Hume and Prejudice
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Hume Studies Volume XXI, Number 1, April 1995, pp. 3-23 Hume and Prejudice ROBERT PALTER In a laudable effort to trace the roots of the racist ideas and practices that continue to plague our society, numerous scholars, during the past few decades , have undertaken to expose the racism and ethnocentrism of some of our most revered culture heroes. For American historians, favorite targets have been two of America's founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson;1 for intellectual historians, favorite targets have been those two cynosures of the empiricist tradition, Locke and Hume.2 Thus, for example, when the 250th anniversary of Jefferson's birth was commemorated at the University of Virginia in October 1992, one of the contributors, speaking on Jefferson and slavery, "brought a prosecutor's zeal to the the point where some scholars present wondered what he was hoping to accomplish ."3 Similar zeal has been evident in some recent discussions of Hume's prejudices, with both Hume's philosophy and his moral character being vigorously—not to say, viciously—attacked. Thus, in John Immerwahr's discussion of Hume's racism we are told that Hume is "infamous as a proponent of philosophical racism" and that racism "seriously stains Humef's] character."4 I take it that the phrase "philosophical racism" here should be read as the claim that at least some of Hume's central philosophical doctrines are logically implicated in his racism. Immerwahr never even attempts to sustain this claim, which few of Hume's detractors want to defend. Richard Popkin, for example, asserts that "I do not think that...Hume's racism...follows from his theory of knowledge."5 I shall say little more about Robert Palter is Dana Professor of the History of Science (Emeritus) at Trinity College, Hartford, CT. Address: 135H Brittany Farms Road, New Britain, CT 06053 USA. 4 Robert Palter this (to me) obviously fallacious claim. But Hume has also been accused of other forms of prejudice (ethnic and religious). What I intend doing is first to explore the context and character of Hume's racism and then to address the other charges against him; I shall also briefly explore Hume's analysis of prejudice as well as some of his personal experiences of prejudice in his own society . I write neither as advocate nor as prosecutor but to clarify the historical record, mostly by correcting some misstatements and by repairing some remarkable omissions and silences in the recent critiques by Hume's detractors. Even someone quite familiar with Hume's major writings may be surprised, not that he held racist doctrines, but that he expressed any opinions about race at all. In Hume's voluminous writings there is apparently just a single passage which is definitely racist in its import; it consists of a long footnote in his essay, "Of National Characters." The essay itself first appeared in 1748 in two different editions of Hume's essays (Three Essays and Essays Moral and Political [3rd. ed.]); the two books were Hume's first publications under his own name. The footnote in question was added in a later edition of Hume's essays published in 1753. In the last edition of Hume's essays corrected in his lifetime (1776; posthumously published in 1777) there was a small but telling variant of the footnote.6 The two versions of the footnote differ only in the first two (out of seven) sentences: 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. 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.7 It appears that, during the years between 1753 and 1776, Hume changed his mind about the relative capacities of the white and colored races. Recently, John Immerwahr has suggested that Hume's revision of the footnote may be...