Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Roger Ariew, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Douglas Jesseph, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Alex Levine, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Colin Heydt, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Justin E. H. Smith, Ph.D.


Anton Wilhelm Amo, Descartes, Passions, Race, Mind/Body


Diversity and the concept of race are, or should be, central concerns both for the history of philosophy and for our current political reality. Within academic philosophy, these concerns are expressed in the growing demand for minority representation within the canon, which is overwhelmingly white and male, especially in early modern philosophy. Furthermore, until now, historians of philosophy have not spent the time necessary to uncover various designations such as “Negro”, “Moor”, “Ethiopian”, etc., in early modern Europe, and from there to understand how these shaped philosophical reflections on human diversity. In my research, I relate Anton Wilhelm Amo (c. 1700 – c. 1750), Europe’s first African Ph.D. in philosophy (c. 1734), to philosophy and religion together with the treatment of human difference in the work of Robert Boyle and his contemporaries. My project aids in addressing (A) the lack of diversity in the philosophical canon and (B) the insufficient historical analysis of various designations of human difference. Human difference, i.e., the early modern interpretation of race, and Amo scholarship are interrelated subjects, as Amo is both a philosopher in Europe and an African native. The one cannot be researched without the other. Thus, my research attempts to elucidate Amo’s philosophical significance and its relation to race and human difference.

I begin by give a biographical sketch of Amo, which addresses goals (A) and (B), where I discuss Amo in relation to religious ideologies, philosophical positions, and the surrounding early modern context. In the following chapter, which also address goals (A) and (B), I untangle Amo’s critique of Descartes. For Amo, there is an impasse between the mind and sensation because the mind is immaterial (active), and sensations necessarily need to occur upon something passive and material (body), which means sensations could only ever be cognized by the mind and through the body. The final chapter, which addresses goal (B), investigates how the Royal Society, driven by financial incentives and England’s economy, as well as the burgeoning slave trade, played a large role in advancing “scientific” theories of human difference, especially in relation to Africa. That is, the Royal Society essentially propelled natural philosophy into the proto-racist landscape experienced in the early 18th Century, culminating in the application of the ad hoc and non sequitur racist claims given by 18th Century philosophers, e.g., Immanuel Kant and David Hume, and the ousting of Anton Wilhelm Amo.

My project contributes to philosophy and the academic community in three ways: (1) philosophical inclusion and diversity, (2) Black history, and (3) the historical ontology of race. It is this intersectional approach to philosophy that, I believe, allows me to contribute to my field in new and interesting ways. Many people believe that philosophy is dying. I believe diverse individuals, like Amo, and diverse ideologies offer breath and life to philosophy. This is because, as Michel de Montaigne explains in the Essays, we learn from the unfamiliar.