According to the clichés, Hume is a towering figure in our philosophical tradition, an intellectual giant. It is therefore apt that a reckoning over the racism within Hume’s thought should be prompted by the proposed renaming of an actual tower – a building in whose shadow we might cower, or to whose heights we might climb. Many of the student-led movements for decolonisation of the academic landscape were prompted by the campaign “Rhodes must fall.” Cecil Rhodes was materially involved in the colonisation of Southern Africa. The decolonisation of the country of my father’s birth necessarily involved a renaming, from Southern Rhodesia to Zimbabwe. Given that Hume, unlike Rhodes, did not undertake military and commercial ventures within the British Empire, and since nobody is shouting that “Hume must fall” (that Hume be “cancelled” or demoted from his place of prestige within the history of philosophy), much puzzlement has arisen over how the renaming of a building at the University of Edinburgh could further the cause of anti-racism and decolonisation.
In my view this discussion, this reckoning, prompted by the students’ campaign and the University’s response, presents a singular opportunity for more academic philosophers in the anglophone world to think broadly and deeply about their intellectual heritage. Hume’s notorious footnote may not have been widely known about until now. For my part, I have a fairly distinct memory of encountering it in the library of the University of Bristol when I was an undergraduate. I also remember being struck by the passage from Kant’s The Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (see Tommy Curry’s post) at around the same time. My memories of the precise effect that these readings had on me are less firm. I will try to reconstruct something. The inculcation of a passion to study philosophy seems to go along with an aspiration to join in with the conversation of these “mighty dead”, to be a symposiast at Plato’s table, and so forth. Hence I had a sense of disappointment, even betrayal, that these two philosophers, Hume and Kant, who I had been encouraged to admire in the course of my philosophical education, would have marked me out as ineligible to participate in their virtual salons. This moment of realisation was more troubling for being a private one. The discovery of these philosophers’ denigration of people like me was one I made independently, since none of my teachers had ever mentioned these texts, nor given me reason to think that my personal sense of disappointment could have much legitimacy or relevance to my education. At minimum, we do our current students a service by giving them an unfiltered picture of these figures.
What happened next is that I decided in my own mind that the racist statements of Hume and Kant were tangential to my initial reasons for reading their works, and I got on with my life (but not without a residual feeling of alienation, on which I will say more at the end of this post). Now, over twenty years later, I am far less convinced about the detachability of the racism from the “good ideas”. This is not the place to try to make the case in full. I offer a brief indication. Hume’s influence is not more greatly felt than by the fact that naturalism is the most widespread and orthodox approach in contemporary anglophone philosophy. About eighteen months ago I wished to get clearer in my own mind about what I am committing myself to when I subscribe to the naturalistic methodology. The long and short of it is that naturalism is difficult to pin down, except that it abjures reference to the “supernatural”. What then is the supernatural? It is at this point that the collective unconscious of philosophers dredges up examples of “superstitious” beliefs and some, like Wilfrid Sellars, even tell stories about the emergence of a modern, secular, scientific worldview out of a primal state in which “primitive man” believed in a world populated by spirits and demons. Hume is important because he tells this story to great effect (see “On Miracles”). In that text he writes that, “it forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations.” One need not be the most paranoid kind of hermeneuticist of suspicion to think that something is up here. Africans, we must remember, are one of the “barbarous” kinds of people in Hume’s world, and they are inferior by constitution, moreover. They, believe in silly things, we do not — Hume invites us to think. The question we contemporary philosophers need to ask ourselves is whether there is a legitimate notion of the “naturalistic worldview” that does not require, for its own self-definition, a contrast with the “superstitious worldview” of the “primitive” other. We need also to ask seriously whether the unreflected notion of what is a naturalistic, and hence intellectually respectable explanation, is still being used to de-legitimise explanations offered by various indigenous peoples concerning events in the natural world, events which include the symptoms of an ever more crushing ecological crisis. Such accounts are still regularly categorised as “spiritualistic”, and with that certain voices are still summarily dismissed, as expressed by the Māori individuals interviewed in this news report of a mass whale beaching.
Material decolonisation, as numerous theorists have argued, necessitates a decolonisation of thought. Conversely, colonisation is impossible without the colonised subjects’ belief in their own inferiority, which often amounts to a belief in the inferiority of a culture or worldview. Assessment of Hume’s legacy must include an appraisal of the role that the narratives he formulated with exactitude and panache, of the progress of humanity rising out of barbarism and towards civilisation, have played in the subjugation of those people commonly depicted as sunk in a state of barbarism, were it not for the civilising mission of empire.*
I conclude with a remark on my lingering feeling of alienation. Francis Williams was the black man Hume referred to as being “admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly.”** Hume, mocker of the credulous, directs his scepticism against those who might have thought Francis Williams capable of having an original thought. I think that it is under-appreciated how often black students who are educated in majority white societies find themselves in the position of Francis Williams vis a vis David Hume. Which is to say, confronted with the implacable scepticism characteristic of racial prejudice, the voice inside the head of the educator that whispers, doubtfully, ‘accomplished, really?’, ‘has potential, really?’. Philosophy, as a profession, is absurdly reliant on performative smartness but takes no account of how the negating experiences of black students during their educational careers might affect their willingness to engage in such performances, at least for white audiences. One of my biggest disappointments, since becoming a professional philosopher, has been finding that decisions affecting career prospects still in some quarters turn on whether a committee deems a student or candidate “smart”, aside from their tangible achievements. To the detriment of some, and benefit of others.
- Chirimuuta, 1st October 2020
*It is intriguing that this narrative occurs within the story of conquest of the other nations of the British Isles by the English, as discussed here.
** Carretta, Vincent “Who was Francis Williams?” Early American Literature; 2003; 38(2) pg. 213