Edinburgh Philosophy – Voices on Hume

Edinburgh Philosophy – Voices on Hume

As philosophers, our responses to the renaming of the David Hume Tower vary widely, as do the responses of the wider academic community. Out of respect for this diversity of opinion, all Philosophy staff have been invited to contribute to a blog to share their individual thoughts on the recent announcement.

Tommy J. Curry

Hume’s Anti-Black Racism
In 1997, Emmanuel Eze published Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader to show how the primary texts of modern philosophers such as Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and G.W.F. Hegel proposed formative configurations of race and anti-Blackness.[1] In 2001, I became a student of Eze’s at DePaul University, the same year his book Achieving Our Humanity:  The Idea of a Post-Racial Future was published by Routledge. In that book, Eze asks: “How did the origins of modern philosophy and the science of anthropology provide theoretical grounds for the formation of race as a modern idea?”[2] For over two decades, Black philosophers have recognized and reflected upon the racism of David Hume and other European figures towards Africans. However, it is only today when European philosophers feel that the removal of Hume’s name from a building is offensive does the history of Hume’s anti-Black racism become complex.
Hume was an anti-Black racist.  The suggestion that Hume’s views about Blacks were nothing more than a prejudicial opinion completely disregards the scientization of race towards in the late 18th century. Hume’s description of Blacks was used as evidence for the premise of Black inferiority among European philosophers. For example, Immanuel Kant cites Hume’s footnote as the justification for his racism against Blacks in The Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1764). Kant writes:
The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the ridiculous. Mr. Hume challenges anyone to adduce a single example where a Negro has demonstrated talents and asserts that among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who have been transported elsewhere from their countries, although very many of them have been set free, nevertheless not a single one has ever been found who has accomplished something great in art or science or shown any other praiseworthy quality, while among the whites there are always those who rise up from the lowest rabble and through extraordinary gifts earn respect in the world.[3]
Hume’s footnote not only describes the inferiority of the Black race, but also claims that any appearance of intelligence among Blacks found after their contact with whites in colonies is more accurately understood not as the development of their genius, but rather mimicry like that of a parrot. Wherever Hume’s footnote appears following his penning, it is used to denigrate the Black race and uplift white Europe. The British statesman George Cornewell Lewis cited Hume’s footnote in A Treatise on the Methods of Observation and Reasoning in Politics in 1852 as evidence for the claim that even after enslavement and racial mixing the Black race showed no evidence of civilization or intellectual advance.[4] Hume’s depiction of the Black race as being without genius or intelligence was not simply a deleterious comment. His opinion about the Black race helped formulate, if not ground, the inferiority of the darker races as scientific fact.
Many of the scholars defending Hume have suggested that a mere footnote, or personal predilection, is insignificant to his legacy as a philosopher. Africana philosophers on the other hand have chosen to emphasize the role David Hume’s work has had in constructing the modern concept of race and how the myth of Black inferiority articulated by Hume influenced the thinking of Immanuel Kant and others racist thinkers throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The defenders of Hume have made the mistake of assuming his racism is a matter of opinion and ultimately character. They ignore that the most central issue to Black scholars and Black peoples has been the subhuman status Hume claims to have provided evidence for through his observations.
These apologetics of Hume’s racism are Eurocentric. They assert that his legacy should be evaluated solely by the importance Hume has to Europe, to Scotland, and to academic philosophy, not by the impact his philosophy has had on Blacks and other non-European peoples. The defenders of Hume that insist his comments were not of much consequence and merely reflected the racial sentiment his time exclude the resistance and revolts of Africans against these ideas throughout the 18th century. Instead of dealing with the questions and complications the anti-Black racism of Hume brings to bear on the status of the Enlightenment, Hume’s defenders argue the new knowledge about his philosophy should not change the stature of him as a figure before these facts about him were known.
These philosophers and historians conveniently overlook the fact that no African people during the 18th century held views comparable to Hume’s. Debates calling for the abolition of slavery and challenging the myth of Black inferiority began in Scotland in the 1770s. By the 1780s African freedmen such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano had published treatises refuting both the myth of Black savagery and urging for the abolition of slavery while in Britain.[5] By 1791, the Haytien Revolution would begin and the first free Black republic in history would emerge.  Hume’s ideas should be evaluated by the standards of his time, but these standards do not only include white Europeans or Americans. Black thinkers and abolitionists offered substantial evidence that the myth of Black inferiority was nothing more than an excuse to justify the imperial expansion of Europe and the dominance of the white race over others. To say that Hume was a man of his time is to say that Hume, along with other racists, believed that the white race was superior, while all available evidence shows members of the darker races adamantly disagreed.
Hume’s racism and role in the creation of anti-Black sciences is an aspect of his philosophy that stands alongside his more acknowledged contributions to ethics and epistemology. Removing Hume’s name from a building is but a small step towards a much more egalitarian and anti-colonial future.

[1] Emmanuel Eze, ed. Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader (Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 1997).[2] Emmanuel Eze, Achieving Our Humanity: The Idea of a Postracial Future (New York: Routledge, 2001).[3] Immanuel Kant, The Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 58-59.[4] George Cornewell Lewis, A Treatise on the Methods of Observation and Reasoning in Politics Vol II (London: John Parker and Son, 1852), 433. [5] See Iain Whyte, Scotland and the Abolition of Black Slavery, 1756–1838 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006); Ottobah Cugoano, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery (New York: Penguin Books, 1999); and Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (New York, Penguin Classics, 2003).

4 replies to “Tommy J. Curry”

  1. Trevor Butterworth says:

    Very enlightening, and not a little shocking; I expect I am not alone in my simplistic view of “le bon David.” But a plea—can whomever manages this page add space between the paragraphs to all the essays? You’re making this important resource very difficult to read both by the text width being very wide relative to font size and—moreso— by presenting it without spaces between paragraphs. This isn’t difficult to fix—and there are many resources to guide formatting for reading online. Thank you!

  2. Yusef Ali says:

    What I find interesting, how could Hume and others come to such conclusions given the enormous impact North African Moors had on Eastern European anthropology, architecture and mathematics , there seems to be a rewriting or erasure of African contributions to civilization , there would be no Hume, Kant or Hegel without an Al-Qalasadi

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