Interpretations of Hume's Footnote on Race
64 Pages Posted: 14 Dec 2020 Last revised: 29 Apr 2022
Date Written: October 17, 2020
In his essay “Of National Characters,” Hume added a now-infamous footnote denigrating African civilizations and black people in general. The footnote creates a contradiction to readers acquainted with Hume. Hume is widely recognized as a critic of bigotry, yet his footnote is the height of bigotry. Furthermore, in 1752, the year prior to the addition of the footnote, he excoriated slavery. Modern scholars offer different interpretations of the footnote. Most agree he was prejudiced against blacks, but the degree to which the footnote collides with the anti-bigotry perspective projected in his other writings is disputed. This paper shows the many perplexing contradictions created by the footnote in Hume’s writings and ponders whether the contradictions were intentional. I argue that Hume often wrote in an ambiguous and occasionally contradictory fashion to draw readers with opposing views into his work, yet his true beliefs were sometimes hard to discern. Conclusions over the extent of Hume’s racism are not made; in fact, this paper argues they should only be made with caution. A very likely answer is that Hume did hold racist views, but his numerous statements suggesting the contrary should not be ignored. Hume may have written the denigration to create stark contradiction and to lampoon racist attitudes necessary to justifying slavery. Alternatively, he may have been trying to persuade pro-slavery opponents into allowing a hearing to those like himself who argued against slavery—trying to reason with his opponents without recrimination for rank inhumanity and injustice. The extent of Hume’s racism might be hard to truly know, but this paper argues that it is likely that the footnote was added and amended to improve the effectiveness of his arguments against slavery.
Keywords: David Hume, 18th Century, Esotericism
JEL Classification: B12, B31
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation