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The Honest Truth: A man of his time, yet philosopher Hume taught us how to live today

© Shutterstock / ArcadyRoyal Mile street in Edinburgh, Scotland. Old statue of David Hume.
Royal Mile street in Edinburgh, Scotland. Old statue of David Hume.

18th Century philosopher David Hume, known as the Father of the Scottish Enlightenment, has recently been reviled for racist views. Now, Dr Julian Baggini, of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, tells Sally McDonald the Honest Truth about the lessons to be learned from Hume’s mistakes.

David Hume has been described as a complex character who, despite objecting to slavery in principle, was involved in the slave trade and expressed racist views. How do you reconcile this contradiction?

Hume wrote in a footnote that he was “apt to suspect” that “black people were inferior to whites.” This is clearly absolutely wrong and has rightly been condemned. However, as historian Tom Devine said last year: “Hume was a man of his time, no better and no worse than any other Scot at the time.”

Sadly, even our greatest geniuses are not immune from the prejudices of their day. But if you take his work as a whole it leads us away from rather than towards racism. “Prejudice is destructive of sound judgment and perverts all operations of the intellectual faculties,” he wrote.

Can any of his teachings continue to have value today?

He was committed to reason and evidence, which are what in the long-term end bigotry. Hume’s thought has so much to offer. We know to learn from his mistakes as well as from the many things he got right.

Can you tell me a little about the man, David Hume?

David Hume was born in May, 1711, and was the greatest philosopher Scotland, Britain and perhaps even the world has ever produced. He was a key figure in the European Enlightenment, when Edinburgh and Glasgow rivalled Paris as its hub. He’s a real philosopher’s philosopher but is not as well known by the general public.

What was he known for?

His six-volume History Of England and his essays. Today, he is better known for his larger philosophical works. Hume questioned the power of reason alone to furnish us with knowledge of the world. He argued that we relied more on experience and habit than philosophers have acknowledged.

He was an atheist-leaning agnostic about religion.

What shocking or surprising finds did your research reveal?

I already knew about the racist footnote that led to his name being removed from a University of Edinburgh tower block but I was surprised to learn that he not only once took part in a pointless military raid on France, he didn’t seem to regret it or even question its legitimacy. It shows how even the greatest minds take some wrong things for granted.

What is his relevance in the 21st Century?

Hume has influenced a lot of scientists, including Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein.

In philosophy, his influence is felt in almost every area: personal identity, free will, morality, religion, causation, knowledge…

What would Hume have made of the Covid-19 pandemic?

Hume’s political judgments were not always spot-on but he would have understood the difficulties of dealing with the uncertainties of the pandemic, and wouldn’t have been surprised to find so many unable to do so.

He would have known that what will see us through this will be a combination of evidence-based science and social solidarity based on fellow-feeling, not exclusionary nationalism or factionalism.

What would you like readers to take from this book?

An understanding that, when used properly, reason and philosophy are not cold, abstract and removed from ordinary life, but tools to help us live and think better.

The Great Guide: What David Hume Can Teach Us About Being Human And Living Well, Princeton University Press.