A recent Black Lives Matter demonstration in Edinburgh saw one protester adorn the prominently placed statue of David Hume with a placard inscribed with one of the great philosopher’s lesser known observations: “I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites.” Racism, we are reminded, has a long history, and even our philosophical heroes were not immune to it. Hume’s remark appears in his essay “Of National Characters,” in which he goes on to say:

There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion … On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites … have still something eminent about them.

Hume is one of those philosophers whom it is difficult to dislike. He writes with great clarity, leavened with moments of delicious irony. On his own account, he was “naturally of a cheerful and sanguine temper.” By the accounts of others, he was quite good fun. Hume was also a religious sceptic who produced searching critiques of religious belief, and this, along with his anti-metaphysical and naturalistic approach, has made him the darling of many contemporary analytic philosophers. In view of his many virtues, it is tempting to excuse his racism as simply the consequence of his being a man of his times.

But what if Hume’s attitude to race was not incidental to his philosophical worldview, but rather integral to it? What if it cannot easily be disentangled from his other commitments? And, we might inquire further, what if the racism that has engendered the recent waves of protest around the globe is historically indebted to Enlightenment commitments of the kind that Hume held?

These questions become more pressing when we consider that other Enlightenment figures held similar views. Voltaire, lauded today as a champion of reason and free speech, categorised the “Caffres, the Hottentots, the Topinambous” as “children.” In his ranking of races, he proposed that “Negroes” occupy a median position between Europeans and apes. For Voltaire, “natural” differences provided the explanation of why Europeans had been able to subdue and enslave inferior races. (It is a touch ironic, given this, that Humanists UK sponsors an annual Voltaire Lecture which, in 2019, was devoted to the topic, “How to Argue with a Racist.”)

Another Enlightenment luminary, Immanuel Kant, expressed the view that full perfection of humanity was reserved for “the white race”; next came the “yellow Indians,” following by “the Negroes” and finally “the American peoples.” Americans he regarded as ineducable and lazy.

Even the generally inoffensive John Locke, well known as an advocate of religious toleration and liberalism, was not entirely blameless. He was an investor in the Royal Africa Company, an operation responsible for the transportation of tens of thousands of West Africans to the Americas. (The company was led for a time by Edward Colston, whose statue also attracted the attentions of Black Lives Matter protesters on the weekend. As widely reported, it was pulled down from its plinth in central Bristol and unceremoniously dumped into the River Avon.) Locke drafted provisions into the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina that, on the face of it, suggest support for the institution of slavery.

Were these attitudes simply uncritical reflections of the general mood of the period? To some degree, yes. But it is also true that Hume’s views on race, for example, were explicitly rejected bysome of his contemporaries. The literary trope of the “noble savage” also points to the contemporary currency of more positive assessments of other races.

Given all this, it is not surprising that more than one commentator has suggested that the scientific racism of the nineteenth century had its intellectual origins in the Enlightenment. But historical genealogies are complicated, racism clearly predated the Enlightenment, and many different historical factors inform the varieties of modern racism. We can still ask, however, whether the attitudes of these Enlightenment figures were simply background noise or were in some way integral to their thinking. If the latter, then we may need to view some prominent recent advocacies of a return to Enlightenment values with a degree of caution.

Two aspects of “Enlightenment thinking” around the race question bear closer attention: ideas of progress and religious scepticism. (Scare quotes are deployed here because I refer to popular conceptions of the Enlightenment, rather than the messy and multiple historical movements that might legitimately lay claim to that label.)

Commitment to progress, inflected by the racial understandings on display in Hume and others, meant that “inferior races” were either doomed to perpetual inferiority or extinction on account of supposed fixed and unchangeable deficiencies, or were seen as the child-like stages of the fully developed Western European type. Either way, the principle of progress meant that other races would be ranked in accordance with their degree of conformity to European societies that were imagined to epitomise human advancement. While racist attitudes have been endemic in all periods of history, the Enlightenment idea of progress lent them a new respectability, integrating them into secular theories of history and a new “science of man.”

We may imagine that we have moved well beyond these patronising views of other races as imperfect realisations of a Western ideal. But belief in the superiority of our scientific understandings of the world still presents us with challenging and largely unresolved questions about the status of indigenous knowledges, their relation to science, and their place in our institutions of learning. To take a single example, we still hear voices arguing that the restitution to indigenous peoples of their ancestral remains should be resisted because science should trump the “mythically based” world-views of those demanding their return.

The issue of “mythical” world-views brings us to the anti-religious animus of some Enlightenment figures. In his famous attack on belief in miracles, Hume remarks: “It forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations, that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations.” For Hume, secularity was a gauge of civilisation: the more religious, the more barbarous. Race and religious commitment were dual markers of a primitive condition.

Voltaire was also motivated to stress racial difference in order to counter the powerful biblical story of a single creation of human beings in the image of God. Voltaire held a polygenetic view, according to which the different races did not share a common ancestry. Religion and racial inferiority together represented barriers to social progress and the march of civilisation.

This should prompt us to consider the respective roles of myth and science in offering a guide to life. It is instructive that icons of Enlightenment rationality were rarely at the forefront of movements for practical racial equality. In England, the campaign against slavery was not led by a posse of religiously sceptical philosophers, but by Quakers, Methodists, and Evangelicals. In more recent history, Christian churches that played a central role in the civil rights movement whose leaders were more likely to draw inspiration from the Old Testament prophets than from formal declarations of human rights. Abstract conceptions of human equality seemed less effective in motivating social change than religious convictions grounded in “myths.” Indeed, it is likely that, in historical terms, the former are parasitic on the latter.

None of this should be construed as an Enlightenment-bashing exercise, or a gratuitous attempt to besmirch the character of anyone’s favourite philosopher. But we should be wary of calls to revisit an imagined Enlightenment in which the values of science, reason, progress, and secularity hold sway. At worst, these very things were implicated in some of the social ills now confronting the world; at best, they could happily co-exist with visions of humanity that we now regard as deplorable. More ambitiously, we need to continue to seek ways of bridging the gap between our remarkable scientific and technological accomplishments and the underexploited wisdom that is embedded within “mythical” world views.

This essay has been republished from ABC Religion & Ethics with the permission of the author.

Peter Harrison

Peter Harrison

Peter Harrison is the Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland. In 2011 he delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, and in...