David Hume is a philosopher highly respected for his clarity of thought and constructive use of skepticism. His skepticism, however, did not extend to all the prejudices of his time:
I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the Whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor even any individual, eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the rudest and barbarous of the Whites, such as the ancient Germans, the present Tartars, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, a form of government, or some other particular.
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Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are Negro slaves dispersed all over Europe, of whom none ever discovered the 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.1
The above quote comes from a footnote in Hume’s essay ‘Of National Character’. The footnote was not in the original 1748 version of the essay but was added in 1753. The first two sentences were revised in 1777 by Hume in response to criticisms he received (this is the version above). The opening sentences of the original 1753 footnote read:
I am apt to suspect the Negroes and in general, all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) 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. On the other hand, …
Note that in this earlier version, Hume refers to other species, not other races. Non-whites were, it appears, not even human (or at least not the same kind of human). Although he was swayed to remove this claim, the passage of twenty-four years obviously did not changed his opinion of blacks.
To give some idea of the context of the footnote(s), both versions come as a note attached to the end of this passage in the main text:
And indeed there is some reason to think, that all the nations which live beyond the polar circles or between the tropics, are inferior to the rest of the species, and are incapable of all the higher attainments of the human mind. The poverty and misery of the northern inhabitants of the globe, and the indolence of the southern, from their few necessities, may, perhaps, account for this remarkable difference, without having recourse to physical causes. This, however, is certain, that the characters of nations are very promiscuous in the temperate climates, and that almost all the general observations which have been formed of the more southern or more northern people in these climates are found to be uncertain and fallacious.2
The discounting of ‘physical causes’ was part of Hume’s refutation of climate-based theories such as Montesquieu’s, which claimed that environmental factors had a large influence in determining intellectual abilities, with ‘temperate’ zones producing the optimal conditions for the development of superior peoples. Hume argued instead that sociological factors such as the form of government and the character of the political body were more important. Note that although Hume didn’t accept Montesquieu’s reasoning, he did share the prejudice (that the inhabitants of temperate zones—such as Europeans—were, in general, more highly developed). Towards the end of the essay, the Scot speculates that the increased presence of strong liquors in southern lands contributes to their moral inferiority:
You may obtain anything of the Negroes by offering them strong drink, and may easily prevail with them to sell, not only their children but their wives and mistresses, for a cask of brandy.3
Hume’s views were clearly a stark contrast to his empiricist philosophy, for Francis Williamsthere was plenty of empirical data contradict his ideas. There were, for instance, two black professors of philosophy in Europe at the time. And the Jamaican to whom Hume referred was Francis Williams, a well-educated schoolmaster who composed poetry in Latin. To Hume, however, he was merely a ‘parrot’—capable of mimicking the comments of others, but not of creating anything himself. An article on Francis Williams and contextualization of Hume’s views [p.4] can be found here.
What relationship does Hume’s obvious racism have to his philosophy? For a worst-case scenario, consult Eric Morton’s article ‘Race and Racism in the works of David Hume’: “We may not dismiss Hume’s comments on black people as an aberrant instance of his shortsightedness that has nothing to do with his overall philosophy.” But surely Hume’s racism in a essay on national characteristics has very little to do with the theorizing he is most remembered for—empiricism—and his enormous contribution to issues of pure philosophy, such as induction and causation? “Hume’s theory of knowledge is driven by Hume’s racism and the built-in racism in his philosophical and conceptual worldview.” The motion may show that Hume’s racism taints his own conceptual worldview (hardly a difficult task, given the evidence) but fails to justify philosophically how “the conceptual framework of empiricism itself may be racist.” Is it not possible to simply apply the abstract principles of Humes’s philosophy without the empirical prejudices the philosopher himself held?
1. David Hume, footnote to ‘Of National Character’ (1748), in The Philosophical Works of David Hume, Volume III, Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1996, p228.
2. ibid. p.228.
3. ibid. p.235.
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