Casting Hume into the Flames

BY EFFIE DEANS

How does civilisation begin? It begins with agriculture. Prior to the development of agriculture all we have is hunter gatherers in small bands living from moment to moment intent only on the bare necessities of life such as obtaining food and shelter. What enabled the transition to agriculture? It was the division of labour.

In order for people to settle down and grow crops like wheat and raise domestic animals it was necessary that someone would provide them with food while these crops grew and the animals became large enough to provide meat. So, some people continued to hunt while others began agriculture and still others built houses, made tools and other implements. Those who continued to hunt would bargain with those who grew crops. If I give you meat you will give me grain. This principle of division of labour was the key to enabling society and civilisation to develop.

How did people determine the price of their labour? Did Government introduce price controls so that one person’s fish catch was worth two bags of wheat? No. They determined the price either in terms of barter or in terms of money by the laws of supply and demand. The price you got was the price you could get.

The market is the foundation of civilisation. Indeed, civilisation was only possible because of these two principles: one that people would work at different things and two they would be able to sell the fruits of their labour to others for things that they needed at a price that each could agree and accept as being mutually beneficial.

With agriculture and the division of labour, for the first time there came a surplus of food. It was this surplus which enabled some people to be engaged in work that was unconnected with the need to provide food and shelter. For the first time people were able to think.

Furthermore, in order for this primitive economy to work there needed to be a way for people to communicate with each other about complex issues in order that one person could record the bargain he had made with another. It was this that made complex language necessary and also the ability to record language in writing.

Once there was an abundance of food and not everyone needed to work to gather or produce it, some people could work at developing thought, ideas, writing, literature and religion. All of the things that we associate with civilisation came from the free market, the need to exchange goods and develop ways of recording this trade and interaction with ourselves and other societies.

When one civilisation began to produce a surplus of food and shelter it was able to attract other people to join it and to share its methods of agriculture with other people who had previously been only hunter gatherers.

Likewise, by developing abundance a small civilisation was needed to think about security. How could it defend itself from other people who wanted to take this surplus and how could it expand to incorporate other people who were at present outside its control and in need of its wisdom.

Only with the development of agriculture did people develop into proto countries. People who were similar, who developed the same language and culture began to think of themselves as a people. The surplus of their goods enabled them to appoint a ruler, who did not himself contribute to the surplus, but ruled over it in order to protect it.

With the development of peoples and rulers it became possible for small tribes to band together in order to become powerful enough to take over the land of other tribes and to migrate.

The history of the world is the development of these tribes into peoples who spoke a similar language and developed a similar culture. These developments happened at different stages.

In India, Babylonia and China sophisticated civilisations developed while people in what is now Europe could record nothing about themselves. It is for this reason that we know nothing about these European people apart from what we can discover through archaeology, while we know about the civilisations in India, Babylonia and China through what they were able to write.

Why did civilisations develop at different stages? Why was it that Babylonia was so much more advanced than Britain in the centuries before Christianity? Why was most of Europe primitive compared to India in these ancient times, but later developed to be more powerful than anywhere else?

This was due to geography, resources and chance. In Mesopotamia, climate, soil, two rivers and population made it possible for Babylonians to develop surpluses prior to Europeans. Someone was able to discover technological advantages such as an alphabet and the wheel prior to people in Ancient Britain, but a feature of ancient civilisations is that they all everywhere eventually stagnated.

In each of the ancient civilisations at some point the ruling classes decided they had reached perfection either for religious, social or political reasons. Thus, development in India, Babylonia, China and also Japan ceased. Having reached a stage of development that was deemed to be religiously, or societally perfect, no further development was possible. The task was to imitate the past rather than create a new future, for which reasoned rules of what was acceptable in art and culture were codified to prevent novelty.

Europe was the exception. Because of Europe’s geography and owing to a large number of countries struggling over limited resources, Europeans continued to compete against each other to develop technological advances that would enable one country to take over parts of another.

Neither religion nor rulers in Europe arrived at a stage that they considered to be perfection where no further development was possible, because anyone who stood still would soon find themselves threatened by a country that had not stood still. The powers in Europe ebbed and flowed. At one point Poland and Lithuania dominated central Europe only to be dominated in turn by Russia, Prussia and Austria.

While there were attempts to limit knowledge and to stop inquiry, these failed. Europe alone in the world was able to develop technologies which enabled Europeans to travel everywhere and to conquer everyone they came into contact with.

It is for this reason that Europeans were able to at one point or another to conquer and settle everywhere in the world including in places that were once much more advanced than Europe.

The world today is almost exclusively the result of European technology and culture. Almost every invention and every scientific and cultural development came out of Europe or places that were settled by Europeans. Which important innovation came from somewhere else in the past thousand years?

It is this that led Europeans to conclude that their civilisation was superior to everyone else’s. The reason they concluded this was because European ideas and European countries conquered everywhere. Europe cried, because there were no more worlds to conquer.

Europeans arrived in Babylonia, India and China and met people who were no match for their ideas, their technologies or their military. They saw these ancient societies who had once been so superior to Europe as decadent and decaying.

China for this reason was divided between the Great Powers, because China, which had developed gunpowder first, was unable to develop it further.

Japan thought itself perfect, but discovered in the late 19th century that a few American gunboats could force it out of isolation and into modernity, because while the Japanese were still fighting with swords, (because Japanese culture had decided that swords were the pinnacle of perfection), the Americans had weapons with which they could easily subdue these Japanese swords. Any idiot American could shoot a samurai.

In the eighteenth-century European enlightenment figures like David Hume looked around the world and concluded that the people that Europeans had discovered and conquered were inferior to Europeans. The reasons they thought this were because these peoples were not remotely as technologically advanced as Europeans.

It was Hume’s empiricism that led him to conclude that Europeans with rifled muskets were superior to Africans with spears and animal hide shields or to aboriginals in Australia who had not even reached the technological stage of the Ancient Britons prior to the Roman invasion.

Hume observed as his empirical method taught him to observe and based on these observations made the conclusion that some civilisations and peoples were naturally more advanced than others.

Sometime in the twentieth century we decided that Hume’s views were forbidden. This was not because we empirically proved that all people were equal, but rather because we assumed it a priori.

Having assumed that all people were equal, it became necessary to explain away all human difference as not being real. Again, we did not explain away this difference by refuting Hume’s views using experiments. Rather we asserted that despite appearances and evidence to the contrary – all human beings were essentially equal.

We assumed that the differences within societies and the difference with which civilisations developed must demonstrate their equality rather than their inequality even when we could in no way prove this to be true. 

The problem of world civilisation is that we have never been able to come up with an explanation that is compatible with this assumption of equality to explain why some civilisations even today are more advanced than others.

We have the experimental observation of difference and the mere assertion that this difference masks essential sameness. Of course, we are right, and Hume is wrong. He used mere observation, while we have the benefit of being awake while he was merely sleeping. We are correct, he had mere prejudice.

The problem with this is that we could use the same argument about the essential equality of humanity to show that David Hume who went to university at the age of 10 was really the same in terms of civilisation, learning and intelligence as an illiterate farmhand in 18th century Scotland. This assertion of sameness would fail the empirical test. David Hume would be able to perform better at all intellectual tasks than the farmhand. But we must nevertheless a priori define and assert their equality in every respect.

So too today we must assert that a newly discovered tribe in the Amazon jungle has as developed a civilisation as that of the United States or any European country. We must assert their sameness and equality despite their having no writing, no scientific discoveries and no technologies beyond blow pipes. We must assert this not for experimental reasons but because of our assumptions about equality. Failure to do so would mean that our ideas failed the modern Inquisition and would be condemned, not because of what we failed to prove, but because of what we failed to assume.

This assumption would of course fail Hume’s celebrated test:

If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

But now it is not sophistry and illusion that must be cast into the flames, but rather Hume and anyone else who uses reason and experience to reason about civilisation. It is this casting into flames, after all, that makes us civilised.

The excellent Effie Deans writes at Lily of St. Leonard’s here.