Recent decades have seen a growth in scholarship addressing the development of racial theories in the late Enlightenment. Particular attention has been paid to the German-speaking lands. Prominent German authors such as Immanuel Kant, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, and Christoph Meiners all published major, influential works on the topic of race. Recent research has tended to trace specific debates between theorists, rather than consider how the wider reading public may have encountered these ideas.
By contrast, this paper considers possible avenues for the wider dissemination of ideas about race in this period, with a particular focus on the early years of the nineteenth century. Focusing on the work of two prominent German scholars, it traces both how they used racialising claims in their texts and draws implications regarding how these texts would have been read. One of these scholars, the Göttingen professor Christoph Meiners, is now recognised as a key figure in Enlightenment debates about race. Meiners became infamous within his lifetime for arguing in a history textbook that humanity is divided into two 'lineages' (Hauptstämme) – the Caucasian and the Mongolic – which are further subdivided into a number of racial groups each with unequal mental and physical attributes. The other figure discussed in this paper, Meiners' colleague Johann Gottfried Eichhorn, is not typically associated with discussions of race. However, in the early nineteenth century he published a series of popular handbooks on historical subjects that incorporated a number of racial ideas. These appear to have been informed by Meiners' work. They became a staple resource for historians and were later referenced in relation to the debates around Arthur de Gobineau's Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races. This paper suggests that Eichhorn's handbooks, published across several decades, represent an important avenue for the propagation of racial ideas in the nineteenth century.
One implication of this research is that history-writing is crucial to understanding the development and dissemination of ideas about race in this period. Whereas previous histories of racial thought have tended to approach the subject in relation to the natural sciences, this paper suggests that history-writing was crucial in the development and popularisation of ideas about race.
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