Imperium Internum

Eric Morton
Journal on African Philosophy (2002)
ISSN: 1533-1067

I. Introduction

African Americans who must work with historical and philosophical texts face a dilemma. On one hand they wish to make use of the information contained in the texts they study; but they must at the same time be aware that the information is often tainted by views which define as universal things which are not. And when they examine these supposed universals, they discover that the latter’s proponents are Europeans who did not intend for their universals to include non-Europeans. Furthermore, they find that those who are not included in the universals have been consciously excluded and that this exclusion has provided the justification for racial events and theories which set-up the framework for white supremacy in history, politics, and scholarship.

In this paper I analyze one example of extreme exclusion: that of blacks in the works of the British philosopher, David Hume (1711--1776), who published most of his works between 1734 and 1760. The main body of the paper has two parts, and an addendum in lieu of a conclusion. First I locate Hume in the historical context of eighteenth century theorizing on racial matters when Europe was confronted with the moral dilemma posed by its exploitive

relationship with Africa and the Americas. Next I juxtapose Hume’s theories on human nature with his racial law, which Hume included an infamous footnote in his essay, Of National Characters. There he claimed that there are moral causes that tend to transform whites from a barbarous state to a civilized one, whereas nature does not allow this to happen to blacks. 1

II. Hume in History

David Hume is generally taught as one of the philosophical heroes of the Enlightenment and a staunch intellectual enemy of prejudice and intolerance. Hume’s theories regarding modern man, “laid on experience and observation,” 2 are presented as being consistent with the rationalist views of Rene Descartes, Benedictus de Spinoza, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, his fellow empiricists John Locke and George Berkeley, and the moral equivalent of Thomas Hobbes, and Immanuel Kant. They are all taught as being universalistic regarding the study of the human animal and whose writings advanced the study of human nature in very profound ways. In acknowledging the empiricists’ debt to Descartes, Martin C. Dillon writes: “In order to find truth criteria, empiricism attempts to find an unshakable ground for knowledge in experience, and in its search for this ground turns to an atomism similar to Descartes’s doctrine of simple natures.” 3

We are told that philosophers from Descartes to Kant carefully extrapolated attitudes that are common to humanity and defined humanity in terms of their mental and psychological characteristics. According to this accepted view, size, skin color, and religious beliefs did not define an individual, hence were inapplicable in determining whether an individual was considered human and how that individual should be treated. Yet, a careful reading of several of the philosophers who expounded universal theories of human nature reveals that these scholars also provided the theoretical bases for claiming that some people, in fact millions of them, were less than human because their skins had more color than that of Europeans. In 1748, at a time when significant historical events were taking place regarding Europe’s imperialist encroachment on foreign soils and cultures, 4 Hume published what he contended to be the universal expression of human behavior and human nature in his Inquiry where he wrote:

It is universally acknowledged that there is a great uniformity among the actions of men, in all nations and ages, and that human nature remains still the same, in its principles and operations. The same motives always produce the same actions: the same events follow the same causes. Ambition, avarice, self-love, vanity, friendship, generosity, public spirit: these passions, mixed in various degrees, and distributed through society, have been, from the beginning of the world, and still are, the source of all the actions and enterprises, which have ever been observed among mankind. Would you know the sentiments, inclinations, and course of life of the Greeks and Romans? Study well the temper and actions of the French and English. 5

It is noteworthy that five years later Hume contradicted himself and became an infamous proponent of philosophical racism at a time when England’s involvement in the slave trade was being questioned at home and abroad. Hume’s reversal of opinion is contained in a footnote which was widely quoted by racists and defenders of slavery during and after Hume’s lifetime. 6 In 1753, Hume finished writing an essay, “Of National Characters,” by adding the following footnote:

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. No ingenious manufactures 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. 7

This example of racism seriously impugns Hume’s theories of human nature. Hume’s racial prejudice in the above passage which posits a distinct and superior white race with innate endowments enabling it to achieve a perfection of governance and world dominance, forced him to reconsider his original idea of the universality of human nature. Historical and political influences, e.g., the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the conquest of the Americas, and the extermination of indigenous populations in overseas colonies, that contributed to the growth of European capitalism and imperialism, impelled him to change his emphasis from a universality of human nature to a singular continuity of innate racial strengths. His emphasis on superior racial characteristics as a reason for power led to an emphasis on inferior characteristics as a reason for subjugation.

During the last years of his life, Hume worked at correcting his works for a final and definitive edition which was published posthumously in 1777. 8 Between 1711 and 1777 there were numerous examples of slave revolts and uprisings by the indigenous populations in Brazil, Surinam, Haiti, St. John, Tobago, St. Kitts, Montserrat, and Jamaica. Hume had to have been aware of these examples of “black valour.” In fact, in 1739, England was forced to sign a treaty with a rebel group of black Jamaicans guaranteeing them freedom and the possession “for themselves and posterity for ever all the lands” situated in a small region of Jamaica. A few of Hume’s contemporaries who were critical of Hume’s view of racial essences, such as James Beattie, wrote opposing opinions. Ironically, Hume responded to James Beattie’s criticism of him by referring to Beattie as a “bigotted silly Fellow.” 9 Nevertheless, there was little doubt that Hume was stung by his critics (including Beattie) and he responded by revising the first two sentences of the footnote. Hume’s editors, Thomas Hill Green and Thomas Hodge Grose, failed to include the revision. 10 The missing revision, which has been recently discovered and published, makes a significant difference in the attitude conveyed by Hume’s statement. Although the rest of the footnote remained unchanged from the original, Hume revised the opening two lines: “I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation.” 11 The fact that Hume even revised the footnote proves that Hume did seriously reconsider the racist implications of his position. But his response was to abandon a polygenetic position and focus his attack solely on blacks, singling them out as an inferior group within the human family.

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. However, there are scholars and professors who point out that Hume also made prejudicial remarks about the Irish, the Catholics, and the Jews. They say that Hume was only yielding to the cultural attitudes of his time and in this sense revealed that he was human too. Clearly, this line of argument is problematic when one investigates the totality of Hume’s position—his life, the entire essay, his philosophy of human nature in general, and the malignant influence his essay had on others. Hume’s attitude towards blacks cannot be dismissed as an aberrant observation. His racial law contributed to the subtext by which the idea of a human as slave was justified. His racial views were inextricably related to two of the major events of eighteenth-century European history—the enslavement of Africans and the subjugation and extermination of the people who occupied the overseas lands coveted by Europeans.

With the introduction of race-based slavery in 1650, and the gradual colonization of the New World, many European thinkers became systematically racist towards the people of the continent of Africa, as well as the inhabitants of the New World. 12 The expansionist rhetoric of many European thinkers included rampant racial theories of Caucasian, Aryan, or Anglo-Saxon destiny. They adopted various racial theories of human nature which fit the historical exegeses. For them there were two options: either Africans and Indians were civilized and not subject to enslavement and genocidal treatment by civilized Christians; or they were uncivilized and their lands were terra nullius and terra incognita, without local government and claimed by no one. The desire to exploit other people and continents inclined European thinkers to accept the idea that some men are by nature slaves, especially since the idea was acceptable to a man as important as David Hume. 13 The development of racism based on skin color occurred, or at least intensified, simultaneously with the increasing importance of the New World colonies and the twin policies of enslavement of black Africans and the extermination of Native Americans.

Hume’s racialist theory of human nature was one of several racial theories concocted to meet the eighteenth century European conditions of a people who had emerged as colonizing, conquering “nations on a worldwide quest for wealth and power.” 14 Briefly stated, there were four major views being offered. The first was that the mental and moral capacities of non-whites, especially Indians and Africans, differed significantly from those of whites (Hume, Linnaeus). 15 The second view held that being non-white was an essential defect: the normal, natural condition of man is whiteness, but due to unfortunate environmental factors, some people have lost their whiteness and with it, part of their human nature (Buffon, Blumenbach, etc.). 16 A third theory was that some beings that look human are not really so, but are lower on the chain of being and represent a link between humans and apes (Edward Long). 17 And the fourth theory held that there are several theses, biblical 18 and Darwinian, which separate human lines of creation and/or evolution, with Caucasian being the best. 19

Hume’s theoretical importance could be seen in his intellectual endeavors. During his lifetime, Hume wrote, lectured, taught, and served in governmental positions at home and abroad. He was a one-time British Under-Secretary of State, (where he dealt with colonial affairs). Also, during Hume’s lifetime the nations of Europe were experiencing the ordeal of change from agricultural societies to nation states with imperial ambitions. Economic power was shifting from the landed gentry to the middle classes and to large-scale employers, who, themselves, were being confronted by a growing class of wage earners. One might argue that the demonization of other groups, such as blacks and American Indians, offered a convenient philosophical framework in which the presumptive humanity of European serfs, peasants, and other lower classes was preserved even as their substantive humanity was being challenged, even undermined by the economic and social changes then unfolding in Europe.

An important factor in Europe’s economic change was the role of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The slave trade not only supported a leisurely life style for the growing middle and upper classes but it stimulated an intellectual debate and rethinking of cultural attitudes and cultural theorizing. The character of slavery provoked politicians and thinkers to reconsider European notions regarding the “social contract” of societal organization, e.g., who belonged in the human family and who did not and on what terms one did belong.

Slaving played a substantial role in the wealth of the United Kingdom and the fact that it was savage and brutal did not check its spread and growth. John Hawkins was the first Englishman to carry slaves in 1562; Queen Elizabeth I quickly became a shareholder in his later ventures. The demand for slaves was so great that by 1698 the monopoly given to the Royal African Company was withdrawn, and the trade was opened to all British subjects. 20 Philosophers like John Locke invested a large sum in the Royal African Company, an enterprise specifically devoted to trading in slaves for sale to the plantations in the Americas. 21 Locke also served in administrative capacities in a number of positions dealing directly with colonization and slavery. As unofficial secretary to the Lord Proprietors of Carolina, for example, Locke co-authored the “Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina” which provided a very un-Christian proviso that “every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slave of what opinion or religion soever.” George Berkeley also owned slaves when he lived in Rhode Island and he also defended the practice of slavery. 22

Between 1650 and 1713 Europeans engaged in a number of wars amongst themselves for dominance in maritime trade, the slave trade, overseas possessions, and international markets. With the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, Europe underwent a transference of power from several European states to a few. England was one of the principal beneficiaries. Along with land concessions won from foes, England extorted the asiento from Spain. The asiento (which was sought by France) granted England the lucrative right to supply not only her own colonies but all of the Spanish colonies in the Americas with African slaves. This amounted to a contract for providing hundreds of thousands of black slaves yearly. 23

The rise of Bristol and Liverpool from obscure English ports to great trading centers of the world depended on the towns’ constantly increasing involvement in slave traffic, a process that is tied to the depletion of people in Africa and that created the horrors of the Middle Passage. In 1708, the first slaver sailed from Liverpool. By 1720, it was home port for twenty-one ships in the slave trade. Twenty years later, well over half of England’s slave fleet sailed from Liverpool. A myriad of slave related industries necessary to support the ships, slavers, and sailors were established and made Bristol and Liverpool boom towns. As the need for slaves increased, guns were shipped to Africa and wars were encouraged in Africa among Africans for the purpose of capturing prisoners to be sold. Captain John Newton, author of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ and a reformed slave-trader who became Reverend John Newton, admitted as much, after his reformation and renunciation of slaving. He asserted: “The far greater part of the wars, in Africa, would cease, if the Europeans would cease to tempt them, by offering goods (guns) for slaves. The intercourse of the Europeans has assimilated them more to our manners: but I am afraid has rather had a bad than a good influence on their morals ... they are generally worse in their conduct in proportion to their acquaintance with us.” 24 The interactive relationships of imperialism are important. Newton’s description focuses our attention on one very significant interactive aspect of European influence in the “underdevelopment” of Africa from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries which allows us to see that by the middle of the eighteenth century, Birmingham alone was manufacturing over 100,000 muskets annually to be sold in Africa. Half of the 2,700,000 tons of gunpowder exported each year also went there. 25

As a critical student of philosophy what conclusions can one draw from Hume’s statements about Africans? How can one explain the phenomenon of a European philosopher who confronts people and cultures and incorporates them into his worldview as less than human and civilized? Two conclusions immediately come to mind. First, Hume’s views are not politically innocent. Hume’s use of Europeans and European culture as paradigms of the “best” in human development and human culture is a conclusions that hides culturally and politically laden assumptions with grave consequences for good science. Second, Hume’s notions about Africa and Africans, Indians and Asians were not based on factual, empirical information which he had gained by “experience and observation.” No, his empirical methodology did not fail him nor did he fail it. The issue is that he never had an empirical methodology to explain racial and cultural differences in human nature. He only pretended that he had. I argue that the purpose of his racial law was not one of knowledge, but one of justification for power and domination by some over others.

If, as Hume claimed, he was scrupulously obedient to an empirical methodology, then surely an empiricist as respected, experienced and erudite as Hume should have known, or could have discovered, that from the Nile to the Niger, from the Arctic to the Caribbean, from ancient times through European discovery, powerful cultures rose and fell on the African, North and South American continents leaving behind obvious legacies of civilization that would amaze any unbiased observer. After all, he had seen service in overseas governmental positions and he was recognized as being a product of the so-called “Enlightenment.”

On the African continent there were hundreds of civilizations to be observed: from the Egyptian dynasties which date from 3000 B.C. to the Benin and Yoruba civilizations of western Africa or that of the Hausa where politically powerful peoples with an impressive culture of arts situated themselves along an ancient “trans-Saharan trade route that was undoubtedly used from times that are exceedingly remote.” 26 Hume ignored the existence of the powerful Islamic Berber empires in the Maghrib: the Fatimids, the Sanhaja, the Zenata, the Almoravid, and the Almohads which dated from the seventh-century. Or the Ghana, Mali, and Songhai empires that stretched from the northern salt mines in the Almoravid territory of southern Morocco to the forest region of the coast of West Africa and Senegal in the west to Somalia in the east, and which existed from 2 A. D. to 1800 A. D., predating the Islamic culture that now dominates those territories. Or the Kanem-Bornu of the Saifawa dynasty who maintained a stable empire from the seventeenth century to the twentieth century—their mercantile and trading culture, famed for sculpture, was located on one of the major trading routes in north central Africa.

Again, Hume ignored the Ethiopia-Sudan-Punt empires whose origins date from 981 B.C., or the history of the first Bantu speaking people of the Zimbabwe plateau who some archaeologists say are the forerunners of the present populations of most of continental Africa,

and whose dominance of Zimbabwe and the neighboring regions lasted for centuries. Under the Rozwi rulers they built imposing structures and settlements, including the Great Temple ringed by an 800-foot granite wall which still stands. 27 The Europeans who first settled in this region of Africa saw the ruins of Zimbabwe as proof that they were the legal and logical heirs of southern Africa because the temple and wall had to be evidence of original settlement by whites. 28

Before the arrival of Europeans in North America the situation was the same as in Africa before the arrival of Europeans. Unique Indian nations covered the continent. From the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Central America to the Arctic, established Indian civilizations existed, some with borders between them that dated back to far before the time of the Roman Empire when northern Europe was still less than a mediaeval backwater. In this wide area, including Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean, lived as many as forty million people, some nomadic, but most of them in cultured communities, sacred to the inhabitants, that ranged in size from villages up to cities as large and sophisticated as any in the world at that time. 29

Hume’s ignorance of the world outside of Europe was typical of how relations between European and non-European societies came to be represented. Stuart Hall refers to this dual representation as the formation of the ‘discourse’ of “the West and the Rest” in Formations of Modernity. Hall further states that ideas of “East” and “West” were primarily composed of myth and fantasy, and even to this day are not primarily ideas about geographical location. Ideas and concepts of Europe as “the West” allowed Europeans to characterize and classify societies into categories of “western” and “non-western” which suggested a certain structural ranking of power and knowledge, developed and non-developed, close to and far away, superior and inferior. This ranking produced a kind of knowledge which comprised a worldview of Europe and the rest of the world and attitudes about the people inside and outside of Europe. This worldview effectively functioned as an ideology. 30

In most instances, the first encounter between Europeans and the peoples of Africa and the Americas had to represent the most profound cultural clashes either party had ever experienced. Those first Europeans in all likelihood were probably religious deviationists, or missionaries, amateur and professional explorers, itinerant entrepreneurs, commercial adventurers, slavers, or jailers in quest of sites for prisons, inexperienced in the assessment of foreign cultures and civilizations as were the native peoples they encountered. The European’s first impressions of foreign cultures and people were undoubtedly informed by their ideological worldview of the “west and the rest.” For that reason it is interesting to compare two recorded accounts of how each viewed the other in those initial encounters. One view is contained in an article published in the North American Review of April, 1846 by the writer David Wells:

Wherever her [Britain’s] sovereignty has gone, two blades of grass have grown where one grew before. Her flag wherever it has advanced has benefited the country over which it floats; and has carried with it civilization, the Christian religion, order, justice and prosperity. England has always treated a conquered race with justice, and what under her law is the law for the white man is the law for his black, red and yellow brother ... If injustice is done him, the English courts are open to him for redress and protection as speedily and impartially as to any white man. 31

The perspective of the “other” (in this case that of a native American, which could just as easily have been the same perspective of an African) suggests a more natural and less ideologically biased attitude. The viewpoint is that of Tall Oak, a Narragansett Indian:

When the first Europeans arrived, Columbus and his crew, he came and he called us Indians, because of the obvious reason, he thought he was lost in India. But what did we call ourselves before Columbus came? That’s the question so often asked. And the thing is in every single tribe, even today, when you translate the word that we each had for ourselves, without knowledge of each other, it was always something that translated to basically the same thing. In our language it’s Ninuog, or the people, the human beings. That’s what we called ourselves. So when the Europeans arrived here, we knew who we were, but we didn’t know who they were. So we called them Awaunageesuck, or the strangers, because they were the ones who were alien, they were the ones who were lost, they were the ones that we didn’t know, but we knew each other. And we were the human beings. 32

III. Hume on Human Nature

In 1735, David Hume went to France with the resolve “to make a very rigid frugality supply my deficiency of fortune, to maintain unimpaired my independency, and to regard every object as contemptible except the improvement of my talents in literature.” 33 Thus resolved he settled down at La Flêche to write his Treatise of Human Nature, Books I and II of which appeared in 1739, and Book III in 1740. Hume claimed at the outset in the Introduction to the Treatise of Human Nature that “human nature” could best be studied by gleaning observations from human historical behavior, then generalizing from those observations according to a scrupulous methodology of experimental reasoning, that is, making empirical inductions from observed cases.

And as the science of man is the only solid foundation for the other sciences, so the only solid foundation we can give to this science itself must be laid on experience and observation ... We must therefore glean up our experiments in this science from a cautious observation of human life, and take them as they appear in common course of the world, by men’s behavior in company, in affairs, and in their pleasures. Where experiments of this kind are judiciously collected and compared, we may hope to establish on them a science, which will not be inferior in certainty, and will be much superior in utility of human comprehension. 34

In the essay ‘Of National Character,’ written as a response to environmental and physical explanations of human differences, Hume’s empirical methodologies reached egregious conclusions which were deliberately deployed to account for racial differences. For Hume, writing as a philosopher and historian, the task was to examine human nature in various contexts to see how humans changed from a barbarous to a civilized state. Hume’s response was to offer a comparative analyses of already existing cultures or nations (without having observed or thoroughly investigated any cultures other than European ones) in which he stated his racial views. Hume then proceeded to deal with the question of whether cultural differences are best explained by moral or physical causes, basing his conclusions on an Anglo-European model of civilized behavior.

By moral causes, I mean all circumstances, which are fitted to work on the mind as motives or reasons, and which render a peculiar set of manners habitual to us .… By physical causes I mean those qualities of the air and climate, which are supposed to work insensibly on the temper, by altering the tone and habit of the body, and giving a particular complexion, which, though reflection and reason may sometimes overcome it, will yet prevail among the generality of mankind, and have an influence on their manners. 35

The contention of Hume’s essay that moral causes determine national character is a flawed epistemological premise. This contention is an example of how Hume’s theory of knowledge is driven by Hume’s racism and the built-in racism in his philosophical and conceptual worldview. Citing questionable facts from ancient and modern history, Hume argued that some moral causes, such as poverty, hard labor, dispersal, idleness make people useless, dishonest, and ignorant. Others, such as government and religion produced other results, sometimes beneficial. For example, the pluralism of England’s government, religion, and society allowed each Englishman, to “display the manners peculiar to him,” and thus was conducive to greater individuality. 36 He concluded that moral causes led whites to develop from barbarism to civilization, but that blacks were unable by nature to make a similar advancement from barbarism. The main theme of his essay is that transformation of Europeans from barbarians to civilized citizens is due to natural moral causes, but blacks cannot develop in this manner because nature has not provided them with the requisite mental and spiritual capacities to do so. For Hume, the barbarous situation of blacks is unalterable.

Hume, applying his methodology of “historical” experimental reasoning, cited first the alleged historical fact that there never has been a “civilized nation of any other complexion than white.” Then he manufactured a dubious historical law which governs this situation, namely that “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.” If we seriously consider Hume’s model of “nature” then we must conclude that nature is a sentient racist Scotsman. The case of the Jamaican black who constitutes a contradiction to his statements of fact is summarily dismissed with the comment, “tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.”

In A Treatise on Human Nature, Hume devotes a chapter, ‘Unphilosophical Probability,’ to an explication of rules of how not to make prejudicial judgments on the basis of biased evidence which is then used to make generalizations like “all Irishmen are quarrelsome.” 37 He discussed at length how such generalizations can be easily resorted to in the face of contradictory evidence. Hume is a perfect example of how prejudices can override evidence.

Consider these examples of Hume’s observations: “A Laplander or Negro has no notion of the relish of wine.” 38 Hume expanded on his “observations” regarding blacks and alcoholic drinks in the essay ‘Of National Characters’:

In France and Italy, few drink pure wine, except in the greatest heats of summer; and, indeed, it is then almost as necessary, in order to recruit the spirit, evaporated by heat, as it is in Sweden during the winter, in order to warm the bodies... [However] you may obtain any thing 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. 39

For someone who claims to utilize a scientific methodology based on experience and observation, the above observations reek of unadulterated bigotry. Hume did not report how he came by these “facts.” Nor will I bother to interrogate his statements except to ask the reader to compare his view of the African who he observes is so lacking in moral character that he would sell his wife, children, and mistress for a “cask of brandy,” with his view of the English who were then the preeminent buyers and sellers of human flesh. Hume could detect no moral flaws, whether due to drink or greed, or to a low state of moral development in English slavers: “We may often remark a wonderful mixture of manners and characters in the same nation, speaking the same language, and subject to the same government: and in this particular the English are the most remarkable of any people that perhaps ever were in the world.” 40

Another interesting example of Hume’s racial theories that reveals historical inconsistencies and absurdities can be seen in his opinion regarding Jews. Hume allowed that the dispersal of the Jewish people and their climatic conditions may have had a singular influence on their character that would have nothing in common with the people amongst whom they lived:

“Thus the Jews in Europe, and the Armenians in the East, have a peculiar character; and the former are as much noted for fraud as the latter for probity.” 41

Hume rejected the climate theory for Africans who had settled in other communities, such as England, and the free blacks in America, and opted instead for listing them as inferior in all seasons. What makes this point very important is not the fact that it is at variance with Hume’s empirical methodology and known historical facts—facts that had been around for over a century and were readily available to Hume—but that Hume wrote as if he was ignorant of these facts.

One of England’s greatest writers (and a keen observer of human differences, I might add) William Shakespeare, wrote two plays between 1601 and 1620: Othello, and The Merchant of Venice. Considering the portrayal of the two main characters in the plays, Othello and Shylock, one can assume that the cultural climate in seventeenth-century England was more receptive to a Christianized black than to a practicing Jew. It is not accidental that the woman who perishes at the hand of Othello, and the other woman who judges and ruins Shylock—Desdemona and Portia—are described by Shakespeare as blonde. It gives added emphasis to the contrast with the two dark-skinned and dark-haired men—who represent the two ancient cultures, Africa and Asia—polarized by the younger, middle culture of Europe. Their presence in England’s literature calls attention to this cultural tension.

The ethical and moral questions regarding slavery, freedom and social justice were probably debated in England in Hume’s time, so Hume could not plausibly feign ignorance of such issues. In the late 1700s, there were nearly 20,000 black men and women in London, and about 30,000 in all of England. In 1749, Justice Hardwicke held that a runaway slave could legally be recovered. Hardwicke’s ruling was well publicized. London newspapers carried long lists of Africans who had fled their masters, with descriptions and promises of rewards. Professional slave hunters appeared who made their living by returning runaways. Under the direction of Granville Sharpe, an anti-slavery reformer, a series of cases questioning the right of Englishmen to own slaves was brought before the courts. Sharpe produced an historic tract after a long period of study, On the Injustice and Dangerous Tendency of Tolerating Negro Slavery in England. The poet, William Cowper (1731-1800), wrote a very long poem in which he grimly pointed out the barbaric cruelty slavers inflicted on Africans and noted the moral dilemma of slavery faced by the English (which Cowper clearly recognized as a crime against humanity) but which the English and the Europeans easily rationalized to assuage their greed:

I own I am shock’d at the purchase of slaves,
And fear those who buy them and sell them are knaves; What I hear of their hardships, their tortures, and groans, Is almost enough to draw pity from stones.
I pity them greatly, but I must be mum,
For how could we do without sugar and rum? Especially sugar, so needful we see?
What? give up our desserts, our coffee, and tea!
Besides, if we do, the French, Dutch, and Danes,
Will heartily thank us, no doubt, for our pains;
If we do not buy the poor creatures, they will,
And tortures and groans will be multiplied still. 42

Particularly disturbing are teachers and students in philosophy and history who would ignore or explain away the racism of Hume and other philosophers and historians. Usually the racism encountered in the texts is simply ignored or it is dismissed as irrelevant to classroom discussions. The racism in western philosophical and historical texts is rarely, if ever, seriously discussed. When the racism in the text is encountered, it is viewed as an example of the color/circumstance correlation problem which has ‘insinuated’ itself into the writer’s thoughts because of the lack of modern information and modern science. In what must be an amazing display of conceptual dexterity these apologists argue that empiricism and western logic carried to their logical conclusion ultimately provide a barrier to extreme racism.

The opposite is true since the conceptual framework of empiricism itself may be racist. We have seen the convergence in the same critical historical period between the incorporation of the discipline of empiricism as the pioneer discipline of the modern world of imperialism and capitalism and the imperial ascendancy of Europe in other parts of the world. Meanwhile, Hume’s racial views had a direct bearing on his theories of human understanding and human nature. His comment on blacks in ‘Of National Characters,’ though a mere footnote, had an enormous influence on racist thinkers for the next half-century. Winthrop Jordan, who has analyzed English and American racist literature of the period quite thoroughly, reveals that Hume stated the case of black inferiority “more boldly than anyone.” According to Jordan, Hume went further than Aristotle and earlier thinkers “by hitching superiority to complexion.” 43 Many American and European thinkers and politicians cited Hume as their authority on race. Immanuel Kant took Hume’s findings as establishing that “the Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling.”

Mr. Hume challenges anyone to cite a simple example in which a Negro has shown talents, and asserts that among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who are transported elsewhere from their countries, although many of them have even been set free, still not a single one was ever found who presented anything great in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality, even though among the whites some continually rise aloft from the lowest rabble, and through superior gifts earn respect in the world. So fundamental is the difference between these two races of man, and it appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in color ... The blacks are very vain but in the Negro’s way, and so talkative that they must be driven apart from each other with thrashings. 44

Hume’s empirical methodology assumes the existence of distinct racial variants that shape the historical paths of humans of different skin colors. Given that he did not provide any supporting evidence for his expostulations, we may conclude that his theories of human understanding and human nature are not universal; nor do they have universal applicability since they reject or ignore the greater part of the human family. Hume’s views are not merely the banal blunders that are bound to occur in complex philosophical arguments. On the contrary, Hume represented a form of color-racism that is a modern phenomenon which entered the world about the same time as European imperialism did.

Hume played a major and conscious role in the institutionalization of the hatred of blacks. In Hume’s moral universe, racial subordination is depicted as the sole factor shaping the choices and actions of blacks and Indians. European domination is to be viewed as a “cure” for the inferior species by providing them with colonial structure, assimilation, evolutionary up-grading, or in some instances, blessed extermination! The third edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, published in 1798, contained the following entry for “Negroes” and the editors continued publishing entries in this vein until well into the twentieth century:

NEGRO, Homo pelli nigra, a name given to a variety of the human species, who are entirely black, and are found in the Torrid zone, especially in that part of Africa which lies within the tropics. In the complexion of negroes we meet with various shades; but they likewise differ far from other men in all the features of their face. Round cheeks, high cheek-bones, a forehead somewhat elevated, a short, broad, flat nose, thick lips, small ears, ugliness, and irregularity of shape, characterize their external appearance. The negro women have the loins greatly depressed, and very large buttocks, which give the back the shape of a saddle. Vices the most notorious seem to be the portion of this unhappy race: idleness, treachery, revenge, cruelty, impudence, stealing, lying, profanity, debauchery, nastiness and intemperance, are said to have extinguished the principles of natural law, and to have silenced the reproofs of conscience. They are strangers to every sentiment of compassion, and are an awful example of the corruption of man when left to himself.

Compare the Encyclopedia Britannica’s description of Africans with this description of the European which appeared in a scientific publication, Account of the Regular Gradation in Man, written and published in 1799 by the English surgeon Charles White. White agreed with Hume regarding race and differences due to race. Comparing the two definitions shows how science has constantly been deployed to serve white supremacist ends and how easily pseudo-learned opinion can succumb to racial prejudice.

Where shall we find, unless in the European, that nobly arched head, containing such a quantity of brain, and supported by a hollow conical pillow, entering its centre? Where the perpendicular face, the prominent nose, and round projecting chin? Where that variety of features, and fullness of expression; those long, flowing, graceful ringlets; that majestic beard, those rosy cheeks and coral lips? Where that erect posture of the body and noble gait? In what other quarter of the globe shall we find the blush that overspreads the soft features of the beautiful women of Europe, that emblem of modesty, of delicate feelings, and of sense? What nice expression of the amiable and softer passions in the countenance; and that general elegance of features and complexion? Where, except on the bosom of the European woman, two such plump and snowy white hemispheres, tipt with vermillion?

Hume’s racial views and theories were in exact accord with the newly developing notion of Europe’s “pure childhood” which notion also can be found in Hume’s essay ‘Of National Characters’: “The ingenuity, industry, and activity of the ancient Greeks, have nothing in common with the stupidity and indolence of the present inhabitants of those regions. Candor, bravery, and love of liberty, formed the character of the ancient Romans, as subtilty, cowardice, and a slavish disposition, do that of the modern .…” 45 Or consider these observations from the same work:

Lord Bacon has observed, that the inhabitants of the south are, in general, more ingenious than those of the north; but that, where the native of a cold climate has genius, he rises to a higher pitch than can be reached by the southern wits. This observation a late writer confirms, by comparing the southern wits to cucumbers, which are commonly all good in their kind, but, at best, are an insipid fruit; while the northern geniuses are like melons, of which not one in fifty is good, but when it is so, it has an exquisite relish. I believe this remark may be allowed just, when confined to the European nations, and to the present age ... But I think it may be accounted for from moral causes. All the sciences and liberal arts have been imported to us from the south; and it is easy to imagine, that, in the first order of application, when excited by emulation and by glory, the few who were addicted to them would carry them to the greatest height, and stretch every nerve, and every faculty, to reach the pinnacle of perfection. 46 48

Martin Bernal has written a three-volume study which discusses the role of seventeenth and eighteenth century philosophers and historians in the overthrow of what he calls the Classical and Ancient Models of history in order to install the Aryan Model. The racism that permeated the thought of the empiricists played an important role in the overthrow of the Classical and Ancient Model of history.

This racism...pervaded the thought of Locke, Hume and other English thinkers. Their influence—and that of the new European explorers of other continents—was important at the University of Gottingen, founded in 1734 by George 11, Elector of Hanover and King of England, and forming a cultural bridge between Britain and Germany. It is not surprising, therefore, that the first “academic” work on human racial classification—which naturally put whites, or to use his new term, “Caucasians”, at the head of the hierarchy—was written by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a professor at Gottingen.
The paradigm of “races” that were intrinsically unequal in physical and mental endowment was applied to all human studies, but especially to history. It was now considered undesirable, if not disastrous, for races to mix ... Thus it became increasingly intolerable that Greece--which was seen by the Romantics not merely as the epitome of Europe but also as its pure childhood—could be the result of the mixture of native Europeans and colonizing Africans and Semites. 47

Hume’s racist views were the result of his implied polygenetic position and were consonant with his theories of human nature and human knowledge and how people develop from a barbaric state to a level of civilization. His theories were formed into historiography in which people and events were placed in a thematic matrix of superiority and inferiority, agency and docility, action and utility. Hume did not see all humans as capable of the same attainments because of degenerate or deviant differences from a normal white human nature. Hume was a chief spokesman for the thesis that blacks are permanently inferior to whites.

IV. By Way of a Conclusion

I started this paper with the statement that African-Americans face a dilemma when working with the western canon. Is the racism that one finds in historical and philosophical texts a reflection of the ordinary prejudices of the writers, or is the racism an essential element of the philosophical and historical texts? Is racism the fault of the philosopher/historian or is it the result of flawed philosophies and histories? These questions are important because there should be a universal criterion for evaluating histories and philosophies in order to extract values recognizable to all races. Western historians and philosophers have allowed a racist perspective to influence western history, scholarship, politics, and education regarding race, racism, and the origin and spread of human culture.

Until recently the history of philosophy and the philosophy of history have been understood to be concerned only with the history of ideas that began with the ancient Greeks. In studying these ideas we concern ourselves only with the ideas themselves. Little or no attention is given to analyzing the social and political context in which ideas occur as if to do so is irrelevant. I suggest that philosophical ideas and the epistemologies supporting them are not immune to the social and political forces which produce them. I further suggest that teachers and students have a moral responsibility to seriously critique how knowledge is produced so that we may better understand ourselves in the present and make more intelligent choices for the future.


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Citation Format

Morton, Eric (2002). RACE AND RACISM IN THE WORKS OF DAVID HUME. Journal on African Philosophy: 1, 1