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Monday, July 8, 2019

AN IDLE THOUGHT

My very first scholarly publication, aside from two brief Notes in MIND, was the Appendix of my doctoral dissertation, which appeared in the January-March issue of the JOURNAL OF THE  HISTORY OF IDEAS under the title "Kant's Debt to Hume via Beattie."  The Beattie was James Beattie, whose popular 1770 book An Essay on the Nature and Immutability of the Truth played a critical role, I showed, in Kant's knowledge of Hume's sceptical attacks on causal inference.  The attack brought Kant up short and led him to develop the deepest and most original doctrines of the Critique of Pure Reason.

I was scornful of Beattie, whose arguments against "sceptics," among whom he included Descartes, were, I thought, jejune.  It took me much of a lifetime to notice and pay proper attention to the fact that whereas Hume and Kant were blatant racists, Beattie was [in that very book] a strong opponent of the Slave Trade.

Live and learn.

13 comments:

David Zimmerman said...

Perhaps 1770.

Mazen said...

Very interesting....

David Palmeter said...

The issue of whether we should condemn people like Hume and Kant for racism, and Jefferson for slavery generally and for his relationship with Sally Hemings in particular, is one that has divided my household for some time. Jefferson is the usual example that gets raised. My wife, with strong support from our daughter, condemns Jefferson--and would condemn Hume and Kant if they were the examples that come up. I’m a contextualist on the issue. I ask myself, if I had been born into the world of, say, Jefferson, raised as he was raised, taught from the cradle what he was taught, in the world that he saw around him, where every authority figure he knew--parents, teachers etc--accepted black slavery as something normal, would I have reacted any differently? I’d like to think so, but in honesty must say I doubt I would have.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

David Palmeter, what interests me is not what I now think of what they did then, bujt what other prominent people then thought. Would I have been a beattie or a Hume? [or indeed a jane Austen, who not too long after Hume was clearly an opponent of the slave trade.]

Anonymous said...

I think you--RPW--might have pressed the point in response to DP a little bit further, for doesn't the fact that some of the coevals of Hume, Kant, Jefferson, etc. thought very differently from them on the matter of slavery suggest that there's a problem with contextualism? (DP's point also raises a contemporary problem I suppose: what do we say to/about our contemporaries raised in circumstances where every authority figure they were familiar with made racism, misogyny, etc. normative features of their formative years?)

Matt said...

In the past, I have tried to make sense of issues like slavery by asking what I would have done if I was raised in their position, but lately I've changed my mind about whether this is a good way to evaluate people's actions.

I have taken positions on issues in the past that I now believe to be immoral. When thinking of my past self, I never tell myself "Well, what could you expect of someone raised how I was raised?" Instead I say "I used to think the people who were telling me I was wrong were crazy. I now understand that they were right." The fact that there were others who were telling me that I was wrong and I rejected their perspective is enough to feel like I should take responsibility for my actions.

There were abolitionists in the time of Jefferson. It's not impossible that Jefferson might have come to tell himself "I was wrong and they were right. They told me what I was doing was wrong and I didn't listen." If Jefferson could have told himself that, I think we should be able to too.

Unknown said...

Perhaps it is most relevant to consider this though experiment: What would a slave then (or at any time) have thought about slavery?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Ah, but we know the answer to that question, and it does not require a thought experiment, just a little knowledge of American history.

David Palmeter said...

The late 18th Century seems to have been a time when attitudes were changing, not only Hume, but people like Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush, both one-time slave owners who became abolitionists. Today I’m all for Beattie--but would I have been then? And what would I have done had I been a delegate to the Constitutional Convention? Of the two options--a larger country, part of it slave, or a smaller country, all of it free--which would I have supported?

It’s one thing to ask questions like these now. I’m glad I wasn’t confronted with them when the questions were real.

Matt said...

On Kant, Pauline Kleingeld, in her excellent book _Kant and Cosmopolitanism_, has a very interesting discussion of Kant's changing views on race. No doubt they were still less than perfect, but by the 1780s, he's make a huge switch, both in his understanding of the nature of race (which he no longer sees as connected to "character", and the practical implications of race. Kleingeld suggests that it's not 100% clear why Kant's view changed so radically, but he did engage in discussion with several contemporaries (most now largely forgotten but important at the time) who rejected the racists views of the time. It does suggest both that we ought not just excuse the bad views held by earlier people, and that bad views can change.

LFC said...

On opposition/resistance to slavery among slaves in the U.S. (and non-enslaved blacks): I've been making my way v. slowly through a recent synthetic history of the 19th-cent U.S. and, assuming it represents a rough consensus among professional historians on this particular subject, such opposition/resistance was quite widespread and took a number of different forms. If there were a small number of slaves in atypical circumstances who were more-or-less ok with their lot, I think they were a very small minority.

And I would be highly wary of drawing any generalizations on this point from the depictions found in the work of certain Southern white writers; Faulkner in The Unvanquished is what I happen to have in mind, but there are no doubt others that might be mentioned here.
p.s. I haven't read the recent historiography of American slavery, e.g. works by W. Johnson or E. Baptist that have gotten a lot of attention (or for that matter most of the older historiography either).

Charles Pigden said...

Well if anyone wants to wrote a defence of Beattie, the title is right there in Hume: 'That silly bigoted fellow Beattie'?

Sonic said...

Wallerstein recommended that Political Philosophy podcast to me, which I've been listening to. I just listened to a good 3 hour interview with Orlando Patterson, a sociologist of slavery. It's really changed my perspective about the concepts of slavery and freedom and how they might have been interpreted in the past. I'd love to understand it better, but the analogy they make is the concept of having a home versus being homeless. Just as with slavery back then, now we understand that being homeless is a bad thing, but it's not a central value that our society focuses on, and not a rightful end in itself to be guaranteed. It's more a natural result of the demands of greater society.

Most of us probably think homes should be a given right, though. I'd bet most of us would be skeptical of slavery as well back then, given the times.