David Hume, the archphilosopher and skeptic of the Scottish Enlightenment, once remarked in a treatise of his that based upon empirical observation, we might suspect the “negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites”. His fellow Scotsman and philosopher, James Beattie, wrote a vigorous response to these remarks which includes the argument that even if Hume’s observations about the complete lack of civilisation and science and technology among the Negroes were true, (and he does not concede that it is), it does not follow that therefore the Negroes are “naturally” inferior and that without proper development and enculturation they could not become better, etc.

The problem was that Beattie’s arguments were part of a larger treatise attempting to refute Hume’s scepticism in all things including that of religion and Christianity. David Hume then subsequently referred to Beattie as that “bigotted silly fellow” in a private letter to a friend. In a curious turn of meaning, the word “bigot” has been applied to the critics of his own racism.

The explanation is not far to seek. I am very pleased that the Oxford Dictionary still retains the original meaning of “bigoted” as:

Obstinately or unreasonably attached to a belief, opinion, or faction, and intolerant towards other people’s beliefs and practices:

Thus, when Hume refer to Beattie as that “bigotted silly fellow”, he was actually referring to Beattie’s obstinate religious opinions and intolerance to anything that comes forth from the pen of a skeptic or any claim of Hume which might be inconsistent with Beattie’s Christianity, e.g. God created all mankind with a common human nature. Thus, though Hume is the clear and blatant racist here, but Beattie is the “bigot” because Beattie is rather obstinate and stubborn in his opinion and intolerant and prejudiced towards the opinions of others, especially that of a racist whose opinions are inconsistent with his Christianity.

How interesting indeed that nowadays, those who have an “obstinate belief in the superiority of one’s own opinions” and are prejudiced and intolerant towards those whom they disagree, especially with regards to race, sexual orientation and such, are “Enlightened ones” while their “racist” and “homophobic” opponents are “bigots”!

Here is the extended remark of Hume:

I am apt to suspect the negroes, and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient GERMANS, the present TARTARS, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are NEGROE slaves dispersed all over EUROPE, of which none ever discovered any symptom of ingenuity; tho’ low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. 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.

-Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects

One thought on “On the Curious Evolution of the word “Bigot””
  1. […] For example, the great Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, who once made some rather racist remarks, used the term “bigot” to describe his opponent who criticised his own racist opinions, today of course it would be considered a rather ironic twist in the use of the term. (For more on the evolution of the word, see here.) […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *