29. Out of Africa: Slavery and the Diaspora

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An introduction to Africana philosophical thought as it emerged from the modern experience of slavery and colonization by Europeans.



Further Reading
• E. Abbott, Sugar: A Bittersweet History (London: 2009).
• Q.O. Cugoano, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery, ed. V. Carretta (New York: 1999).
• P.D. Curtin, The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (Madison: 1969).
• D.B. Davis, Slavery and Human Progress (New York: 1984).
• B. Fra-Molinero, "Juan Latino and His Racial Difference," in T.F. Earle and K.J. P. Lowe (eds.), Black Africans in Renaissance Europe (Cambridge: 2005), 326-44.
• H.L. Gates, Jr. and M. Wolff, "An Overview of Sources on the Life and Work of Juan Latino, the "Ethiopian Humanist,"" Research in African Literatures 29 (1998): 14-51.
• P. Manning, "Why Africans? The Rise of the Slave Trade to 1700," in G. Heuman and J. Walvin (eds.), The Slavery Reader (London: 2003), 30-41.
• B.L. Solow (ed.), Slavery and the Rise of the Atlantic System (Cambridge: 1991).
• V.B. Spratlin, Juan Latino, Slave and Humanist (New York: 1938).
• H. Thomas, The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870 (New York: 1997).
• J. Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800, 2nd ed. (New York: 1998).
• E.R. Wright, The Epic of Juan Latino: Dilemmas of Race and Religion in Renaissance Spain (Toronto: 2016).


Ken on 20 August 2019

I'm nearly up-to-date. I was

I'm nearly up-to-date. I was wondering Dr.Adamson if you and Dr. Jeffers planned to comment on the 1956 Conference of Black-African Writers and Artists when you all get to the 1950s (which will proabaly be a busy decade to cover between Civil Rights and the Independence movement)? I recently read on this conference of writers from across the African diaspora when I read James Baldwin's write-up about it in his essay Princes and Powers that was include it in his book Nobody Knows My Name. Also can't wait for you guys to get to Du Bois, I've read The Souls of Black Folk, Black Reconstruction, and most recently Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil by him and was amazed at every word.


I definitely look forward to learning about (or re-learning about) the folks and philosophy in this podcast!

In reply to by Ken

Peter Adamson on 22 August 2019

20th century Africana

Thanks, those are good tips, especially the 1956 conference. We are planning to cover Baldwin, and actually Du Bois is one of Chike's major research interests so we will certainly have a lot to say about him!

In reply to by Ken

Chike Jeffers on 23 August 2019


Thanks for this comment. As you know of the 1956 conference, you may know of the 1959 follow-up conference in Rome, and perhaps even of the 1968 Congress of Black Writers in Montreal, or the also relevant 1966 and 1977 world festivals of black art in Dakar and Lagos. While we have no plans at present for episodes focusing entirely on any of these gatherings, they are each bound to come up given the figures who were there, as we will be covering as best we can not only Baldwin but loads of other attendees (for example, at the 1956 conference alone: Leopold Senghor, Aime Cesaire, Frantz Fanon, Richard Wright, Cheikh Anta Diop, George Lamming, Jean Price Mars, William Fontaine...). 

I'm also happy to report that you can look forward to at least four episodes with a focus on Du Bois...

In reply to by Chike Jeffers

Ken on 23 August 2019

I'm happy to hear about folks

I'm happy to hear about folks from the 1956 Conference being covered as well as the full slate of Du Bois! I've head of the other conferences, but they don't have a play-by-play by James Baldwin lol. I know that while 1956 is notable for the all-star attendees (Du Bois was suppose to be there, but he was not issued a visa because of the Red Scare--Baldwin printed his written message to the other attendees), 1959 in Rome played a more important role in the development of post-colonial Francophone-Africa, given that Senghor had personally invited Andre Malrux, then-French Minister of Culture as a keynote speaker.


I know of the 66 & 77 conference mainly through my being a cinephile as well as a bibliophile. Those conferences in Senegal and Nigeria played a role in helping to shape black fimaking in the diaspora up to the emmergence of Spike Lee.


Thank you both for responding and making this podcast!

Scott Williams on 27 October 2020

Natural Slavery vs. Civil Slavery -- and Disability

Hi Peter,

I've noticed that there are (still) no podcasts about disability, and likewise none in relationship to Aristotle's "slaves by nature." Not to toot my own horn, but I edited a book about disability (with a chapter in relation to slaves by nature) called Disability in Medieval Christian Philosophy and Theology. I hope the philosophy (and theology) of disability will get some attention later. 

I am deeply thankful for A History of Philosophy without any Gaps. My students, and I, love it!


In reply to by Scott Williams

Peter Adamson on 27 October 2020


Yes, good point. I will think about where I can fit that in in the future! I don't suppose anything comes to mind for you from 15-16th century philosophy outside of Italy? Because that's what I'm covering over the next couple of years.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Scott Williams on 28 October 2020

Natural Slavery in Spanish Colonialism

Hi Peter,

15th-16th centuries outside of Italy-- sure! I'd recommend the chapter "Remembering 'Mindless' Persons: Intellectual Disability, Spanish Colonialism, and the Disappearance of a Medieval Account of Persons who Lack the Use of Reason," (in Disability in Medieval Christian Philosophy and Theology). Key authors from this period: John Mair, Gines Sepulveda, Bartolome de Las Casas, and Francisco De Vitoria.  It's in the details of how the term 'barbaros' was understood that you find discussion of what we'd call profound intellectual or cognitive disability. Las Casas's third kind of barbarian is a reiteration of what John Mair wrote. De Vitoria basically undermines their presentation with a closer reading of Aristotle and Aquinas (esp. on the Politics, Book 1). Miguel Romero (in the chapter above) gives a close reading of the relevant texts to show how severe cognitive disability fits into this disucssions.

I talk about the history in a two part talk: Part 1 (Aristotle, Roman Civil Law, Macrina the Younger, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine) here and Part 2 (Thomas Aquinas, John Mair, Las Casas, Ibn Sina, De Vitoria) here. I talk about the book as a whole, here.  Over the summer I translated the key text from John Mair, 2 Sent. q. 44, q. 3, that was often used to justify the Spanish pro-subjugation stance. He ignores the fact that Aristotle was talking about those we'd call profoundly cognitive disabled, and instead supposes he's talking about a whole people group who are this way because of adverse climates. De Vitoria "remembers" who Aristotle was talking about, thanks in part to Aquinas's discussions of those with "amentia", and so is a better reader of Aristotle and Aquinas, and undermines e.g., John Mair (and Columbus!) in his Lecture on the American Indians. I translated this over the summer too; he talks about the "amentes" quite a bit in this lecture (those who aren't well read in philosophy of disability typically overlook this part of De Vitoria's texts). There's another lecture by De Vitoria that I plan to translate that is all about those "who come to the use of reason." (Romero discusses this text briefly.)

I'm sure there are many more authors - this area of research is new (as I discuss in the "Introduction" to the disability book). SO much more to learn!

My email is swillia8 at unca dot edu    if you want to chat more about this.

Thanks again for all your work on this podcast series!!


In reply to by Scott Williams

Peter Adamson on 28 October 2020

Natural slavery

Yes, that was prominently included on my list already, though I had not really thought about it as being about disability; that is an interesting way to think about it, and indeed about the whole history of theorizing concerning natural slavery... one could also think about women as being in effect "disabled" according to standard ancient and medieval accounts of gender difference, no?

It seems like different philosophical issues arise from the (a) idea of whole populations/demographics, e.g. "barbarians" or women, who are (supposedly) "disabled" relative to some other group (European men), and (b) the idea of individuals who do not belong to such a demographic but are considered disabled, e.g. European men who are blind, deaf, or thought to have mental illness, right? Presumably something else we want to think about here is philosophers who fall into class (b). I was musing, after your original post, that an interesting case would be philosophers who had poor eyesight or blindness, like Plotinus (who apparently could not revise his works because of his eyesight) or a thinker who I just wrote a book about, Abu Bakr al-Razi. In the case of Plotinus I suspect this is something we are told by his biographer Porphyry to make a philosophical point, namely that Plotinus had a different, superior kind of "vision" of the intelligible world. Though it presumably is also true biographical information. Al-Razi tells us himself that he ruined his eyesight through so much writing, reading, and copying; here I am less inclined to think he has a larger philosophical point beyond stressing his great labors as a scholar.

Sorry, kind of thinking out loud there - clearly I need to consult your book!

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Scott Williams on 28 October 2020

Good points about Plotinus…

Good points about Plotinus and Al-Razi!    One thing that is important, I think (and I write this in my Introduction), is that we historians need to be familiar with contemporary philosophy of disability just like we might need to know about contemporary Epistemology, Metaphysics, Logic, etc. Once we are attuned to issues and debates in the philosophy of disability, some of the medieval and other texts, can come alive in a whole new way. This is especially evident in De Vitoria's texts. 

There's a chapter in the Disability book about Aristotle and sexual difference (see Christina Van Dyke's chapter). So, yeah, you are definitely onto something there!

Connecting cognitive disability to "slaves by nature" in this context is a new-ish interpretation put forward by Romero.

The bit about the "other" as being called disabled-- the key move with natural slavery is the claim that whoever that group is, they can (and should) be subjugated through warfare (claims John Mair). This goes entirely against what Aristotle was saying. It is a tricky issue in how we use the term 'disability' (there are big debates in the contemporary literature about the definition of disability, eg., the medical model, the social model(s), the welfare model, and intermediate models between these, and, other debates about the connection between disability (whatever that is) and well-being. Does a disability make a mere-difference, bad-difference, or good-difference?)

I'd be happy to chat about all this with you sometime, if you end up giving a podcast about disability.  (We are having a roundtable discussion of the disability book at the American Academy of Religion conference on Dec. 9th--the critics are philosophers and theologians, contemporary and medieval scholars.)


Peter Adamson on 29 October 2020

More on Disability

OK thanks! I am actually going to email you now but maybe others will jump in here with more comments and questions.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Andrew on 17 January 2024


So did this turn into anything for the podcast? I don't believe anything about disability has been brought up, although maybe I have just missed it. As someone on the autistic spectrum which can be considered a disability in some respects (although I am "high functioning" to use an outdated term) this is an interesting topic for me, and I think it would be good to bring it to the forefront like how you have done with gender and sexuality with the series. 

This is especially pertinent in my opinion as we get closer to modern philosophy and enlightenment thought, with the huge emphasis that is going to be put upon reason. I think there is a lot to be talked about with respect to how they are conceptualising a normative mind which might exclude others that don't fall within that normative model and how "intellectual disability" relates to that. Vice versa for a normative body and physical disability, although I focused on the mind due to how central reason is in modern and enlightenment thought and I currently can't think of a correspondingly central thing that would relate to the body.

In reply to by Andrew

Peter Adamson on 17 January 2024


Funny you should ask! I just arranged to do an interview with Scott Williams on this very topic; it will come in March or so, right after the episode on the Valladoid debate. 

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Andrew on 17 January 2024

Ooh nice! Can't wait for…

Ooh nice! Can't wait for that!

Speaking of March since we are on the topic of disability, is there any plan to do anything disability related in the China series? I know that you are probably going to do episode on gender and sexuality (just in general because of how you have incorporated them into the series so far but also specifically I must imagine that there is a lot of material about this with respect to Confucianism for obvious reasons), but I must imagine there is something related to disability as well. Probably, similar to gender/sexuality, related to the strict role system Confucianism has that issues come up if you can't fulfil those roles due to either physical disability, or having some condition or other mentally, neurologically etc.

As an aside, this has given me the idea that in one of your special 500th episode series you could go back and put a spotlight on disability just as a general topic throughout the history of philosophy. Not technically a gap, but more so a different angle to material you previously covered I guess. I'm thinking of how both mind and body ability has been characterised across texts and eras, how people deviant from the conceptual norm were viewed/handled in their systems etc. 

In reply to by Andrew

Peter Adamson on 17 January 2024

More on disability

Interesting - I'll keep this in mind as we go through the China series. I believe that my interview with Prof Williams will be pretty wide-ranging, not only about the relevance of the encounter with the population of the Americas, but also we'll touch on other pre-modern stuff and how it could interact with the philosophy of disability. To be honest I doubt it will be a recurring theme going forward in the way that gender is (you're right we'll have an episode on that in the China series), but it is definitely something I would like to touch on now and again.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Andrew on 17 January 2024

Why couldn't disability be a…

Why couldn't disability be a recurring theme? Is it because there isn't as much material on it as gender?

In reply to by Andrew

Peter Adamson on 18 January 2024

Gender vs disability

Yes, that's what I was thinking - or at least, not as an "immanent" category, I mean, one that the historical actors had in mind. Like, there is a querelle des femmes ("debate over women") in Renaissance and early modern Europe but no such body of literature that is explicitly about disability; or moving further ahead, there is no equivalent to Mary Wollstonecraft who writes on disability in the same period. As far as I know, that is! With philosophy of disability I guess we're more in the framework of bringing an explicit contemporary concern to texts that address that concern only implicitly, and sometimes very indirectly; for instance some of Scott Willliams' work has drawn on conceptions of the Trinity to develop a notion of personhood that would grant personhood to cognitively disabled humans. In other cases though it is much more obviously in play, and one such case is the debate over the status of recently encountered Americans, so that's why I wanted to have it highlighted for the first time here.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Andrew on 18 January 2024

The issues that disability…

The issues that disability throws up are there, just not under that banner. "Deformed" or "defective" or even "monstrous" are some categories to look for, or "madness" as well. And in any sort of eugenics discussion as well.

To be fair though, and this should be kept in mind when we are looking for disability in history, is that "disability" is actually a very modern concept that is quite tied to the birth of capitalism. Before, there was just impairments, "madness", "deformity/defectiveness" etc. Although, if you have read up on the philosophy of disability, you might have already come across this.

These two points show that, just like with the category of philosophy, we should keep an open mind on what counts as material pertaining to disability as well.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Andrew on 18 January 2024

I should probably clarify. I…

I should probably clarify. I had in mind for how disability can be a recurring theme by having dedicated episodes on the topic for each series, like you did with gender for episodes 192, 293, and 315 in western, and 16 in India. Not necessarily the more integrated approach you have done alongside that like where you try to put a spotlight on women philosophers or when you bring trends/topics that don't usually get a focus in the history of philosophy that relate to women like 429 or 237. 

In reply to by Andrew

Peter Adamson on 19 January 2024


Yes, I did get that this is what you were suggesting. I still am inclined not to do that, in part because of what we already discussed - seems to grow out of the historical material less organically. But this conversation has been useful in pushing me to look out for opportunities at least to touch on the topic whenever it makes sense, so thank you for that. Someone should really do a whole podcast series on philosophy of disability which could (among other things) look at it in historical contexts. Maybe I'll mention the idea to Scott when I interview him... 

12 December 2023 on 12 December 2023

David Hume

I wanted to look up the Hume quote about the black writer in Jamaica, Francis Williams. Was going to say that Hume was like a parrot himself, squawking the received wisdoms of his time, without much thought. In looking, I came across an article by Christopher Richard Wade Dettling, called Modern European Right: David Hume and the Negro as as Inferior Race. According to that article, Hume wrote two versions of the footnote. In the first he wrote that all other peoples were likely inferior to white people. After some criticism for that, his revised footnote declared that negroes were likely inferior to whites.

His formulation is important too. Hume said that he was "apt to suspect" the superiority of whites and the inferiority of negroes. That is, he has no hard evidence for this. It's just a prejudice. But one he refuses to shake. Thomas Jefferson used a similar formulation in his Notes on the State of Virginia. Perhaps Hume's views on race were influential, and did not benignly pass unnoticed.

It's interesting to me because for many people Hume is their favourite philosopher. I've seen people elegise the pleasure of his warm hearted, jovial company when reading him. These days there are many definitions of racist. Unfounded prejudice that you refuse to give up, seems as good as any to me. I had thought that anything Hume might have said would just be an echo of the wider culture. But he seems more racist to me now than before.

On the other hand, maybe I'm prejudiced myself. Too quick to think someone racist. In Hume's day, maybe it was entirely reasonable to look over the world and history; note the acheivements of Persia, India, Bagdad, China, Egypt, the Aztecs; and note the lack of acheivements by black Africans; then move from that to infer inferiority.

The first footnote (I can't post urls on this site, but the article should come up in a search):

"I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites."

The revised footnote in full:

“I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the Whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufacturer amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the Whites, such as the ancient German, the present Tartars, still have something eminent about them, in their valor, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are Negro slaves dispersed all over Europe, of whom none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; though low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one Negro as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly.”

Jefferson, writing later said:

"I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind."

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