The Colour of Equality: Racial Classification and Natural Equality in Enlightenment Encyclopaedias

Research output: ThesisDoctoral thesis 1 (Research UU / Graduation UU)


While it may seem obvious that human beings should be treated equally before the law and given equal opportunities to succeed, much of recorded history actually demonstrates the exact opposite: hierarchy and innate inequalities were generally seen as both natural and inevitable. It was only during the eighteenth-century Enlightenment that equality was given the benefit of the doubt and inequality came to be seen as something abhorrent and in need of justification. Equality struck a deep emotional chord among an ever-broadening cross-section of European society and would be discussed and debated everywhere from the coffeehouses and the literary salons, to the universities and the scientific academies.
Yet, those very thinkers who gave equality its political bite invented a new and powerful discourse of inequality: modern racial classification. Using three major Enlightenment encyclopaedias–Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopaedia, Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, and Fortunato Bartolomeo De Felice’s Encyclopédie d’Yverdon–this dissertation places ideas of cross-cultural equality and racial inequality in their historical context to shed light on the nature of the Enlightenment.
The philosophes used physical features to categorize humanity into novel ‘racial’ groups in a discourse that was imbued with Eurocentric aesthetic and moral judgments. The growth of race-based slavery in the European colonies of the New World combined with the empiricism of the new science to give physical features an unprecedented importance in the classification of humanity. What is often overlooked in the scholarship on the invention of racial classification, however, is how the race concept fit into a new secular perspective on humanity. I demonstrate that race formed part of the Enlightenment’s engagement with humanity on a new explanatory axis that superseded a parochial religious framework. It was important in Enlightenment life science because it incorporated new understandings of heredity, generation, and deep time into the study of humankind.
Many of the very same thinkers who contributed to racial classification also politicized equality by putting it to new uses, such as in a vitriolic denunciation of slavery and inhumane treatment that was grounded in the nascent philosophy of human rights. We find the harshest and most thoroughgoing denunciation of slavery in French thought up to 1765 in Diderot's Encyclopédie, predicated on the idea that all human beings are fundamentally equal to one another. This argument is elaborated and strengthened in the Encyclopédie d'Yverdon. The tension between race and equality in Enlightenment thought can best be explained by the philosophes' attempt to provide a naturalistic account of humanity, in both our physical and moral attributes. In terms of the 'physical,' this meant including the human species in novel natural histories. In terms of the 'moral,' the philosophes sought the origins of human morality outside of scripture, in social experience alone. Rising inequality is one of the most pressing issues of our time and race continues to raise hackles in scientific and popular debates. This dissertation demonstrates that both concepts–equality and race–can best be understood within the framework of the Enlightenment, an intellectual epoch from which we have never really exited.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Utrecht University
  • Stuurman, Siep, Primary supervisor
  • Ziche, Paul, Supervisor
Award date23 May 2018
Print ISBNs978-90-393-6988-3
Publication statusPublished - 23 May 2018


  • Enlightenment
  • equality
  • race
  • intellectual history
  • encyclopaedias
  • diversity
  • inequality
  • racism


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