David Hume Meets BLM, led by Michael Bycroft on 9 February 2021
Summary by Eseosa Akojie, Final Year History and Politics Student and Undergraduate Research Assistant
On Tuesday 9 February, Dr. Michael Bycroft - Assistant Professor in the History of Science and Technology at the University of Warwick - delivered the latest instalment of the Now and Then seminar series with a discussion on Hume and Black Lives Matter.
A historian of early modern science, technology and medicine Bycroft specialises in French history. Bycroft therefore notes in the beginning of this event that he does not work on Hume or Black Lives Matter, but has become interested in the relationship between two. A self-described friend to both Hume and BLM, Bycroft describes that he is intrigued by the tension that has most recently been sparked by the resurgence of the BLM movement and concurrent petitions to rename the David Hume Tower at the University of Edinburgh.
David Hume was a key philosopher from the 1700s and a notable figure of the Enlightenment period. He is often taught alongside other historical vanguards such as Locke. The Black Lives Matter movement, on the other hand, is a social movement first emerging in 2013 ignited by the murder of black, 13 year old Trayvon Martin by a white police officer. In the years since its inception it has established itself solidly as an anti-racist, decolonial movement organising against racism and police brutality.
The antagonism between Hume and the Black Lives Matter movement, as Bycroft bluntly puts it, lies in the fact that Hume did not think that black lives mattered. Hume’s now notorious footnote in his essay on National Characters reads “I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites, there scarcely ever was a civilised nation of that complexion nor even individual eminent in action or speculation”. The recently renamed tower at the University of Edinburgh thus suggesting the incompatibility of anti-racism and David Hume.
Bycroft details other movements such as Rhodes Must Fall in Cape Town SA and Oxford University and, the Leopold Must Fall campaign at Queen Mary’s London University. In doing so Bycroft exposes the imperial remnants that can be found on many university campuses and notes some of the controversies, debates, conversations and campaigns these spark for students.
The (virtual) floor is then opened to contributions from the attendant audience on the relationship between BLM and Hume. Conversation picks up on Bycroft’s early anecdote of having two friends, (Hume and BLM) who have met and gotten into a disagreement where he portrayed himself as the friend attempting reconciliation. Yet, an audience member questions the possibility of reconciliation and asks whether there is indeed a middle ground between a racist and an anti-racist.
There is agreement on this point by another audience member who also argues that statues, and buildings of racists glorifies said racists; they suggest that teaching and recognising Hume as a key contributor to the Enlightenment period, whilst also tearing down his statues and removing his name from buildings, is possible and necessary. The conversation then turns to questions on how far we can still celebrate the ‘other’ aspects of Hume, without playing down the seriousness of his racism. It is suggested that, because humans are complicated and contradictory by nature, as we look at historical figures we will always find a lot we will disagree with; however, perhaps we can still celebrate the good bits of a person.
Contributions from an additional audience member adds further nuance to the conversation by suggesting that we should first consider how to teach or study Hume, before deciding if/how we celebrate him. Should Hume’s racism be taught before, alongside or after teaching on his philosophical writings? Should Hume’s racism be taught at all? The reply from another audience member indicates that the University of Edinburgh was right to rename the David Hume Tower because it is an act of glorification which indicates agreement with the entire character of the individual. However, with regards to teaching Hume’s philosophy it is suggested that you can separate Hume’s philosophical contributions from his racism. It is argued that Hume’s ideas on human nature e.g. that we are primarily sympathetic, have proliferated into modern society largely sans the racism that Hume also concurrently held. Rejecting Hume’s contributions on the basis of some views that we find reprehensible today is thus offered as impossible and nonsensical.
Additional contributions proffer up this point illustrating that Hume’s writings on race are sparse and encapsulate only a single footnote, to teach Hume in a way that underpins his racism thus becomes harder. However, this assertion is countered by another audience member who argues that the work of Hume which is not obviously racist was still created within a wider system of philosophy and personal beliefs that upheld colonialism, racism and European exceptionalism. Therefore, to delineate Hume’s racist beliefs from his ‘other’ work becomes problematic.
Along a similar vein, another contribution from the audience argues that the purpose for teaching Hume informs the way in which Hume is taught. It is suggested that if one is teaching Enlightenment from a historical perspective, attempting to uncover the impact Enlightenment thinking has on modern society, then problematising Hume and paying particular attention to the personal beliefs Hume and his peers held is extremely important. It is suggested that if we recognise modern society as institutionally racist then, when teaching the history of Enlightenment, it is pertinent to examine not only its philosophical and political influences, but also its racist, colonialist and white supremacist legacy. To separate Hume from his racism is itself nonsensical because this is not a separation that either Hume or his peers would have made of their own work at the time. Finally, it is argued that our most important thinkers, from which we have inherited principles of freedom, liberty, empathy, did not consider BIPOC human; as a result, the role such beliefs and principles have played in the continuous perpetuation and reproduction of racist societies today, must be interrogated.
A further contribution from the audience provides the background information for the context in which Hume was writing; a deeply racist, industrialising Scottish society which was financed by the proceeds of slavery and the slave trade. That Hume wrote only briefly on race is again seen as negligent considering the instrumental, transformative impact it had on Scottish society. The material reality of colonialism and slavery is thus still evident; this prompts a brief discussion on the material consequences of Hume’s racism and the general necessity for reparations.
Finally, to conclude the event there is an interesting discussion on decolonising Enlightenment. With reference to the Chinese Enlightenment period, another audience member queries the possibility of using the Enlightenment, and the importation of western ‘Enlightened’ ideas, as a springboard to analyse racism on a global scale. They suggest we decentre Europe and the anti-black racism it perpetuated to uncover other discriminations within different communities of people and recognise how the prejudices they may have held were entrenched, implemented, reinforced and weaponized by western ideas of enlightenment.
Ultimately, this event touched upon many different topics and posed several intriguing questions. Lines of inquiry went down multiple interesting routes as Bycroft and the attendant audience began a thorough consideration of Hume, the Enlightenment period and the anti-racist ideas of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Bycroft must be praised for his effectiveness in creating and facilitating such a vibrant space of discourse - as must the audience for succinctly and respectfully pooling and sharing such vast knowledge and varying different opinions.
For more discourse on anti-racism and Black Lives Matter please see:
 David Hume, “Of National Characters,” 1777 (revised version of an essay first published 1748)