The New York Times

Confronting Philosophy's Anti-Semitism

SHOULD WE CONTINUE TO TEACH THINKERS LIKE KANT, VOLTAIRE AND HUME WITHOUT MENTION OF THE HARMFUL PREJUDICES THEY HELPED LEGITIMIZE?

We commonly assume that anti-Semitism and related attitudes are a product of ignorance and fear, or fanatical beliefs, or some other irrational force. But it is by now well known that some of the most accomplished thinkers in modern societies have defended anti-Semitic views. For instance, several of the major Enlightenment philosophers — including Hume, Voltaire and Kant — developed elaborate justifications for anti-Semitic views. One common thread running through the work of these philosophers is an attempt to diminish the influence of Judaism or the Jewish people on European history.

In “The Philosophical Bases of Modern Racism,” wrote: “David Hume apparently accepted a polygenetic view of man’s origin, since in his ‘Natural History of Religion’ he made no effort to trace a linear development of man from the ancient Jews to the modern world, and presented practically no historical connection between Judaism and Christianity (which he saw more as emerging from pagan polytheism).” Popkin wrote that Voltaire challenged the biblical account of human history by asserting that only the Jews were descendants of Adam, and “everybody else pre-Adamites, though the non-European ones were degenerate or inferior to the European ones. Voltaire saw the Adamites as a major menace to European civilization, since they kept infecting it with what he considered the horrible immorality of the Bible. Voltaire therefore insisted that Europe should separate itself from the Adamites, and seek its roots and heritage and ideals in the best of the pre-Adamite world — for him, the Hellenic world.”

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