A Very Bad Year
2020 was a bad year for David Hume (1711-1776). Leftists in the United Kingdom, eager to get in on the feast of outrage that followed the drug overdose of George Floyd, complained that David Hume was a racist and should therefore not be revered. And then things went more or less as you would expect. The University of Edinburgh caved to pressure and renamed Hume Tower. Hume scholars began to quietly back away from their suddenly radioactive area of expertise. Conservatives sputtered that things were out of control, deluded young people gathered and shouted, National Review printed the hot take that Leftists are the real Hume-hating 18th century Christian hardliners, and the world turned.
But what a sudden fall for David Hume! Only five years earlier Alison Gopnik was humblebragging about Hume in the Atlantic, “How An 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis.” In 2016, the pop philosophy magazine Nautilus published “Why David Hume is so Hot Right Now.” Hume was hot, the article said, in part because a 2013 survey of professional philosophers revealed that Hume was the philosopher with whom the largest number identified. The truth was that, for many, Hume had become the archetype of the philosopher, a doubter, a skeptic who was gentle as well as genteel. In 1776, the last year of his life, Hume wrote that literary fame had been his “ruling passion,” so I imagine he would have been pleased with how things were going. But then in 2020, it was all gone. What happened?
To see why it ended, we will have to understand how it began. And for most philosophers, the romance of David Hume began on two occasions, the two main encounters an undergraduate has with Hume. First, Hume is encountered in the history of philosophy, along with his Problem of Induction. And then Hume is encountered again in the study of the philosophy of religion, with his scathing attack on philosophical Christianity.
The Problem of Induction
I still remember my undergraduate encounter with the Problem of Induction. I’ve only had one other experience like it. While whitewater rafting, I jumped off the raft into the current. I was young, I was a strong swimmer, the current didn’t look that strong and I wanted to test myself. When I hit water I realized the strength of the current was far beyond me; I was slammed down and crushed against the river bed, carried along to the end of the rapids where I surfaced, coughing and humbled. Jumping into Hume’s placid prose for the first time was like that.
In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume casually lays out a problem that undermines our most basic assumptions about the world. He takes aim at the principle that the future will resemble the past. You drink water or have lunch because you think drinking water and having lunch will be as good for you today as it was yesterday. Pilots firing up their engines assume that their airplanes will remain as aerodynamic today as they were yesterday. Scientists review their experiments because they think that learning what happened will allow them to make predictions about what will happen. Pretty much every aspect of life rests on this principle. But what makes us so sure that the future must be like the past?
We want to reply that the principle has always held true. Reasoning by induction, that is, extrapolating from the way things have always worked, we can conclude that the future will be similar to the past because it always has been. But you only have to think about it for a moment to realize that this is arguing in a circle. If I ask you why the future should resemble the past now, it’s no good to tell me that it always has.
When I present Hume to students of my own, I tell them about the Thanksgiving turkey. It reasons inductively: yesterday the farmer came out of the house and fed me. The day before he came out of the house to feed me. This has been happening for months. So today, on Thanksgiving, the farmer must be coming out to feed me. Strange though, he doesn’t usually carry that axe. . . The turkey’s problem is that all it experiences is a sequence of events. This sequence is pretty good, until one day it isn’t. The turkey doesn’t understand that the regularity of those events, namely the farmer feeding it every day, is consistent with a pattern of the farmer fattening it up — a pattern that changes radically on Thanksgiving.
If we’re going to be better off than the turkey, we need to understand the why of the pattern. Why does the future resemble the past? Hume shows us that when we dig into our experience we find we don’t know any more than the turkey does. There’s nothing about water or lunch that proves that they must nourish us. There’s nothing about what scientists look at that proves that the laws that used to hold must hold. As Hume puts it, “it implies no contradiction that the course of nature may change, and that an object seemingly like those which we have experienced, may be attended with different or contrary effects.”
Sure, we think we’re seeing causal sequences. But when we analyze our experiences, we don’t see the causal force, just the pattern we imagine it brings about. In that respect, living is a bit like watching a movie. Tom Doniphon fires just as Ranse Stoddard shoots wildly, and down goes Liberty Valence. The causal sequence is a big part of what the movie The Man Who Killed Liberty Valence all about. And yet, Lee Marvin didn’t fall down because John Wayne fired a blank in a rifle. Probably the scenes were filmed separately, with Marvin falling sometime after — or before — Wayne fired. The movie presents us with an illusion of causality, but the real story is totally different. In life Hume challenges us to get behind the scenes to experience the causal glue that sticks them together.
When you teach Hume, you can pretty much count on getting certain questions. Someone will suggest that surely a scientist would know about necessary connections. And then you can ask whether scientists find that a certain cause must follow an effect, or merely that it always has done? Someone will wonder if micro-physics can reveal necessary connections. And then you can once again ask whether physicists discover that fundamental particles must behave a certain way, or just that they always do behave that way. And after all this, someone will ask who cares if we don’t know that the future will resemble the past, when we get by just fine as we are, and food is nourishing and airplanes fly. And then it falls to you to remind him of the Thanksgiving turkey. I always loved teaching Hume, diving again into Hume rapids, feeling the powerful but now familiar play of the argument’s currents, trying to show my students that even in the rapids, there are patches of calm water through which a philosopher may swim.
Hume understood that his argument means that we are fundamentally ignorant about the future. If we can’t have induction, we’re no more certain than the turkey. Hume stared into the abyss, blinked, and sank into depression. Then his sanguine nature pulled him out of it, for he was, as he put it, “a man of mild disposition, of command of temper, of an open, social, and cheerful humour, capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my passions.”
Once you feel the force of Hume’s arguments, you have a few options. One is to sink into Humean skepticism along with Hume himself. (For the philosophy buffs, I read Humean skepticism as Pyrrhonian, but that’s not crucial for what I’m saying here.) Another, my own preferred option, is to try to find a weak spot in Hume’s argument. Hume worried, with good reason I think, about the causal analyses of his contemporaries John Locke, George Berkeley, and Nicolas Malebranche. Older causal models from the middle ages may be Hume-proof as well. Each answer to Hume is the key to a different kind of metaphysics, all of them are worth exploring. The last and worst option, in my opinion, is to decide that Hume is right, we can’t know why things work, and to try to reformulate philosophy within the certainty that is left to us. This third option was the one chosen by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).
Kant gave up on solving the Problem of Induction and built a theory around not solving it. His arguments were not particularly good, but they were very influential, for it is from Kant’s perverse narrowing of philosophy, that we get, through a series of twists and turns, to the cramped method of logical analysis in the Anglosphere and the literary/psychological method of “continental” philosophy in Europe. In this way, Hume is the beginning of the story that explains the current state of philosophy, and by history, if not by choice, we are all Hume’s heirs.
Hume on Faith
Still, we have many philosophical ancestors, and Hume’s importance alone does not explain how he became an archetype for so many philosophers. To understand this, we have to narrow our view from Hume’s skepticism about everything to his skepticism about the Christian faith. And it is here that we find the second major encounter that most students have with David Hume.
After Hume died and could no longer get in trouble for it, his friends published his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. In the dialogues, there are two Christian voices versus one gentle skeptic, Philo, who is usually identified with Hume himself. The reason there are two Christian interlocutors is that Hume assigns arguments from natural theology (e.g. the design argument) and those from metaphysics to two mutually antagonistic characters. Philo refutes them both individually, which is neat I guess, except that most philosophical Christians are going to use the arguments together. The book has always reminded me of those boxing exercises where you can only strike with your left or your right hand and you end up reminded of why you need them both.
At any rate, Philo attacks philosophical Christianity. He raises the problem of evil: “Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?” He attacks the argument from design, anticipating the Darwinian challenge that was to come. The world, thinks Philo, could be like a ship. “If we survey a ship, what an exalted idea must we form of the ingenuity of the carpenter who framed so complicated, useful, and beautiful a machine? And what surprise must we feel, when we find him a stupid mechanic, who imitated others, and copied an art, which, through a long succession of ages, after multiplied trials, mistakes, corrections, deliberations, and controversies, had been gradually improving?” Just as the ship “evolved” through many bad ships, perhaps our world is just the latest of many bad worlds, formed either by accident or by a maker who took many experiments to get to here. If we take Hume a little more broadly, we might also read in his critique of miracles, though this appears in other works.
I remember reading somewhere an anecdote about an old philosopher who said that Hume’s Dialogues pretty much cured him of curiosity about God. I think Hume himself would have been put off by this shallow triumphalism. Hume even seems to acknowledge the limited range of the book by declaring victory for the Christians. But that’s not usually how Hume is taught. All too often, the triumphalism is dialed up to 11, and Hume appears as a kind of superhero of atheism.
Witness, for example, this short essay of Simon Blackburn’s in the Times Higher Education (free version here), apparently first delivered as a talk at a humanist event. Blackburn enthusiastically presents Hume as rejecting the coherence of Christianity. His version of Hume thinks “the right philosophical attitude is just to laugh at persons who suppose that [there is some cogent version of Christianity which can be true or false].” He’s not even an atheist, he just rejects the whole dumb religion debate. Just like Blackburn (what a coincidence!) Hume is a humanist. “According to Hume all human beings have ‘some particle of the dove, kneaded into our frame, along with the elements of the wolf and the serpent,’ and even Christians are human.” Before Christian readers get carried away by all that flattery, Blackburn adds:
The bad things happen when people decorate their bare, inchoate, unstable and inconsistent imaginings with the baser trappings of their culture. They come out of the fog bearing ludicrous beliefs about cosmology or biology, or carrying their envies and fears, their embarrassments about sex in general or certain varieties in particular, their desire to steal some land or make war on their neighbours. Deities then become dangerous: megaphones through which emotions get whipped up and particular moral demands are given a spurious authority.
So how should we deal with these Christian primitives dragging their nightmares out of the mists of time? That’s where Hume the superhero comes in.
The upshot then ought to be not dogmatic atheism but skeptical irony. Of course, skeptical irony is just as infuriating to those making special claims to authority, and perhaps more so. Men and women of God may find it invigorating and bracing to meet disagreement, but even benevolent mockery is mockery, so they would find that it is much harder to bear the Olympian gaze of the greatest of British philosophers.
And that Olympian gaze, squarely aimed at religious believers (although generally not the ones who will chop off your head) is the second thing that many philosophers get out of David Hume.
I think these two encounters explain why, for so many people, Hume became an archetype. Hume is the real philosophical deal. In simple and beautiful English Hume lays out a devastating attack against what you thought you knew. Arguments like Hume’s are diagnostic: if you can’t appreciate them, you’re not cut out for philosophy. But then, the second encounter teaches you to focus your newfound skepticism on religion, and blast your ignorant parents when they try to drag you to church. When you go home for Christmas and they ask you to come with them to the Christmas Eve service, you’ll be ready to bust out that Olympian gaze.
The Trouble with skepticism
I am happy to put it on the record that my own feelings on Hume are mixed. I give Hume the literary and philosophical admiration he wanted and earned. He’s one of the greats of the empiricist approach, which I’m proud to call my own. I’m hard on Hume the atheist superhero, I’ll admit, because I’m a hardline Christian myself. I think the world he rejects, a world that contains angels and miracles, demons and possessions, just turns out to be the real, empirical world we discover with our senses. I think when he claimed that miracles only happen in faraway places, he should have done a bit of research. And then, somewhere between Hume, the atheist superhero, and Hume, the talented philosopher, we find Hume, the man. Because he attacked the Church and promoted irreligion he is a historical enemy. But even though on balance I think he was a force for evil, I have to admit that I admire his panache. He really did stand up against what he thought was superstition. And he didn’t have it easy. He had enemies, and he was permanently blocked from the academic life he had hoped for. Hume stood up for what he didn’t believe, and he kept standing even when there were consequences. He was a man.
G. K. Chesterton says somewhere that the problem with romanticizing madness is that you can only do it from the outside. People were apt, at least in Chesterton’s day, to romanticize the notion of slipping into madness from a broken heart or some other mishap. Chesterton realized how ridiculous that was. If you’re mad yourself, you have all your same problems from before, and now the walls are talking to you.
Hume’s fans tend to make a similar mistake when they romanticize skepticism. That’s part of what makes people like Blackburn so laughable. If you want to know what it must have been like to be David Hume, try being a mask or vaccination skeptic today. Try using that clever irony on the guy who won’t let you into his store. Or when your boss tells you to get the jab or get a new job, hit him with that Olympian gaze. Really being a skeptic means disagreeing with everyone. It’s not fun, and unless you’re some sort of sociopath, it involves a lot of soul-searching to see whether perhaps it is you who are wrong. It means living in a world where your default attitude to most people is pity and contempt. It’s lonely.
Of course, Hume’s fanboys never experienced any of this. They were smugly skeptical, surrounded by sympathetic colleagues and brainwashed students. The society they were mocking was the Christian one of their parents and grandparents, a society fighting a desperate last action to survive as some kind of remnant in the post-Christian university.
And then, one day, the university decided that it had won the war and that Hume was no longer useful. There was no need to equip students to go home and question their parents, because these students were second- or third-generation products of the academy itself. And the academy wanted it to be very clear to students that when they went home for winter break and mom was going to a BLM protest or dad was announcing his transition, that was not the moment for the Olympian gaze.
And so it was duly revealed that Hume had penned the following words in a footnote in his essay, Of National Characters:
I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, 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 German, 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 between these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are negroe slaves dispersed all over Europe, of whom none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; though 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 it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.
As always, Hume’s approach is careful and empirical. He’s not making an a priori point, just observing that in many cases, over a long time, blacks never seem to attain greatness. They never seem to rise up either in captivity or in their homelands, whereas other races put in similar subjugation do exactly that. In other words,
Hume is stating what was once considered obvious.
I do not think Hume will find many critics in this audience. Among the new kind of philosopher, though, Hume has critics aplenty. Here’s Julian Baggini, a pop philosopher who had the misfortune to write a book about Hume which came out in May 2021, just as Hume was being discontinued. Seemingly as an apology for writing,
Baggini wrote a groveling article for Prospect magazine, “The Hume paradox: how great philosophy leads to dismal politics.” Here he ruminates on what we can learn from Hume’s downfall.
Perhaps Hume also stands as a warning about the ease with which profound theoretical heterodoxy can be married with comfortable social conformity. So many who pride themselves on their rejection of received opinions sit contented on the established social and economic order. It seems that property, pensions, salaries and status all have the power to miraculously dissolve skepticism.
Indeed, Julian, indeed. But weren’t you going to tell us about Hume?
The post-Humean philosophical approach we see in Baggini has plenty of dogmatic beliefs that are not up for discussion. The knock on Hume, Baggini says, is that (1) he was not a progressive, (2) he did not advocate for social equality because he thought that making everyone equal would lead to upheaval and “didn’t seem to consider that this might be a good thing,” and (3) he said the bad thing about race. Please, please don’t jump to the conclusion that Julian Baggini, whose book is called The Great Guide (a play on Hume’s description of custom that obviously refers in part to Hume himself) is as bad as his subject: “Hume should have been much more skeptical of speculations about racial hierarchy, which were never theories distilled from experience, but schemas dreamt up to rationalize the prejudices that distorted experience. He was likewise too unquestioning of the patriarchal attitudes of his time, assuming them to be rooted in biology.”
Another voice joining the chorus of Hume condemnation is a historian named Felix Waldmann. His unhappily titled article “David Hume was a brilliant philosopher but also a racist involved in slavery” attacks Hume and, bizarrely, Richard Wagner, for anti-Semitism. “I recently found an unknown letter of March 1766 by Hume, in which he encouraged his patron Lord Hertford to purchase a slave plantation in Grenada,” Waldmann reveals. And he also points out that one of Hume’s many critics objected to what Hume said about race. It seems obvious to Waldmann that any intelligent person must come to the same ethical views that he himself holds, and so Hume falls short. “Anyone with Hume’s intelligence would recognise the enormity of slavery. But Hume sought to benefit from it. In Of National Characters, he justified it. When James Beattie of Aberdeen criticised Hume’s racist comments in 1770, Hume was unmoved. The last authorised edition of the essay, published in 1777, repeats the same sentiments, almost verbatim.”
Waldmann does not mention that Beattie’s criticism was a tiny part of a criticism of virtually everything about Hume in his not-very-sympathetic 1770 book: An Essay On The Nature And Immutability Of Truth In Opposition To Sophistry And skepticism. To give you the flavor of Beattie’s critique, he’s writing about “[t]hose unnatural productions, the vile effusion of a hard and stupid heart, that mistakes its own restlessness for the activity of genius. . .” The book was so vicious and Hume remained such an outsider that King George III awarded Beattie £200 per year for the philosophical hatchet job. History does not record whether Hume responded with an Olympian gaze, and if so, whether it helped.
I was surprised that Waldmann didn’t quote Beattie even a little bit, but when I referred to the passage at issue I learned why. What Beattie actually does is produce seven ridiculous and mutually contradictory complaints. He points out that (1) it’s unfair to judge blacks because they have no civilization so there’s nothing to judge, (2) David Hume cannot assert that there’s never been an intelligent black for “no man could have sufficient evidence, except from a personal acquaintance with all the negroes that now are, or ever were, on the face of the earth,” and anyway (3) Peru and Mexico have impressive empires, and also (4) “[t]he Africans and Americans are known to have many ingenious manufactures and arts among them, which even Europeans would find it no easy matter to imitate,” plus (5) we can’t judge because blacks are unfairly held down so we can’t know what they’re capable of, and anyway (6) whites are merely lucky beneficiaries of inventions like gunpowder, and finally (7) only white inventors, or perhaps their relatives, should be held to be better than blacks, since most people have invented nothing.
What is most remarkable about Beattie’s objections is how familiar they will seem to race realists. We can’t judge blacks, unless it is to say that great things are within their reach; we can’t know what they’re capable of but they have definitely done great things and the great things done by whites prove nothing. The hysterical tone is familiar, as is Beattie’s ignorance of his chosen subject: he seems uncertain about who exactly lives in South America. I suppose that is a constant among anti-racists because those who bother to learn anything about other races become race realists before long.
What should we do about David?
Let’s get back to Hume. Hume has fallen, and for those of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s, Hume’s fall marks the end of an age. Through our whole young adult lives, film and fiction built up the archetype of the wise man as Humean skeptic. For as long as I’ve been alive, the wise were presented sneering or smiling at the folkways and superstitions of the locals. The locals have a silly way of doing things; the wise man is a cosmopolitan and he knows that there are many ways of doing things. Hume was a perfect example of this gentle cosmopolitan. And now he is gone. Just as the snarky late-night show host cocking an ironic eyebrow at the latest foolishness has been replaced by the near-hysterical talking head, the archetype of the wise man as too-cool-for-school skeptic is being replaced by the wise man as — what?
The emergent archetype of the wise man on the Left, I’d say, is the fact-checker. Harried and hard-minded, he hews to “the science” and sighs as he debunks yet another Right-wing conspiracy theory. Where the Hume archetype would listen to Right-wingers rant and then undo them with subtle irony, the new wise man doesn’t listen. He knows that thinking critically may be a danger to him, so he sticks to the facts. He is sick of the chaos of disagreement, and like Alexander Zinoviev’s homo sovieticus, he kinda wishes the state would just crack down on all this dissent already.
Today’s university does not have room for thinkers like Hume. Those in charge know exactly how to use skepticism to destroy a culture; after all, they produced the archetype of Hume as wise man in the first place. They know that skepticism is a solvent, and they want to keep it away from the new normal they are trying to build. That is why they threw Hume on the bonfire.
I must admit that I am not entirely unhappy about this bonfire of our culture. There’s a lot that should burn. I’m as happy as the next Antifa to watch the memorials of traitors like Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln or Woodrow Wilson come down. We are living through the beginning of something sometimes called “The Great Sort.” This is the process whereby we gather what is good about our culture and hide it in a new Lindisfarne to endure until we win or until we go extinct. Our enemies understand that ideas matter. So we should be judicious about what we bring with us; some bad memories may as well perish in the fire. What about David Hume? Should we bring him?
I don’t think so. In the end, Beattie wasn’t wrong about Hume. Hume’s skepticism, especially his religious skepticism, is dangerous. If Hume is to be taught, he should be taught carefully, by philosophers who can show you the limits of skepticism of the Humean variety. Before the collapse of Christendom, we regulated dangerous ideas this way, and that was a good thing. When you are awarded your bachelor’s degree in Arts, they tell you that it is awarded along with certain rights and privileges. These included reading books that were regulated by the Church.
And we must never again allow Hume to become an archetype of a wise man.
The Wise Man
But if he is not like Hume, then what is the wise man like? How should we envision him?
First, unlike Hume, a wise man is constructive, rather than destructive. Hume’s philosophy is aimed at his Christian and dogmatic enemies. He tries to tear down their certainties without erecting anything new in their place. This has made Hume the perfect archetype for the university, which for almost a century has been an abattoir for the faith and culture of the West.
It’s not that the wise man agrees with everything you say. It’s rather that he sees the structure of what you say as it is articulated and repeated like a pattern through the many things that he understands. If he chooses, he can help you to see where it fits into this grand tradition, which may make you change your mind or may make you understand your own view in a new way. When I was still involved in academia, I came to dread the questions asked by some older professors. The questions seemed simple, easy to dismiss, and yet for weeks afterward, I’d find myself wrestling with their implications. It made me think of the sage as martial artist — another archetype of the wise man — who gently taps your arm so as to activate a pressure point that goes straight to the heart. But even this is misleading, as the wise man would rather nourish than kill, rather build than destroy.
Where Hume is the perpetual outsider, a stranger who insists that we justify ourselves to him, the wise man is one of us. He understands our ways, but he can show us how to deepen them. It’s only the spiritually impoverished who feel that they have to go in search of some yogi out by the Ganges. The wise man lives with us, but he has taken a different path, a harder one, through learning but also through time. That is why the wise man is old.
The wise man is spiritual. Where Hume mocks the beliefs of ignorant peasants, the wise man sees the perennial philosophy reflected in all that he encounters. In his Dialogues, Hume quotes Francis Bacon who wrote “a little Philosophy inclineth Mans Minde to Atheisme; but depth in Philosophy bringeth Mens Mindes about to Religion.” Philo sets the quote aside and goes on to something else. The wise man would not set it aside, for it is his connection to the spiritual that makes the wise man a man of power. He reminds us that in the ancient hierarchy of our people, priests were the highest caste of all, and even kings fell silent when a druid spoke. The wise man is what Carl Jung describes as “the well-known archetype of the mighty man in the form of hero, chief, magician, medicine-man, saint, the ruler of men and spirits, the friend of God.”
If you are looking for a human exemplar of this archetype to replace David Hume, the best that I can offer is to tell you who is mine. For me, it would be Hume’s slightly overlapping contemporary, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716). Leibniz was an expert in virtually every field in which expertise was possible: mathematics, philosophy, diplomacy, Sinology, biology. . . his writings are so many and so interconnected that to date no complete scholarly edition exists. What makes Leibniz hard to work on is what makes him great: everything connects to everything. As you toil through his pregnant, short sentences, faintly hearing their conceptual echoes in everything else you have learned about him, you get an inkling of what it would be like to be wise.
The period in which Leibniz lived and which included David Hume became famous for rejecting the past. But that was never Leibniz’s intention. The Enlightenment for which Leibniz strove would have been a synthesis of past and present, science and philosophy, faith and reason, all pulsing with the heartbeat of the perennial philosophy. His gentle maxim was, I think, the mark of a wise man: those who disagree are usually right in what they affirm but wrong in what they deny. And that’s the problem with skeptics, isn’t it? There’s nothing for them to be right about.
George Carroway, PhD
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