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Slave to Conventional Prejudice

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 8, 2011

Hume had a limited idea of civilization

In a rhapsodic New York Times op-ed about David Hume’s love life, Robert Zaretsky manages to use the word “slave” three times (“reason is indeed passion’s slave”) and also quotes the advice from a friend that Hume should use his mind only in “the service of that portion of mankind we call our country.”

But maybe we should also remember that Hume was concerned only with a narrow segment of humanity.  He once wrote, “There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white.”

In that spirit, he also belittled, sight unseen, a schoolmaster named Francis Williams: “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.”

These thoughts parroted conventional thinking of the day, which was obsessed with whether other races were even members of the human species (as I recount in The Species Seekers).

But they also make it clear that the eminent philosopher was right to be skeptical about the powers of reason.


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