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Decolonizing the Ethnological Epoch of the Scottish Enlightenment

Content warning: This blog contains and examines racist imagery and views from the 19th century.

This is the second blog in a set of three commissioned blogs from Professor Tommy J. Curry. Tommy is a Professor in Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. These blogs follow on from Tommy’s lecture series in June 2022. The blogs will assess the challenges before museum educators, curators, and theorists in their quest to decolonise the museum. Read the first blog Decolonising the Scottish Museum: The Stakes of a Decolonial Approach to Scottish History.


Decolonization is a way of trying to understand how the concepts we use to think about racial and ethnic difference came to be. The ongoing attempts to demonize Scottish decolonial efforts, by conservatives and liberals alike, try to convince the public that research attempting to document Scotland’s role developing sciences of racial inferiority is political. These reactionary depictions deny historical facts and the decades of peer-review research showing how many of the popular notions Scotlanders have of Blackness are the result of colonial policies and imperialist fantasies. Decolonial analysis is not primarily aimed at critique, but rather connecting the concepts of the past to the practices of the everyday.

19th Century Scottish Ethnology: The Scottish Science of Racial Inferiority

The Scottish Enlightenment provided the rationale for formalizing the study of racial groups in the United Kingdom in the early 1800s. Influenced by the burgeoning field of physiognomy, white thinkers throughout Scotland and England embraced the idea that skin color was evidence of deeper physiological and evolutionary traits in the body. Immanuel Kant described physiognomy as “the art of judging a human being’s way of sensing or way of thinking according to his visible form.”[1] Physiognomy was thought to be a science that “judges the interior by the exterior.”[2] Visible physical differences, specifically how melanated bodies differed from that of whites, were thought to be evidence of intellectual, moral, and civilizational deficits of the darker races. As Johan Lavater explained, “With respect to the form of man, our eyes convince us, that the character of nation, as well as of mind, is visible in the countenance.”[3] Physiognomy gained academic and cultural currency among late 18th and early 19th century scholars in Edinburgh and London.[4] How whites perceived the difference between white skin color and Black skin color became a significant scientific endeavor of British Empire in the early 19th century. The science explaining why darker skin colors indicated an evolutionary difference between whites and the darker races was called ethnology.

The Ethnological Society of London was founded in 1843; a year after the Ethnological Society of New York. Though the ethnological societies in the United States and the United Kingdom were not established until the mid-1800s, the central tenets of ethnological theory were developed and debated in the early 1800s in Edinburgh. As the historian, Melissa Stein explains, “ethnology was a field of scientific inquiry premised on the belief that the physical body revealed the intellectual, moral, and political capacities of its owner and, by implication, those of his or her race writ large.”[5] While ethnology is often thought to be a racist pseudo-science associated with the proslavery writings of American authors such as Josiah Nott, James Campbell, or Samuel Morton, many of the founders of the British ethnological tradition were educated in Edinburgh. American ethnologists found mentorship in the racialist sciences at the University of Edinburgh.

One of the founders of the Ethnological Society of London, James Cowle Prichard, was also educated at the University of Edinburgh in the early 1800s. James Cowle Prichard’s Researches into the Physical History of Man (1813) urged a more formal study of racial differences and origins. He explained that “the nature and causes of the physical diversities which characterize different races of men, though a curious and interesting subject of inquiry, is one which has rarely engaged the notice of writers of our own country.”[6]  Prichard credits his interest in ethnology to the “inquiry into the physical history of mankind on hearing it treated of by the late Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Edinburgh.”[7] Prichard is referring to Dugald Stewart who delivered numerous lectures on skin color, geography, and racial characteristics throughout his time at the University of Edinburgh.

Like Stewart, Prichard accepted that climate-based physiognomy was correct and indisputable. Where Prichard differed from his predecessors and peers was that he believed that racial differences were the product of evolution. Prichard explains:

it must be concluded that the process of Nature in the human species is the transmutation of the characters of the Negro into those of the European or the evolution of white varieties in black races of men. We have seen that there are causes existing which are capable of producing such an alteration, but we have no facts which induce us to suppose, that the reverse of this change could in any circumstances be effected. This leads us to the inference that the primitive stock of men were Negroes, which has every appearance of truth.[8]

Prichard insisted that “the dark races are best adapted by their organization to the condition of rude and uncivilized nations, which we must conceive to have been the primitive state of mankind and that the structure of the European is best fitted for the habits of improved life.”[9] Consequently, “the Negro is particularly adapted to the wild or natural state of life…The senses are more perfect in Negroes than in Europeans, especially those which are of most importance to the savage and less necessary to the civilized man, viz. the smell, taste, and hearing.”[10] Scottish cultural and intellectual life revolved around the fundamental differences in racial kinds that were indicated through skin color.

Towards an Anti-Colonial Competence

The racism of 19th century Scottish intellectuals should no longer be surprising. The investment Scottish institutions have had in developing ethnology and other sciences of Black inferiority requires Scottish institutions to develop an anticolonial competence. Despite the pretense of social equality and tolerance touted as the hallmarks of Scottish democracy, the evidence demonstrates that the historical role those Scottish racial sciences had in making skin color the basis of judging the temperament, character, and potential of non-white groups requires a more skeptical view of Scottish narratives of nationhood. Anticolonial competence requires citizens and educators to think more historically about the concepts indicating racial and ethnic differences.


[1] Immanuel Kant, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, ed. Robert Louden (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 30.

[2] Ibid.

[3]Johann Lavater, Physiognomy Or, The Corresponding Analogy Between the Conformation of the Features and the Ruling Passions of the Mind (London: Cowie, Low, and Co. in the Poultry, 1826), 121.

[4] John Graham, “Lavater’s Physiognomy in England,” Journal of the History of Ideas 22.4 (1961): 561-572.

[5] Melissa Stein, Measuring Manhood: Race and the Science of Masculinity, 1830-1934, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 30.

[6] James Cowles Prichard, Researches into the Physical History of Man (London: John & Arthur Arch and B. & H. Barry, 1813), ii.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 233.

[9] Ibid., 235.

[10] Ibid. 235-236.