Anna Julia Cooper on the Monstruum Horrendum , and the silencing effect of Hume and Comte

Note: rather than post a biographical notice of Cooper, or a general overview of her philosophy, I thought I would concentrate on parts of her work. That is because of the richness of that work, and also because there is an excellent Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Cooper by Kathryn Sophia Belle (Formerly Kathryn T. Gines) which says everything I might be likely to say about her, and more, and says it very clearly. 

For my first Cooper entry, I decided to focus on the concluding chapter of her A Voice from the South, published in 1892 when Cooper was 34 years old. 

The chapters of A Voice from the South are self-standing essays around one central theme: raising the hitherto unheard, but powerful voice of African American women, whose experience is what America needs to set various wrongs right – their own, and any that come from slavery and the oppression of women, those that derive from poverty and lack of education, and those that concern native Americans, cheated by European settlers. 

But in order for their voices to be clear and effective, Black women must, Cooper says, be educated – and not merely taught to read and add sufficiently well to keep a home, but they need access to higher education. Cooper certainly practiced what she preached: When A Voice was published, Cooper had already earned an MA in mathematics (she and Mary Church Terrell were the two first Black American women to earn a master’s degree). In 1925, Cooper defended her doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne, on “The Attitude of France on the Question of Slavery Between 1789 and 1848”. 

But if education is the key to making necessary voices heard, it can also help stifle them, and this is the theme of the final chapter of the book, entitled ‘The Gain from a Belief’.

The chapter starts with the portrait of a stranger, a skeptical philosopher, aloof, scornful of the unscientific beliefs of the masses around him, especially religious beliefs. His philosophy, Cooper tells us, lifts him ‘above the toils and anxieties, the ambitions and aspirations of the common herd’. His lack of religious belief robs him of the power to look down on these people and care, or desire to help them. To him, human beings are mere automata, material things, and beyond humanity, there is but ‘spaces of darkness and eternal silence’. 

Cooper then asks herself what in philosophy can have created such a ‘monstruum horrendum’.

First, she blames Voltaire as the source, the ‘nucleus of the cloud no bigger than a man’s hand’, but the real culprit, she says, is David Hume:

David Hume, who, though seventeen years younger than Voltaire, died in 1776 just two years before the great French skeptic, taught skepticism in England on purely metaphysical grounds. Hume knew little or nothing about natural science; but held that what we call mind consists merely of successive perceptions, and that we can have no knowledge of anything but phenomena.

A Voice from the South, Dover Editions, p.141.

The effect of Hume’s philosophy of racial justice, she claims, is that it breeds skepticism of a kind that is likely to distance the philosopher from the real needs of the people, but more importantly to discount the voices of those who are infused with spiritual beliefs. Yet, religion is what gives the voices of the oppressed their power, what moves them to speak out against injustice, and to help others like them. Rejecting the power of belief is therefore harmful. 

And after Hume, it is Auguste Comte who takes on the flagship of skepticism according to Cooper: 

His system afterwards passes through France, is borrowed and filtered through the brain of a half crazy French schoolmaster, Auguste Conte, who thus becomes the founder of the Contist school of Positivism or Nescience or Agnosticism as it is variously called.

A Voice from the South, Dover Editions, p.141.

But Comte did, Cooper adds, replace religion with a cult, saying that: ‘two hours a day should be spent in the worship of Collective Humanity to be symbolized by some of the sexe aimant [the loving sex]’.

Cooper adds that ‘On general principles, it is not quite clear which is the sexe aimant. But as Comte proceeds to mention one’s wife, mother and daughter as fitting objects of religious adoration because they represent the present, past and future of humanity – one is left to infer that he considered the female the loving sex and the ones to be worshipped; though he does not set forth who were to be objects of woman’s own adoring worship.’

By pointing out the large inconsistencies in Comte’s references to women, Cooper makes the point that his philosophy, like many, is one that silences women, that pushes them into a place where they cannot even describe themselves or their role consistently, let alone meaningfully, and reducing them to an object – to be occasionally worshipped, but not subjects to be heard.

Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964)

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1 Response to Anna Julia Cooper on the Monstruum Horrendum , and the silencing effect of Hume and Comte

  1. RachelPaine says:

    Many thanks for a fascinating introduction! I look forward to reading her work.

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