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Hume, Race, and Human Nature

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 61, Number 4, October 2000
pp. 691-698 | 10.1353/jhi.2000.0039

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Journal of the History of Ideas 61.4 (2000) 691-698


John Immerwahr recently wrote in the Journal of the History of Ideas, "While Hume is generally known as an enemy of prejudice and intolerance, he is also infamous as a proponent of philosophical racism." I am intrigued by this suggestion that Hume's is a "philosophical racism"; one wonders: how many brands of racisms are there? What does "philosophical" racism mean? Assuming that philosophical racism is something which we wish to take notice of, what part of Hume's philosophy sustains it? How much of Hume's philosophy may be affected by this, and how profound?

On the surface it seems not to make sense to ask, for example, how profound Hume's "philosophical racism" is or how deeply racist his philosophical works may be. The question appears contrived because, currently, every reference in the literature seem to point to only a footnote:

I am apt to suspect the Negroes and in general all 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. No ingenious manufacturers amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient GERMANS, the present TARTARS, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are NEGROE slaves dispersed all over EUROPE, of which none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; tho' low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In JAMAICA, indeed, they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but 'tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.

This was added, between 1753 and 1754, to the essay "Of National Characters." It was also revised in the final edition of the Essays: Moral, Political and Literary, which Hume had prepared shortly before he died in 1777. Meanwhile, the original version of "Of National Characters" was written in 1748.

An equally reasonable point of view on the matter, however, is to show that, far from being philosophically unimportant or an after-thought, the footnote, both its addition several years after the original essay was written and its maintenance in the subsequent revisions by Hume, suggests that the ideas expressed therein were important to the author and, significantly, to the arguments of "Of National Characters." It is known that by 1770 James Beattie, in An Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth, in Opposition to Sophistry and Skepticism, had extensively criticized "Of National Character," specifically the note under consideration. Hume was aware of this and other criticisms and responded or commented on them in letters to friends, among other places. In a letter to his friend and publisher, William Straham, later published in London Chronicle (12-14 June 1777), Hume discussed dismissively criticisms from Thomas Reid and James Beattie, referring to the latter as "a bigoted silly fellow." The fact that it survived Hume's multiple revisions and remained part of the Essays and was publicly defended from criticisms invites one not to dismiss this lengthy addition as marginal to Hume's thought but rather to determine why he might have felt it needed to be added in the first place, revised, and critically defended in what is now its definitive version. Relevant specific questions would be: why, of all other possible places (I have in mind, for example, a comparable essay "Of the populousness of ancient nations"), was the footnote added here? How does the opinion in this note relate to the main arguments of "Of National Characters"? Do the contents of this essay, especially in their implicit and explicit philosophical commitments, have a relationship to Hume's most important works, such as the Treatise of...

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