Philosophy lecturer discusses history of slavery

By SABRINA ABRAMS | April 11, 2019

Robert Bernasconi, professor of Philosophy and African American Studies at Penn State University, gave a presentation titled “Chattel Slavery as Punishment: Stages in the History of an Argument,” on Thursday, April 4. The lecture was part of the English Department’s Tudor and Stuart Lecture Series (T&S), which brings together prominent scholars from other universities to showcase their work to Hopkins faculty and students. 

Chattel slavery is another term for slavery, in which people are treated as chattel: personal property. Bernasconi’s work focuses on using the works of many prominent philosophers to explore the history of slavery, racial theory and the history of biological race in human thought. He explores their connections to present-day systematized racism. In his discussion, Bernasconi repeatedly referred to the predominance of whiteness in Western theories and ideas.

Sarah Ross, a graduate student in the English department, explained that this critique of academia was one of her most important takeaways from Bernasconi’s presentation.

“Philosophy as a discipline, and all the humanities fields that work with the history of ideas, has a whiteness problem... We could and must tell a different story when we look back at things like the history of the concept of the ‘individual,’ of the Western subject who has certain inalienable rights,” she said.

Bernasconi analyzed the work of many prominent philosophers, including Immanuel Kant, Jean Bodin and John Locke. He also contemplated Mary Nyquist’s book, Arbitrary Rule, that explores the relationship between political and slavery.

English graduate student Alexandra Lossada, who acts as a student liaison between the English department and visiting professors for T&S Lectures, found this philosophical exploration to be highly engaging.

“My favorite part of the lecture was how Professor Bernasconi walked through a particular transition in European thought where race turned from a largely geographical and theological construct to a biological one by the end of the 18th century,” Lossada wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

English graduate student Daniel McClurkin cited the relevance of Bernasconi’s lecture to ongoing events on the Homewood Campus. McClurkin stated that this contributed to his enjoyment of the lecture. 

“By philosophers accepting that chattel slavery is a punishment, they were contributing to the criminalization of Africans even prior to their capture,” McClurkin wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “Since Bernasconi contends that Kant’s philosophy, in particular, has influenced modern-day conceptions of race and racism, the criminalization of African Americans and its consequences continues to resonate quite strongly even today, as demonstrated by the ongoing sit-in protesting the passage of the JHU private police force legislation.”

Lossada expressed her appreciation for the T&S Lectures as a formative part of the learning process for English graduate students, who are required to attend the series.

“I enjoy the [T&S] lectures because the speakers who come often present research that is on its way to becoming an article or book chapter; we not only receive the benefit of listening to the content, but also get a glimpse of the argument at a particular stage of its articulation, which is of pedagogical importance to us graduate students training to become scholars,” she wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

Ross believed it was important to hear Bernasconi’s thoughts. She enjoyed his emphasis on letting individuals tell their own stories. 

“What I especially appreciated hearing... was that we ought now more than ever to imagine what it would be like if... formerly enslaved people and their descendants were the ones writing the story. Let’s make that happen, first of all by listening to them,” Ross wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

McClurkin voiced his respect for the lecture series, highlighting the role they play in strengthening the English community at Hopkins.

“I enjoy the intimate setting of the talks, the variety of invited scholars, and the chance to decompress and talk with others at the post-talk reception,” McClurkin wrote. 

Bernasconi wrote in an email to The News-Letter that he appreciated the chance to interact with Hopkins faculty and students after the lecture.

“Although I am a philosopher, not an English professor, I am a great admirer of the Department of English at JHU and that I know the work of many of the fine scholars there. Having visited, I am even more impressed both by the faculty and the grad students I met,” Bernasconi wrote. 

Former T&S Lecture topics include “Strategic Anthropomorphism” and “‘Hot Things: Archive Fever and the Time of Cool Media.” 

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