon publication. But even for the harshest critics, the views expressed by Gobineau and Renan were not beyond the pale nor grounds for exclusion from polite intellectual company—not regarded as constituting a fundamental moral flaw or implicating the totality of their holders’ moral being, as they are today.

Thus Tocqueville, who had long been Gobineau’s patron and protector, subjected the younger man to an impassioned moral rebuke in 1853 when he wrote to acknowledge the copy of the Essai that he had received, hot off the press, from its eager author.10 In letters to close friends he went even further, calling the Essai “a fat book designed to prove that all the events of this world can be explained by racial difference,” and likening it to “a horse breeding journal” and “the philosophy of the director of a stud farm.”11 But he ultimately compartmentalized this strong negative reaction. He neither spoke out against the book publicly nor cut his affective ties with the author, instead even promising Gobineau support for his candidacy for the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences.12 At that same academy, Adolphe Franck, a professor of philosophy and the first Jew to be elected to the French Institute, revealed a similar strategy of compartmentalization when reporting to his fellow savants in 1856–57 on Renan’s newly published Histoire générale. He subjected Renan’s thesis to a strong moral critique—and one structurally similar to the private censure that Tocqueville delivered to Gobineau. But he concluded by calling the morally troubling parts of the book “inessential” to the whole and praising Renan’s erudite contribution as “so original and so captivating to read.”13 In the 1860s, Franck entered into correspondence with Gobineau after the latter sent him, as a fellow orientalist, his new work on cuneiform writing. A gratified Gobineau noted the areas in which their scholarly views coincided but then added, tellingly—in terms of the norms of compartmentalization that I have been tracing here—“But on the subject of the races, we will quarrel, won’t we?”14

So how, then, can we as historians characterize the moral field in which mid-nineteenth- century French intellectuals, acting as theorists or critics, made pronouncements about race? By “moral field,” I mean the set of normatively charged considerations—derived from diverse sources and ambient rather than codified—that seem to have guided them and that they often explicitly cited. After studying a select group from this vantage point—a group including Gobineau, Tocqueville, Renan, and the members of the Paris Ethnological Society—I have tentatively concluded that the moral field in question was structured by at least four such considerations, which constituted lines of force within it. The moral field was not static; its lines of force galvanized intellectuals to varying degrees and, moreover, interacted dynamically with one another in ways that affected their ultimate impact. Just one of my cast of characters fully engaged with all four considerations, and one engaged only with one. None of the considerations either logically entailed or excluded any of the others, allowing intellectuals to combine them as they saw fit.

The first such consideration was the ethos of science, a set of implicit moral norms that was at this date in the process of transition. As Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison have shown, it was moving rapidly toward the ideal of objectivity—an ideal that would impose on the scientist the duty of self-abnegation, of repressing all those particularities of subject position that ordinarily color perceptions of the world.15 Or, to put that general trend in somewhat different terms, it was likewise moving toward broad acceptance of a Comtean positivist ideal in which scientists, relinquishing claims to absolute knowledge, would rest content with detecting the lawful regularities among observable phenomena. In this context, I am interested in the new human sciences—in particular, anthropology and philology—that modeled themselves on the natural sciences. The second consideration concerned the impact of theorizing about race: Was one morally obliged to consider the probable consequences of one’s pronouncements? The third consideration grew out of the traditional discourse of matter and spirit as the two components of human nature. In this discourse, materialism, or the reduction of the human to the material component, was equated with fatalism and condemned for its denial of the freedom of the human will. Victor Cousin’s philosophy had revitalized this generically Christian doctrine for nineteenth-century French consumption.16 The fourth consideration was the widely accepted postulate of the equality of all human beings, grounded either in Christian doctrine or in the secular principles of universal human rights.

The attentive reader will have noticed the heterogeneity of this moral field. Of the four lines of force that structured it, the last three—attending to consequences, safeguarding free will, and affirming human equality—are more conventionally labeled “moral” than is the first, pursuing science. I have, however, placed science deliberately and squarely within the moral field because of strong mid-nineteenth-century assumptions about its moral value as an enterprise fostering human progress, and because contemporaries regarded certain moral traits—the self-abnegation required by objectivity, the epistemological modesty required by positivism—as necessary to its proper conduct.

My effort to see this moral field in action includes three particular cases: the 1847 debate on race at the Paris Ethnological Society; the immediate French response to the publication of Gobineau’s Essai; and an effort to “untangle” Renan, as the figure in this group whose position on race is the most difficult to parse. I want to stress that I have not attempted to tell a comprehensive story of racial theory in mid-nineteenth-century France by means of these cases. Rather, I have used them to illustrate what an empirical history of moral thinking might look like and to argue for the fruitfulness of that methodology.

We can extract an initial reading of the moral field and its play of forces from the debate over “the distinctive characteristics of the white and black races and the conditions of association of these two races” that took place at the fledgling Paris Ethnological Society in the spring and early summer of 1847.17 The debate is noteworthy for its freewheeling candor, suggesting that the participants regarded race as a fresh, wide-open realm of investigation. It is also noteworthy for the almost complete absence of an articulated ideal of objectivity.

The debate operated in a moral field animated by two lines of force, with a third making occasional appearances. First, the debate was to be conducted scientifically; indeed, it was supposed to help constitute the new science of ethnology, for which purpose the society had been formed.18 Second, practical consequences loomed large. The debate was to be more than an “intellectual exercise.” The “solution” to the problem posed would supply not only a factually correct account of racial difference, but also one consistent with a sociopolitical relationship between the races deemed morally acceptable.19 Third, certain speakers invoked the principle of human equality.

The society’s secretary, Gustave d’Eichthal, framed the debate at the outset so as to situate scientific interest in race in a concrete historical context. Before Europeans ventured to Africa and the New World, he asserted, the races, each “cooped up [parquées] in their own hemisphere, had only weak contacts.” But the slave trade and the transfer of millions of enslaved blacks to the European overseas colonies drastically altered that situation. Furthermore, because the “development of science” was a feature of the white race, protracted contact with blacks had led to the recent European construction of race as a scientific problem.20 And because d’Eichthal was a Saint-Simonian socialist, believing in scientific laws of history that operated through a dialectic between critical reason and the synthesizing force of sentiment, he already had strong opinions on social organization, into which he slotted the data about the races turned up by ethnological research. A tangle of fact and value, or a conflict between scientific and sociopolitical values, was thus built into the debate from the beginning, and the tensions it created surfaced frequently.

Although the speakers repeatedly mentioned the importance of proceeding scientifically, the conception of science employed in the debate remained tacit and rudimentary. The data sought by the society concerned the races’ physical characteristics as well as their capacity for what was called “civilization.” Evidence regarded as dispositive came largely from the firsthand observations of travelers. In this respect, the society seemed to be adhering to a much earlier ethos of science: that of trust in the testimony of credible witnesses, an ethos that characterized seventeenth-century natural philosophy.21 However, sporadic grumbling about the dubious accuracy of travelers’ reports and about what we would call “cherry-picking” congenial examples from them indicated that the participants no longer found this older standard entirely compelling.22 Additional evidence came from the iconography on ancient monuments. At moments when this evidentiary base of texts and images appeared insufficiently robust, there were calls, expressive of the emergent power of a new scientific ethos, for “giving a material basis to the debate.”23 The resident phrenologist responded to one such call by offering to bring skulls from his collection— a promise he seems not to have fulfilled, but which anticipated the course that French anthropology would take in the 1860s.24

D’Eichthal directed the debate with a firm hand, announcing at the outset the principal positions that would be argued, and later summing up the results so as to award victory to his own position.25 The chief positions were represented by the noted abolitionist Victor Schoelcher, who was at that moment not only investigating ethnology but also leading a campaign to end slavery in the French colonies; Victor Courtet de l’Isle, a lapsed Saint-Simonian of politically conservative bent; and d’Eichthal himself.

Schoelcher’s report began by boldly invoking one line of force in the moral field. “I believe in the absolute equality of all the members of the great human family,” he said, adding that any assertion of racial “inferiority” was “as contrary to science, history, and ethnology as it is to reason.” Schoelcher then proceeded to “perform” ethnology according to the model of that nascent discipline embraced by his colleagues—that is, the mining of travelers’ reports. The nub of his argument was that travelers to Central Africa such as Mungo Park had found ample proof of civilization among indigenous peoples: cultivated fields, two-story slate houses, finesse in spinning, weaving, and sewing, and a degree of literacy in Arabic that far surpassed the French literacy of many French peasants and enabled the use of passports guaranteeing hospitality in other villages. Sounding more like a man of our era than of his own, he observed that Europe owed Africa “great and solemn reparations” for having “abducted” millions of its inhabitants for the purpose of “making them perish in the cane fields. What a debt!” Pressed by his colleagues on the primacy his ethnology accorded the postulate of human equality, he declared that while he “honor[ ed] and respect[ed] science as much as anyone,” he did not “believe it infallible.” Hence, he admonished savants to speak “prudently” on questions concerning “sacred interests.”26

The report of Courtet de l’Isle criticized Schoelcher for “grafting fact onto theory” instead of adhering to the scientifically correct, inductive approach, and for reading the documentary record tendentiously. According to Courtet, the paintings on ancient Egyptian monuments always represented blacks as vanquished, in chains, bringing tribute to conquerors of a different race; while it was “sad” to speak these “truths,” it would be “dangerous to deny them.” After all, “the first attribute of both the savant and the man of goodwill” was “to be truthful.” Turning to the corpus of travelers’ tales, he found that it traced every instance of civilization in Africa to Arab Islamic influences, leading him to conclude that the black race possessed no autonomous initiative to civilize itself. His succinct formulation of his position, involving aesthetics as well as other variables, was particularly repugnant: “The more beautiful the racial type, the more advanced its civilization; the uglier the racial type, the more imperfect its social condition. In the first instance we have initiative, progress, domination; in the second, impotence, subjugation, prostration.” Courtet conceded that equality among human beings existed “in the eyes of God,” but, he insisted, “it nowhere exists as a fact.” Recognizing that many would find his views shocking, he sought to soften them through practical policy. Both Courtet’s “reason” and his “conscience” cried out against the conclusion that “the original disparity between the races” justified “the oppression of a part of the human family.” Instead, by dint of its superiority, the white race bore the responsibility for the tutelage of the black race. Removing the “yoke” from the blacks—he is alluding to abolition— was no excuse for replacing it with an even more cruel “abandonment.” Blacks were capable of improvement, to be sure, but only if raised up by paternalistic whites.27

D’Eichthal, too, believed in the inequality of the races and, like Courtet, in blacks’ “lack of civilizing initiative.” But for him, racial difference represented a positive resource. As a Saint-Simonian, he believed that society had suffered corrosion from the individualism and exclusive emphasis on analytic reason that had marked the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. The future associative state would thus arise from the tempering of reason by sentiment, as embodied in the male-female couple. Taken as an individual, the sentimental female fell short of full equality with the rational male. But she had an equal functional importance in the couple, as anyone who had managed to transcend the individualist perspective knew. In fact, d’Eichthal asserted, widespread acceptance of this Saint-Simonian insight about functional specialization had already increased public esteem for women.28

D’Eichthal’s ethnological position turned on the resemblance he perceived between women and blacks (“an ingenious idea,” Courtet piped up helpfully later in the debate). Both were essentially sentimental creatures and, taken as individuals, inferior. However, on the model of the heterosexual couple, a complementary partnership between whites and blacks would elevate the black to equal functional importance; that partnership would also strengthen the associative state, with racial difference serving as social glue. The post-1815 era of peaceful industry would, furthermore, automatically elevate the status of both women and blacks because their gentle mores and capacity for sympathy would command more respect than in prior, bellicose eras.29

From this admittedly cursory account of the 1847 debate at the Paris Ethnological Society, what can we extrapolate about the moral field in which it implicitly operated? While none of the other participants agreed with the stark, axiom-driven structure of Schoelcher’s argument, most everyone seemed to concur that ethnological investigation was double-pronged: it would collect data about race and consider the data’s practical implications. A couple of outliers wanted to “circumscribe” the debate, to confine it, in a “positive manner,” to the “scientific terrain” of facts. But this positivist position, so familiar to us now, was surprisingly rare among these protoanthropologists in 1847.30 On the other hand, how scientific imperatives and conventional moral values were related, and whether they might be made compatible, were clearly issues to which the majority had not given much systematic thought. One Saint-Simonian member of the society, Olindes Rodrigues, even expressed the touchingly na─▒¨ve view that scientific fact and moral value must necessarily coincide. He “could not conceive that freedom of ethnological investigation could ever call into question the equality of the human races.”31 The less idealistic d’Eichthal had no such illusions when he excluded Schoelcher’s premise about human racial equality from ethnology by citing the exigencies of discipline-building: it would simply “annihilate” the new science; the purpose of ethnology was, after all, “nothing but the classification of the races according to their different distinguishing characteristics.”32

In sum, the members of the society combined their repeated commitment to “science” with a fuzziness about what, exactly, “science” was, at least in their chosen domain. To their failure to think seriously about the boundary between scientific fact and normative questions of sociopolitical policy, even as they repeatedly crossed that boundary, they added their only dawning awareness of the imprecision of their scientific method as ethnologists. They had, for example, moments of epiphany when they realized that they might lack clear definitions of their key terms, “race” and “civilization.” D’Eichthal declared himself “astonished” that some of his colleagues were having difficulty specifying the meaning of “black race,” when the concept struck every white American as self-evident.33

This extraordinary debate led swiftly to the disbanding of the Paris Ethnological Society. Once the revolutionaries of 1848 actually decreed the abolition of slavery in the French colonies—a project in which Schoelcher was instrumental—the issues addressed by the ethnologists declined in urgency.34 But the debate had thoroughly politicized ethnology, and this development helped shape the French form of “anthropology” as the successor discipline to ethnology. As Paul Broca, the founder of the Paris Anthropological Society, later attested, the political press had covered the fiery interventions of Schoelcher in the 1847 ethnology debates, leading the public to regard ethnology, of which it had known nothing before, “not as a science but as a cross between politics, sociology, and philanthropy.” To erase this “detrimental impression,” Broca vowed that his own “anthropology” would rely not on textual interpretation but on the examination of objective, material evidence: “skeletons and skulls.”35 This turn in the construction of “science” after 1850 was thus in the direction of rigor, purification, and self-abnegation; it aimed at ridding science of the subjective flights of fancy that would, it now appeared, demean it in the eyes of the public and attract the unwanted scrutiny of the state.36 Insofar as this turn had specific purchase on the science of race, it would encourage a deliberate bracketing of its practical consequences.

An attempt to specify the moral field of racial discourse after the second Bonapartist coup can usefully begin with Gobineau’s Essai and the reaction of Tocqueville and others to its publication. While in many ways an anomalous figure, Gobineau is a representative one in the scientific credo that he attached to his investigations of race: his prospectus for the book depicted it as a series of “deductions founded on positive results,” and he assured Tocqueville that “the means of demonstration I employ” were “exclusively scientific.”37 In a personal letter to another correspondent late in 1853, he extolled the Germans for having “made a science” of philology some three decades before and indicated his general adherence to that new science.38 But since the Essai fundamentally relied on the kinds of textual sources that formed the evidentiary base of the Paris Ethnological Society, Gobineau’s “science” was not of the rigorous Comtean kind that Broca would soon be advocating. Although the Essai appeared to many contemporaries to have come out of nowhere—its young, obscure author worked in solitude, not frequenting savant societies—it resembled in both its blunt thesis of racial hierarchy and its source base the work of Courtet de l’Isle, who had figured in the society debate.39 But Gobineau departed fundamentally from Courtet in his refusal to believe that any sociopolitical action could palliate the long-term toxicity of the so-called inferior races. No apologetic paternalist à la Courtet, he argued for the “permanent and indelible” superiority in intelligence, beauty, and capacity for civilization of the white race over the yellow and black races, and of the Aryan Germans over the rest of the white race.40 (Courtet, too, used the term “Aryan” at this early date, an indication that both men were familiar with the philology of their era.)41 Most provocatively, Gobineau also argued that racial mixing, while beneficial in the short term, was gradually diluting and depleting humanity’s best racial stock. As a result, it was bringing about nothing less than the inexorable decline of civilization.42

Gobineau flaunted this pessimism; his complaint about the decadence of his own era as compared with the medieval glory of a conquering Aryan nobility was part of his carefully fashioned persona as a disgruntled, world-weary aristocrat. But in fact, although socially accepted as such and styling his name with the particle “de” and the title “Count,” Gobineau was no nobleman. In 1850 he deputized a local archivist to trace his family tree in the Bordeaux region as far back as the fourteenth century, but even after three decades of intermittent research, the proof he sought had failed to turn up.43 It seems fair to say that Gobineau’s tenuous life-long fantasy of his own noble birth formed the psychological underpinning of his supposedly scientific thesis about Aryan racial supremacy.

Apart from its perfunctory claims to scientific status, Gobineau’s Essai operated in no moral field; the book paraded not only its author’s jaundiced pessimism but also his proud amorality. As early as 1843, Gobineau had expressed a kind of Nietzscheanism avant la lettre to Tocqueville, describing Christianity as a religion that valorized suffering—a remark that his patron, even while acknowledging his own unbelief, found offensive.44 Tocqueville’s stinging letters a decade later to the author of the Essai were designed to reinsert Gobineau’s racially centered historical narrative into a universe where conventional moral considerations still mattered. Hence our interest in specifying Tocqueville’s moral field and the resources on which he drew to rebut Gobineau’s position.

Although he did not say as much in these letters, Tocqueville’s political experience predisposed him to consider the practical consequences of racial theory. As a deputy to the Chamber, he had prepared the 1839 report of a commission recommending the abolition of slavery in the French colonies. A fact-finding document about slaves in the Caribbean, based on the testimony of colons before the commission and appended to Tocqueville’s report, was mentioned more than once during the Paris ethnologists’ 1847 debate, thus situating Tocqueville, weakly and peripherally, to be sure, in a network we have already examined.45 In addition, Tocqueville, unlike so many of his contemporary intellectuals, was impervious to the siren song of science—that is, science in its positivist sense as the quest for lawful regularities in nature, and especially the application of this method to the study of the human world. Tocqueville certainly prized science in its loose French sense as “knowledge,” and, with this meaning in mind, occasionally called for a “science” of politics.46 But he deplored sociopolitical analyses in terms of a single causal factor, or claims that a factor such as race could unlock the secrets of history by revealing historical laws. In L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution (The Old Regime and the French Revolution), which he was writing when Gobineau’s Essai appeared, he sought an explanation through the painstaking method of comparing the intricate nexus of mores, social organization, and political forms in different European countries. While he discovered persistent structural features, he favored a densely textured account. Thus it is typical to find him, in 1853, poring over a massive German tome on the rural institutions of medieval Russia that, while it “bores [him] to death,” still seems to him to disclose important patterns ingrained over time.47

Tocqueville’s moral field, as it emerged in his chastising of Gobineau, was dominated by the traditional mind-body dualism that befitted him as a man who, while no longer a believer, retained a deep and abiding respect for Christianity. That dualism had a quasi-hegemonic status in French philosophy and general culture for much of the nineteenth century as a result of Victor Cousin’s bureaucratic genius in establishing the philosophy curriculum of the centralized state system of lycées.48 According to this doctrine, human freedom hinged on keeping the freely willing spiritual component of human nature distinct from the bodily component, a brute materiality that was, in the idiom of the day, identified with the fatality of a stone’s fall from a tower. Or, in that same idiom, materialism, the reduction of human beings to their physical substratum, was equivalent to fatalism. This bland, utterly commonplace doctrine might not seem an especially promising starting point for a stirring reprimand of Gobineau, but Tocqueville infused it with passion, both moral and political.

He called the thesis of the Essai “pernicious,” “akin to pure materialism,” assuming a “fatality” inherent in “a certain organization of matter” and implying “a very great constriction if not a complete abolition of human freedom.” He chided Gobineau for having reinforced the pessimistic paralysis of Second Empire France and its acquiescence in dictatorship with his materialist credo that “our blood, our muscles, our nerves will always be stronger than our will.” Gobineau’s materialism, Tocqueville opined, was all the more “dangerous” for referring not only to individuals but to whole “collections of individuals that are called races” Especially noteworthy for our purposes here, Tocqueville emphasized the practical consequences of Gobineau’s racial theory. He had not been personally persuaded by Gobineau’s idée-mère, as he called it, but he declined to discard it, saying only that it was “no better established” than the time-honored view it proposed to replace: that “the destiny of peoples” and “the events of this world” could be explained by a variety of factors, such as “the influence of certain men, of certain sentiments, certain ideas, and certain beliefs.” Agnostic about the truth claims of the Essai, Tocqueville turned to the question of whether Gobineau’s position was “more useful to humanity” than its competitor. From this pragmatic perspective, he concluded, Gobineau’s position had to be rejected, for its negative consequences were legion. It would deprive peoples “in barbarism, indolence, or servitude” of any reason to try to improve their condition. “Do you not see,” he asked, his voice rising with urgency and exasperation, “that from your doctrine will spontaneously issue all the evils to which permanent inequality gives birth: arrogance, violence, scorn for one’s fellow, tyranny, and every sort of abjection?”49 Part of the strength of Tocqueville’s moral position, then—its strength for us, though not for Gobineau, who remained unmoved—derived from his very unfashionable refusal to recognize science as the ultimate authority on earthly matters.

Less memorably than Tocqueville, others tarred Gobineau with the brush of “materialism.” The staff writer who reviewed the Essai for the prestigious newspaper Journal des débats, Louis Alloury, produced a more formulaic rendering of the same position. “I cannot admit,” he wrote, “that man and society are suspended from a fact [race] of a material and purely physiological order.” The broadly Cousinian inspiration for this position emerged when he observed, “All of philosophy resides in . . . its being distinct from phrenology.”50 Cousin, famous for his distrust of the new reductive natural sciences, particularly loathed phrenology, which professed to explain mental life by protuberances on the brain, visible and palpable as “bumps” on the skull. Cousin defined his mission as retooling philosophy for the peculiar circumstances of the nineteenth century, when it had to fend off the encroachments of science.51 Hence, while his anti-materialism could constitute a powerful moral argument against racial science, it came with an important downside: it was suspicious of science, failed to recognize its distinctive moral claims, and tended to discourage its development altogether. As the moral field shaped itself in the immediate French reception of Gobineau’s Essai, two mutually supportive lines of force—belief in the irreducibly dual nature of human beings and concern for the practical consequences of racial theory—shunted the claims of science aside.

Our last case in this experiment is also the hardest. Ernest Renan’s moral field as a theorist of race is the most difficult to map. It expanded over time, eventually including all four of the considerations I have catalogued without thereby freeing Renan’s position from ambiguity or enabling it to satisfy the moral requirements that he, unlike Gobineau, claimed to honor.My account here focuses on Renan’s Histoire générale of 1855, though I venture forward and backward in time.

The puzzle of Renan’s racial theory lends itself to a biographical approach precisely because all that we know about the young Renan sits so uncomfortably with the man later associated with fueling antisemitism through his invidious comparisons between the Aryan and Semitic races. The son of a Breton mariner who died at sea, leaving his family in genteel poverty, Renan had a precocious intelligence that caught the eye of the local clergy. He won scholarships to the best church schools in Paris, and by the time he entered the prestigious seminary of Saint-Sulpice, his teachers believed him to possess a genuine religious vocation that would lead naturally to the priesthood. But in a painful last-minute crisis of conscience—he had always been introspective and given to recording his psychological states in minute detail—Renan changed course.52 He left the Church and, in the place of the Catholicism that had once sustained him, embraced the thoroughly secular discipline of philology.

Let me summarize the relevant biographical factors. Renan exhibited a striking moral scrupulousness—an insistence on acting correctly and transparently—both during his religious phase and as he made the transition to secular life.53 He also developed a love of the Hebrew language at Saint-Sulpice, where it was offered as an elective for purposes of biblical exegesis. His testimony to this effect is worth quoting. Of all his courses, he wrote his mother in 1843, Hebrew “holds the greatest charm for me.” And some months later, “There is not in the world any language more beautiful and more simple.”54 Or, as he wrote to a friend, he had been thoroughly “surprised” to encounter in Hebrew a “language so simple, without structure, almost without syntax [. . .] truly the language of a child.”55 He soon imposed on himself the substantial task of copying, translating, and providing commentaries on fifty-eight Hebrew psalms.56 Reading the Song of Songs in 1845, he recognized that one had to enter into “the spirit of these peoples” and avoid imposing nineteenth-century French literary categories on their poetry.57

When Renan was scarcely more than a year into his own study of the language, his philologically trained mentor asked him to take over the Hebrew grammar class at the seminary.58 That mentor then arranged for him to attend the lectures on Hebrew and Aramaic offered at the Collège de France by the orientalisté tienne-Marc Quatremère.59 Renan turned his sights to philology as a profession: to his pleasure in Hebrew was joined his shrewd perception that the paucity of students in his Hebrew classes meant there would be little competition to contend with down the road.60

In addition, Renan moved comfortably in social circles that included more Jews than one would have predicted on the basis of his background. He mingled with young Jewish intellectuals as a member of the regular stable of writers for the shortlived laic republican journal La Liberté de penser (1847–50).61 He mingled with Jewish scholars in his capacity as director of the Department of Hebrew Manuscripts at the Bibliothèque nationale for some ten years starting in 1850.62 His books appeared solely under the imprint of a Jewish publisher, Michel Lévy, from the 1850s until the end of his life.63 As one historian summed up the situation, “More than any other Christian scholar of his era, Renan maintained continuous ties with Jewish intellectuals.”64

How, then, did a young man of delicate moral conscience, capable of appreciating cultures other than his own, participating in a social and intellectual network that included Jews—and capable even of being moved to tears by the embarrassed reluctance of a poor German scholar to identify himself as a Jew—turn out to be a theorist of race whose work provided fodder for antisemites?65 And what does that outcome tell us about the moral field in which racial thinking operated in nineteenth-century France?

In order to broach that question, we must first get a sense of the tenor of Renan’s views, the kinds of scholarly statements he made that might qualify him, according to our contemporary categories, as racist and antisemitic. Renan made such statements in the context of his philological work in an era when philology had tremendous cachet in Europe. Not only the domain of specialists, it also gripped the general educated public.66 And in Germany, at least, where its vogue had begun earlier than elsewhere, it had even penetrated into popular culture: when philologists began to investigate the milieu of the historical Jesus, turning “Pharisee” into a household word as a synonym for “hypocrite,” a drink called a Pharisee appeared on café menus; a combination of coffee and rum, it was served in a tall glass topped with whipped cream to hide the fact that the person who ordered it was actually imbibing alcohol in the middle of the afternoon.67

The public excitement surrounding philology arose from the monumental insight announced by William Jones before the Asiatic Society of Calcutta in 1786 and then validated and honed by such German philologists as Friedrich Schlegel and Franz Bopp in the opening decades of the nineteenth century: that Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, and most European languages were related—part of the same “language family”—and that Sanskrit was the progenitor of all the others. This discovery not only tied European culture more closely to that of the so-called Orient than had previously been assumed; it also established a fundamentally new system of categories by which to divide up the world. The language family first identified by Jones was named, alternately, Indo-European, Indo-Germanic, or, with reference to the northern Indian nobility thought to be its original speakers, Aryan—a term, adopted by Renan, Gobineau, and Courtet de l’Isle, that harbored a dreadful future. As early as 1786, Jones demarcated this large group of languages from another language family, including Arabic and Hebrew, that gradually came to be known by the adjective “Semitic.”68

Let us return to the Renan of the 1850s and to the susceptibility of his philological work to charges of what a later era would call “antisemitism” and “racism.” Foremost among Renan’s provocations was his first-person assertion in the opening chapter of the Histoire générale: “I am, then, the first to recognize that the Semitic race, compared to the Indo-European race, really represents an inferior combination of [the elements of] human nature.” This perversely proud proclamation appeared in the first edition of 1855 and reappeared, unchanged, in the editions of 1858 and 1863. In all three editions, it was followed by a footnote, containing not the qualification of the distasteful statement that today’s reader expects, but instead Renan’s remarks about a potential priority dispute; he wrote this paragraph before encountering similar ideas in a German work of 1847 on ancient India, he insists.69

Renan’s use of the word “race” here should be underscored, for it points to the persistent ambiguity of his thinking. In the book’s preface, he presented himself as a stickler for verbal precision, asserting that “judgments about the races,” which he equated with “blood,” must always be made carefully and hedged round with “many restrictions.”70 Yet Renan played fast and loose with his terms. In a prize-winning manuscript of 1847, he seemed to employ such keywords as “language family,” “nation,” “people,” “ethnological division,” “stock,” and “race” interchangeably, and this tendency continued, with a somewhat greater preference for “race,” in the three editions of the Histoire générale.71 In sum, Renan’s Semitic “race” probably referred to a “language family” and a biological “race” simultaneously.

In the first substantive chapter of the book, Renan defined the Semitic “language family” as consisting of Aramaic, Hebrew, and Arabic and having as its “cradle” the geographical region in Southwest Asia bounded by the Mediterranean, the Taurus Mountains, the Tigris River, and the seas surrounding the Arabian Peninsula. Expressing the common wisdom at this date, he declared it categorically different from the more geographically far-flung group of Indo-European or Aryan languages (Renan treated those terms as synonyms), which occupied an area stretching from India to the extremities of Western and Northern Europe. It was Renan’s self-imposed task to study the Semitic languages according to the methods of comparative philology that these languages had done so much to inspire but from which they had as yet, ironically, derived so little benefit.72 And as a comparativist, he would focus, as we have seen, on that language family’s inferiority. Why he felt the compulsion to hierarchize, which is certainly not inherent in the act of comparison, is a question to which I will turn later. But it is worth pointing out now that Renan’s hierarchy would transform the pair Aryan-Semite into a binary opposition, with potentially inflammatory consequences.

The manifestations of Semitic “inferiority” catalogued in the Histoire générale turned out to be numerous, and Renan’s long bill of particulars reinforced the vehemence of his position. While, in his telling, the Indo-European languages demonstrated an organic fluidity and capacity for repeated rebirth, their Semitic counterparts, which had shown no development “since earliest antiquity,” were “metallic.” Hence, Renan quipped, the exclusive study of the Semitic languages could no more produce a great linguist than “the spectacle of the [presumably immobile] history of China could inspire great historians.” True, the genius of the Semites and their vast contribution to humanity was their discovery of “monotheism.” But Renan cautioned his reader to put this breakthrough in proper perspective: it resulted not from “reflection or reasoning” but from the inchoate “instincts” of the “Semitic race.” It may even have been a geographically determined reflex: “The desert is monotheist; sublime in its immense uniformity, it first revealed to man the idea of the infinite.” Moreover, given the Semites’ ineptitude in “ science” and “philosophy,” it fell to the “Indo-European race” to “seek to explain God and the world by a rational system.” The Semites’ laudable intuition of a single deity also, perversely, reinforced their inferiority in other areas. It denied them the power to generate a mythology, since myths spring from a supple, pantheistic understanding of the world. It robbed them of “creative imagination,” leaving them artistically barren. It rendered them “intolerant” (unlike the early Indo-Europeans, who never took their polytheistic religions “for absolute truth”) and hence strangers to “freedom of thought.” Remember the journal of that name, La Liberté de penser, to which Renan rallied shortly after he left the seminary.73

Some recent commentators have sought to save Renan from himself by pointing out that his philological writings consistently treat language, an immaterial entity, rather than the materiality of race.74 One of these commentators even asserts, on the basis of strong textual evidence, that Renan was something of a constructivist: he believed that philological research had created language groups, and that the races corresponding to them thus had the epistemological status of Weberian “ideal types avant la lettre.”75 But such arguments, while appealing to those, likemyself, who find the younger Renan personally sympathetic, ultimately fail to persuade. In addition to Renan’s frustrating slipperiness about the relation of language to race, his concept of language is extraordinarily deterministic. From his 1848 essay on the origin of language to the end of his life, Renan habitually used the term “mold” (moule) as a metaphor for the shaping power of language.76 Every language, he declared in 1848, “emerges complete from the mold of the spontaneous spirit” of the people. It is incapable of self-correction: hence the Semitic languages “never invent[ed] a satisfactory system of tenses and moods.” It is, moreover, “imprisoned in its grammar.” While internal variations are possible (“within families, everything is fluid, without a fixed mold”), the broader “family characteristics” are “immutable.” It is simply impossible for a Semitic language to acquire “the essential devices of the Indo-Germanic languages.”77

To be imprisoned in one’s grammar might not be an especially significant condition, even though Renan’s choice of metaphor suggests otherwise. But for Renan, writing now in 1855, “grammar is the essential form of a language, that which constitutes its individuality,” and language, in turn, is “the necessary mold of all the intellectual operations of a people.”78 The real-world capabilities of a “race” are thus foreordained by its language. In terms of its impermeability by and fundamental exclusion from history, Renan’s “language family” is, arguably, the functional equivalent of race.79

Certainly that is the way Adolphe Franck, the philosophy professor (and disciple of Cousin) we met earlier, read the Histoire générale when he reported on it to the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences shortly after its appearance. Renan, he charged, had allowed the “system of race” to dominate the entire book. That system, “conceived a priori,” posited not just racial difference but also immutable racial inequality. Most important for us here, Franck characterized Renan’s strategy as having let racial theory simply “pass over, uncontested, into the study of language and mental productions.” Thus Renan had fallen into a basic philosophical error, one with which we are already familiar: that of not “carefully separating the two orders of existence.” He ended up affirming “the fatalism of matter . . . [and] blood, which renders man the slave of his [physiological] organization, which subordinates will to instinct, the faculties of mind to the color and form of the face.”80 With less visceral passion than Tocqueville exhibited in addressing Gobineau, then, Franck relied on the same philosophical dualism to criticize Renan’s racial theory from a moral standpoint. Where moral discomfort with the category of race was concerned, the spiritmatter divide seems to have been the most available tool in the nineteenth-century French moral arsenal.

In other contexts, for example, an 1858 appreciation of Cousin, Renan himself affirmed that dualism. He declared the soul or mind “the first of the realities [of the universe] and the only full reality, while matter is but . . . an accidental aggregation that is made and unmade, that has no permanent identity, . . . no freedom.”81 But he did not yet introduce this doctrine into his moral field or allow it to interact with his philology. He had, after all, another allegiance, one inimical to Cousin: to science, and science in a very nearly positivist, Comtean sense. It is this latter allegiance that can help us understand the impulse behind Renan the racial theorist—and, even more important here, the moral reasoning by which he justified that role.

Renan often said that he had left the seminary in 1844 in order to study philology. Reminiscing about a conversation with Renan that took place when the latter was on the verge of his momentous decision, Jules Simon confirmed this biographical detail: “His was not the first confession of this sort that I had heard. But the two others had spoken to me as philosophers about the conditions of certainty and the impossibility of reconciling miracles with rational principles. Monsieur Renan spoke only of philology.” Renan told Simon that his dissatisfaction with the Church stemmed from his discovery that key Old Testament texts interpreted allegorically as anticipations of Christ were based on St. Jerome’s faulty translation of the Hebrew. As Simon described the young man’s situation with a combination of tenderness and humor, “He was separated [from the Church] by a question of grammar [. . .] He gambled his life on a comma.”82 Such a description, however, does not do justice to the authority that Renan vested in philology and that must have lessened the risk-taking he perceived his decision to entail. In a word, Renan saw philology as a science.

In his 1848 text L’avenir de la science (The Future of Science), Renan was already heaping epistemological praise on philology, calling it “the science of the products of the human mind” and “the exact science of mental things.” Its foundational role in “the sciences of humanity” was analogous to that of physics and chemistry in “the science of the body.”83 Decades later, he was still hammering home the reliably scientific status of philology, making his criteria clearer than before. His scholarly hero, the German philologist Bopp, had “established, by an absolutely indisputable method, the unity of Sanskrit with Greek, Latin, Persian, and also with the Germanic languages.” Bopp’s method, which Renan sought to emulate for the Semitic languages, was nothing less than “truth itself, the absolutely scientific method.” Put simply, Bopp and his followers “have rules,” as seen in their making phonetics the “veritable base” of comparative philology. “One establishes how a given sound is transformed when passing from Sanskrit to Greek, how a given Sanskrit letter becomes a given Greek letter: there is no more arbitrariness,” but instead “great certitude.”84

Renan’s quest for laws, or “rules,” governing a particular domain of phenomena showed his adherence to the spirit, if not the letter, of Auguste Comte’s theory of positive science. Renan had read Comte as early as the mid-1840s and criticized him at length in L’avenir de la science (1848) for his narrow definition of “the science of the human mind” (which Comte confined to brain physiology) and his exclusion from it of such phenomena dear to Renan’s heart as psychology, literature, poetry, mythology, and religion. If the world were actually as Comte depicted it, Renan jested, it would lead “beautiful souls” to commit suicide. Renan chalked up the impoverishment of Comte’s conception of human science—as well as his regrettable Eurocentrism— to his ignorance of philology.85 But he had imbibed more of Comte than these criticisms would suggest, relying on his theory, as we have seen, to discern the crucial marks of scientific status in a discipline such as philology. And the strength of his Comteanism grew over time.86 Thus in 1878 he even offered a rendition of Comte’s famous law of the three stages, saying that the intellectual development of the “Indo-European race” had proceeded from mythology to metaphysics to positive science, the highest “rung” on the ladder.87

Against this background, we can speculate about why Renan felt himself called, in his role as comparative philologist in 1855, not only to discern the fundamental differences between the Indo-European and Semitic language groups but also to hierarchize them. Comtean positivism was all about hierarchization: the historical path from religious to metaphysical to positive explanation traced a hierarchy from the illusion of absolute knowledge to the more limited but more secure truth of science; that same path progressed from a child’s mode of reasoning to that of an adult.88 More directly related to the comparison of the Indo-European and Semitic languages was Comte’s hypothesis that bodies of knowledge crossed the threshold into positive science in a historical order that began with those (astronomy, physics) that had as their object the most simple phenomena (inorganic matter) and concluded with those (biology, sociology) that dealt with the most complex phenomena (living organisms, society). Comte frankly called this order a “hierarchy,” making clear his assumption that simplicity was inferior in rank to complexity.89 Sociology, the most complex science, would, he predicted, occupy a position at the top of the pinnacle and, once fully elaborated, function as a kind of master science in the modern era. It may well have been this Comtean schema that disposed Renan both to think in terms of the desirability of hierarchizing his two language families and to see the “simplicity” and “child-like” quality of the Semitic languages—features he noted in Hebrew as soon as he encountered it—as marks of their inferiority.

Whatever the inspiration for these intellectual maneuvers, the moral hold of science on Renan explains why he could construe them as blameless. The conclusion of the Histoire générale shows him operating in a moral field dominated by two lines of force: the postulate of human equality and the ethos of science. To keep them both in play, Renan explicitly isolates them from one another. He calls the equality of all human beings in the eyes of God (a seminal insight he in fact attributes to the Semitic monotheists) “a sacred and scientifically incontestable postulate” that he accepts a priori but that does not deter him from undertaking a scientific investigation of the races. The first concerns the “divine” origin of humanity, the second its “terrestrial” origin. To his way of thinking, the utter separation of the a priori principle and the empirical project protects both. “To be independent, science must not be disturbed by any dogma. By that same token, it is essential that moral and religious belief be sheltered from the results to which science may be conducted by its deductions.”90

Renan’s stark separation of these two lines of force within his moral field helps to make sense of a curious statement in his bestselling Vie de Jésus (Life of Jesus) (1863). Pondering the racial identity of the historical Jesus, he noted that Galilee, the birthplace of this revolutionary religious leader, had a “very mixed population” and counted among its inhabitants many non-Jews (Phoenicians, Syrians, Arabs, and even Greeks), who not infrequently converted to Judaism. Hence, Renan continued, “it is impossible here to raise any question of race or to try to determine what blood flowed in the veins of the one who contributed most to erasing distinctions of blood among humanity.”91 To those unfamiliar with the idiosyncratic features of Renan’s thought, the sentence seems blatantly self-contradictory, simultaneously valorizing the race concept (through Renan’s frank curiosity about Jesus’s race) and denigrating it (through his depiction of Jesus’s sublime doctrine as transcending considerations of blood and affirming human equality). But the apparent self-contradiction is explained away by Renan’s insistence, in his Histoire générale, on acknowledging the claims of both human equality and the scientific quest for racial knowledge while keeping the two radically separate.

Renan says nothing about how this double vision works in practice; he acts as if the invidious labeling featured in his empirical racial science, perhaps magically buffered by the egalitarianism of his a priori postulate, has no worldly consequences. But his critics, including Adolphe Franck, were not so sanguine. With the explicit intent of responding to those critics and clarifying the thesis of the Histoire générale, Renan presented a long paper to the Paris Asiatic Society in 1859.92 Race, he repeated, had exercised enormous power in history; it had, for example, determined that, once converted to monotheism by the Semites, the Aryans became the exclusive carriers of human progress. But now Renan insisted on relegating the power of race to the past.93

To do so, he invoked the secular variant of the a priori postulate of human equality, adding it to the religious variant already prominent in his moral field. The abstract standard of universal human rights on which certain modern nations such as France based their social order had, he said, superseded and “completely eliminated” the fact of race, “at least officially.” This recognition, he implied, ought to disarm his critics: “Let the school that seeks the key to history in ethnography and comparative philology not, then, be accused of ceding too much to blood and misunderstanding the moral and universal side of human nature.” But Renan did not give up his structuring principle so easily, specifying in his very next sentence that “[r]aces are permanent frames, types of human life, that, once founded, do not die.” In other words, the disappearance of race he ascribed to countries such as France was actually a more qualified change of status: the racial frames, “originally physiological,” had over time lost their connection with blood and become “intellectual and moral molds.” They were, moreover, now “often filled by individuals who have almost no physical affiliation with the founders.”94 Translated into practical midnineteenth- century terms, this qualification determined the modern peoples who could be accurately labeled—or in Renan’s system, tarred—as Semites. Here Renan seemed at pains to indicate his lack of anti-Jewish sentiment; as if displacing that sentiment, he hinted at an Islamophobia that he would develop elsewhere.95 He wrote: “The Turk, a devout Muslim, is today much more truly a Semite [despite his Tartar racial origins] than the Jew [Israélite] who has become French, or more precisely, European.”96 The historical transfers of individuals between formerly racial “frames” or “molds,” the relegation of “race” to a set of attitudes rather than a transmissible biology, thus argued for a schema of historical progress in which physical factors faded in importance over time while intellectual and cultural ones gained in strength. At the same time, those changes protected from racial stigma the kinds of Jews with whom Renan routinely mingled; such people had ceased to be Semites.

Renan went further in the direction of minimizing the historical power of race as the practical implications of racial labels, including those he had nurtured, became the stuff of daily newspapers later in the century. The French humiliation in the Franco-Prussian War led to accusations that Alsatian Jews had betrayed the fatherland; in 1879 a German journalist coined the term antisemitismus, meant to be construed positively as part of a far-right-wing political program; the 1882 crash of the Union générale, a Catholic bank, was widely attributed to the machinations of the Rothschilds, provoking a burst of anti-Jewish rhetoric.97 In this changing political environment, Renan seems to have perceived that he had long been playing with fire. Or, put differently, he seems to have realized that a moral field structured by an a priori belief in human equality and, sealed off from it, the demands of scientific research about race was hobbled without a third line of force: concern for the practical consequences of racial theory.

In two public lectures of the early 1880s, Renan deliberately reined in the concept of race, limiting its applicability and relevance. One of those lectures, delivered in January 1883, concerned the Jews. Here Renan argued that, over the centuries, the tie connecting the Jewish religion to the racial group originally associated with it had been decisively severed. The Hebrew prophetic tradition begun by Isaiah eight centuries before the birth of Christ had fundamentally altered the potential audience of Jewish religious doctrine; initially intended only for the tribes of Israel, the worship of Yahweh became universal in scope. Moreover, by dint of periods of intensive conversion to Judaism during the Hellenistic and Roman eras and in medieval Russia, the so-called Jewish “race” had lost all ethnographic meaning.98

The other lecture went farther. “Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?” (“What Is a Nation?”), delivered at the Sorbonne in March 1882, has become the best-known of Renan’s texts in the twenty-first century. Speaking in its opening paragraph of the “dangerous misunderstandings” prevalent in his own time—and which, though he neglects to say it, his own work helped to foster—Renan sought to correct the confusion that had prompted the equation of “nation” with “race” and the attribution of political sovereignty to “ethnographic or linguistic groups.” Along the way, he made a number of pointed comments about the new scholarly disciplines: the Indo- European and Semitic language families created by comparative philology did not coincide with the categories of anthropology; ethnography, a science he admired, should stay out of politics. But his overarching point, with echoes of Cousinian dualism, was that a nation was a radically immaterial entity, a “soul,” or “spiritual principle.” Resting on the desire of its members to continue their common life, it was also—in Renan’s eloquent, moving, and oft-cited formulation—an “everyday plebiscite.”99 Read against the background of Renan’s changing attitude about race, these lectures seem to represent a crystallization of moral consciousness and to ex- press a hint of repentance. But, in fact, neither lecture disowned the race concept itself, and as late as 1890, two years before his death, Renan still affirmed his belief in “the inequality of the races.”100

What, then, can we conclude from this experiment in the empirical history of moral thinking? What advantage accrues to the historian from specifying the moral field that structured the discussion of racial theory among a group of mid-nineteenthcentury French intellectuals and then tracking some of their interventions to see that moral field in action? I would suggest that such a procedure has revealed the intellectuals in this study as simultaneously constrained and creative in their moral encounters with the new category of race. The limited number of considerations available to them in the moral field of their day—as in the moral field of any day— constrained them. At the same time, they were free to plot their own pathways through the moral field, engaging with the considerations that arrested them. By approaching these intellectuals through the device of the moral field, we acquire a language to describe their moral choices from the inside out; we begin to grasp the particular logics of individuals’ moral worlds, at least in relation to racial theory; and even if our descriptions betray, as they inevitably do, our own values, our account remains analytic: blanket moral judgment is ruled out.

The moral field also captures process. Its navigation by individual thinkers, their gravitation to certain lines of force and indifference to others, reveals the field’s inherent dynamism and its continually changing shape. That dynamism derives as well from the way the lines of force affect one another when combined by the thinkers in the field.

The line of force that animated most of the intellectuals in this study was the ethos of science; and hence the basic plot of the story I have told concerns the interactions between science and the other lines of force. The ethos of science consistently provided an impetus to develop a theory of the races. As part of its larger project to promote human progress by subjecting the human world to scientific investigation, it goaded researchers to zero in on the differences within the human family and to collect data and systematize knowledge about them. The other three lines of force each offered potential resistance to the forward advance of racial theory; they typically counseled slowing down, thinking twice, exercising caution. Given this imbalance of forces—three against one, to put it crudely—it is a testament to the attractive power of science at this date, as well as to its fluid meaning, that racial theory got off the ground and continued to thrive. But the three other lines of force were hardly intrinsically weak. It was only when intellectuals combined them with the brief for science that their power flagged.

Thus the tool most ready at hand to express moral discomfort with racial theory was the traditional philosophical dualism of spirit and matter, refurbished by Victor Cousin for use in the nineteenth century. Tocqueville employed it privately and with great rhetorical force to criticize Gobineau; Franck used it publicly to criticize Renan. It came, however, with baggage: it was suspicious of, if not hostile to, science, and hence could be readily dismissed by the scientifically minded. Of the racial theorists considered here, only Renan seems to have lent it serious, if belated, credence and to have judged and revised his own work in its terms. He did so first in 1859, when he relegated the influence of race to the past, and again and more persuasively in the 1880s, when he defined the nation in emphatically “spiritual” terms as an “everyday plebiscite.”

Another line of force, the a priori belief in human equality, figured in much theorizing about race. When adopted as a starting point for scientific research, as in the case of Schoelcher during the 1847 Ethnological Society debate, it struck contemporaries as flagrantly at odds with scientific inquiry. When alluded to in passing by a racial theorist, as by Courtet de l’Isle in the same 1847 debate, or even incorporated into a theory, as by Renan in the conclusion to the Histoire générale, it tended to lose its teeth. Relegated to a realm of ideal values cordoned off from the realm of fact, it was incapable of influencing scientific work.

Finally, speculating about practical consequences did not necessarily curb the excesses of racial theory for those who believed in the intrinsic good of scientific investigation. For both Courtet de l’Isle and d’Eichthal in 1847, the racial inequality posited by their theories could be made tolerable through imagined forms of social engineering.

Tocqueville, perhaps the only figure in this study who entertained doubts about the moral and epistemological worth of the positivist human sciences, offered a stark contrast in this regard. Agnostic about the truth of Gobineau’s thesis, he pondered its “useful[ness] to humanity.” His predictive capacity proved so accurate that his conjuring up of the practical effects of a theory of racial inequality constitutes, for us, at least, a definitive warning. Tocqueville may seem like our contemporary because his hanging back from the idolatry of science so characteristic of his era approximates the moral ambivalence about science in our own day. To translate Tocqueville’s position into the terms of the moral field, it was his detachment from the scientific ethos that permitted his full-bore engagement with consequentialist thinking about race.

I called Renan the hardest case in this experiment, and perhaps he can now be seen as my best single argument for an empirical history of moral thinking. Renan emerges in this account as an interminably equivocal figure. He was a well-intentioned young man who probably exaggerated the certitude of science in proportion to his need to replace Catholicism with a value system of comparable authority. Having made an early choice to grant science dominant status in his moral field, he struggled throughout his life with the moral implications of his racial theory. He was neither incorrigible—he revised his position on race in response to criticism and to the pressure of events—nor quite corrigible, either. In his old age, he still believed in the inequality of the human races. Approaching Renan through the device of the moral field renders his moral itinerary as a racial theorist intelligible—which is to say replete with dilemmas, blindnesses, and structural constraints stemming from his own choices and from the limitations of the field itself. Such an approach helps us to understand, in moral terms, the unfortunate resilience of nineteenth-century racial theory while appropriately refraining from a blanket moral judgment of its proponents. Placing the moral life squarely within our purview, we nonetheless remain on the historian’s terrain.

Jan E. Goldstein served as president of the American Historical Association in 2014. She is Norman and Edna Freehling Professor of History at the University of Chicago, where she is also a member of the Committee on Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science. Since 1996 she has been an editor of the Journal of Modern History. Her books include Console and Classify: The French Psychiatric Profession in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 1987); The Post-Revolutionary Self: Politics and Psyche in France, 1750–1850 (Harvard University Press, 2005); and Hysteria Complicated by Ecstasy: The Case of Nanette Leroux (Princeton University Press, 2010). Her presidential address indicates some of the broad outlines of her current book in progress.