John Locke and the Myth of Race in America: Demythologizing the Paradoxes of the Enlightenment as Visited in the PresentReport as inadecuate

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Philosophical Studies in Education, v42 p101-112 2011

The English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) is one of the most prominent figures in the development of liberal Anglo-American political thought. Locke's writings had a significant influence on the American Revolution and founding principles of the United States in fundamental ways. The author argues that Locke's influence is pervasive not only in American political ideology but also in the contradictions between stated ideals and institutions that have sustained inequality and oppression in a land that values equality and freedom. Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno in their work on the Enlightenment note that every effort to rationalize the foundations of civil society also embedded those foundations in ideology and mythology. One of the myths that emerged out of the scientific revolution and effort to ground human progress in reason was the fiction of multiple races of humankind. This idea, while not uncommon in Anglo-European thought by the 19th century, became especially important in the United States in spite of the fact that it directly contradicts the ideology of equality stated in the founding documents. The author argues that this apparent contradiction reflects and is consistent with contradictions in Locke's attempt to logically ground the rationale for a civil society in self-evident laws of nature. The political thought of Locke is examined through his writings. Locke's personal life is also relevant as it set up the dialectic of his thought in relationship to the uneasy times in which he lived. Locke's political philosophy supported the rise of democratic institutions and basic principles of universal human rights and the character of just governments, while he was also a strong advocate for colonialism and early forms of entrepreneurial capitalism, including the formation of a colony based on slave labor. America had a special meaning for Locke as he worked through his arguments on the rationale for human advancement in economic and civic life. This study focuses on the inconsistencies in Locke's political thought and writings related to equality and inequality. The discussion begins with the impact of the Lockean tradition in relationship to the origin of Locke's ideas in his personal circumstances. As such, the analysis examines the intersection of liberalism with illiberalism, democracy, and concepts of race and racism. The conclusion cites historical examples of legal racial segregation and inequality in the United States with a call to better understand the logic of the past so that people can advance arguments for the ideals of liberal government in the future. (Contains 40 footnotes.)

Descriptors: Ideology, Philosophy, Reputation, Recognition (Achievement), Time Perspective, Political Attitudes, Democracy, Race, Racial Segregation, Social Theories

Ohio Valley Philosophy of Education Society. Web site:

Author: Richardson, Theresa



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