David Hume was a brilliant philosopher, and his work is unquestionably important for both the history of Western philosophy and for debates in contemporary philosophy. He also held overtly racist beliefs and thought them fit to be published; moreover, he stood by those comments even after his contemporaries pointed out that they were factually and observably incorrect, prejudiced, and harmful. How are we to view and treat Hume, knowing both these things about him?
Defenders of Hume urge us not to throw the baby out with the bathwater here; they point out that Hume’s racist beliefs and pronouncements don’t seem to bear on the core tenants of the philosophy that he is celebrated for. I think there’s something right about this. The case of Hume seems different to the case of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, for example. Heidegger was a member of the Nazi party from 1933 until the end of the war, and (almost) nobody would defend his actions and speeches during that period. But while some are tempted to argue that Heidegger’s main philosophical works can be judged independently of the man who wrote them and his actions, there’s increasing evidence that Heidegger’s sympathy and support for Nazism and the main themes in his philosophical works had common roots and aims. We perhaps shouldn’t simply assume that there are no similar links between Hume’s racism and what we find most valuable in his philosophical works – that’s a matter for careful scholarship and discussion – but at least on the face of it, Hume’s philosophical views and works seem to be relatively unsullied by his racist views and pronouncements.
I think most people will agree with this – they’ll agree that we can and should separate what’s valuable in Hume’s intellectual contributions from his racist attitudes and claims. Hume’s legacy, on this way of thinking, is a complex and mixed one; but we can do justice to that complexity, both admiring and learning from his philosophy and condemning his racism. However, getting our response to this legacy right involves a balancing act. Ceasing to take Hume’s work to have anything valuable to teach us, firing faculty whose research focuses on the interpretation and significance of his thought, removing him from the curriculum at the University and elsewhere, ‘rubbing him out of history’, or ‘cancelling’ him because of his racism – these would all get the balancing act badly wrong. But equally, failing to acknowledge Hume’s racism entirely, or minimizing its wrongness and its (historical and contemporary) impact on people, or engaging in unqualified praise and celebration of Hume because he was a great philosopher – these get the balance wrong too.
What the petition that led to the tower being renamed did was suggest that the University had failed to get the right balance in this second way, by having one of the most dominant landmarks associated with the University named in honour of a man who was convinced that Black people were inferior and could contribute nothing to the arts or the sciences: could contribute nothing to the core activities of a University like this one. And the petition proposed an alternative, which it suggested would better balance recognising both the significance of Hume’s work and the harm done by his racism; continue to teach and research Hume, to take his philosophy to be of historical and contemporary importance, but do so while acknowledging his racism and without associating his name with a prominent part of the Edinburgh skyline. That’s the proposal that the University has adopted.
There is, of course, room for disagreement on whether this proposal really does do a better job of balancing the different strands in our response to Hume’s complex legacy. But for the most part, we’ve not been having that conversation. Instead, most of the criticism of the University’s decision and the petition that led to it has tried to conflate what has actually been proposed and decided with the more extreme responses mentioned above – ‘cancelling’ Hume, removing him from the curriculum, firing those scholars who work on his philosophy, and so on – or it’s been insinuated that renaming the tower will inevitably lead to these more extreme measures. For example, in The Herald, Rosemary Goring accused the University of Edinburgh of trying to ‘rub Hume out of history’, and suggested that if the University were to consistently stick to the principle behind its decision on the tower’s name, it would have to fire all of its Hume scholars and take his work entirely off the curriculum. But these criticisms misrepresent and misconceive the proposal that the University has adopted, as I’ve explained it above. Renaming the tower is not the first – let alone the last – step of a slippery slope towards the erasure of David Hume from philosophy and history. Rather, it’s an attempt to temper the reverence for Hume that’s (quite understandably) inspired by his work, and to do so in a way creates a more welcoming campus for members of the University’s community who, for whatever reasons, Hume could not bring himself to see as having value.