Institutions, Philosophy, Freedom and Society (PART I)

Institutions, Philosophy, Freedom and Society (PART I)

What does it mean to talk about institutions; democratic institutions; philosophy and freedom for a democratic society? In a way, it is about the studying and teaching of philosophy we ourselves are practicing, in relation to bringing and carrying on democracy. I wonder how many ways are there to explore this theme, and how many “democracies” there would appear after all. My proposal is to reflect on the problems of philosophical learning.

I mean, it is not easy when a great philosopher and authority reveals his or her most ordinary and common sense prejudices with such a boldness and assurance. Let us consider the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume’s racism. How should we deal with the philosopher’s opinion that Blacks were inferior to Whites? Do we need to talk about that? How should we denounce or fight it back? As an exercise against extremisms, not only this has to do with today’s afro-american and other civil rights movements, or with the decolonization of thought: to consider Hume’s racism is an attempt to think over what is it – a critical philosophical learning?

Let us begin with Hume’s own words: where, when, what is Hume’s racism like?

“[…] there is some reason to think, that all the nations, which live beyond the polar circles or between the tropics, are inferior to the rest of the species, and are incapable of all the higher attainments of the human mind. The poverty and misery of the northern inhabitants of the globe, and the indolence of the southern, from their few necessities, may, perhaps, account for this remarkable difference […] This however is certain, that the characters of nations are very promiscuous in the temperate climates, and that almost all the general observations, which have been formed of the more southern or more northern people in these climates, are found to be uncertain and fallacious.”1

Hume even seems careful about not ascribing any essentialism to the character of the nations, by ascertaining their intense promiscuity in the temperate climates. And he does demonstrate some hesitation about his and other’s observations formed on Afro, Indians and Eskimos, by pondering the uncertainty and fallacy of them. However, there is also an “almost”, “almost all general observations are uncertain and fallacious”: that is, not all of them will be so. And this indetermination is precisely about noting an essence proper to some characters when it happens to be a “racial case”.

We then read the following footnote added to this paragraph:

“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. [On the first editions it read: “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.” – Having made this correction, from “all other species of men” to “negroes” are inferior to whites, the note is kept unchanged as follows] 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 an uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are NEGROE slaves dispersed all over EUROPE, of whom none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; though 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 it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.”2

This so bold and prepossessed opinion against Blacks also appears in other passages of Hume’s work, but it is here that it reveals itself in its strongest colors. A few paragraphs later, the philosopher’s negative impression of Blacks becomes even more evident:

“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.”3

Hume’s racism does not appear to be much known outside the circle of Humean scholars; and among them, this discussion seems to be held as frivolous and fruitless for a better comprehension of his work. Not only this, in an attempt to set a defense for him, they argue that Hume’s racism is completely dissociated from the institution of racial slavery in South-Central-North America, because the philosopher would oppose himself to slavery.

This argument is based on a passage of his essay on “The populousness of ancient nations”, but it seems quite inconclusive to me since the philosopher is referring to the slavery of Whites, of “fellow creatures” as he says, and not a word is ever said about the modern slavery overburdening Blacks’ lives.4 All this sounds very weird: to try a defense for the philosopher in a fallacious way, and to ignore the significance of such a topic in the studying and teaching of his philosophy.

The insistence of re-accessing Hume’s unsympathetic feelings for Indians, Eskimos and especially for Blacks may be justified by the oddity that it would be to see it and say nothing. The persistence of racism and other racial injustices, and the forgetfulness of history are two concerns among many of us that may justify this.

It is really surprising that such a nice and gentle philosopher as Hume happens to speak so grossly like this. Considering it in its proper argumentative context, Hume’s racism is the observation of an exception, it is part of the philosopher’s solution to a problem. All differences between national characters would be produced, caused by morality, that is, they are cultural, socially acquired, artificial; not natural or original.

In fact, this position was quite new for Hume’s age, while many thinkers still embraced the opinion that human differences were due to the influence of physical nature (air and climate). The only exception in Hume’s views is when human differences are to be accounted for the different human complexions or races.

It shocks a little to see how Hume’s fine taste for paradoxes and contradictions, recurrently avoiding categorical generalizations, manifests itself so disagreeable this time. The philosopher never got so far as to draw a taxonomy of human races, he only mentions his belief on a second source of human differences. He is really acknowledging racial-natural-original differences to exist, besides moral-acquired differences. One important observation is that the racial-natural-original difference element noticed by Hume seems to be precisely an inability for acquiring morals. Thus, there are the nations which mingle themselves with one another, and there are the nations that cannot mingle. Those inhabit in Asia and Europe, and these, on the borders of Europe and Asia. Hume’s racism is not dissociated from an ethnocentrism.

Behind, beneath, or rather across this line of argumentation, there is a genuine philosophical problem: how does a nation come to have a character; how morality is possible; how does a variety of individuals unite themselves in one same society up to the point that they acquire characteristic national manners; what is the origin of society?


1 Hume, “Of national character”. In: Essays Moral, Political and Literary. Edited by Eugene Miller. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1987, p. 207. (From now on, referred only as “Of national character”)

2 Hume, “Of national character”, pp. 208 and 629.

3 Hume, “Of national character”, p. 214.

4 See the footnote to Hume’s footnote on the Blacks inferiority, by the most recent editor of Hume’s Essays, Eugene Miller.

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