I am deeply saddened by the renaming of Hume tower. I joined the University of Edinburgh just a few months ago, and I felt proud to be part of a university that has buildings named after philosophers, including Hume and Dugald Stewart. I was used to a culture where the names of university buildings are sold for inordinate amounts of money and are, effectively, self-celebrations of the rich through public displays of ‘philanthropy’. I was on email lists from several universities that would regularly remind me about the availability of naming rights, not only of buildings, but of suites, common rooms and park benches—sometimes for amounts that I cannot dream to earn in a lifetime. I was proud to become part of a university that was celebrating intellectual, indeed philosophical, achievement—rather than bowing, as much else seems to do these days, to the wheels of capital.
Although I am saddened by the renaming of Hume tower, I am not deaf to the reasons for which the decision was taken. It is clear that Hume held deeply racist attitudes. And it is also clear, in light of scholarly work, that his racism cannot be attributed merely to the times he lived in. He had a choice, and he chose wrong. I do not doubt that this must be acknowledged, and that we have to reckon with it. Hume’s racism must be resolutely rejected.
Yet Hume’s racism is not the whole truth about Hume. Hume is a first-rate philosopher with a most profound influence on our self-understanding, both in his articulation and defence of naturalism as well as in his moral theory. His philosophical vision and acumen, coupled with his wit and eloquence, have left us with a body of highly influential and plain brilliant philosophical work. (I cannot speak to his work on history.) It is not unreasonable to aspire to philosophize in Hume’s tradition, nor to take Hume to be a philosophical interlocutor and inspiration. Indeed, it is not unreasonable to regard Hume as one’s favourite philosopher. And, surely, for all of that Hume is to be celebrated.
One might wonder whether this is all vitiated by Hume’s racism. —An answer requires a difficult balancing act. It is not a matter of weighing options, but of comparing incommensurables. However, such is life: We have to make some of our most important choices among incommensurable options. The question that strikes me as of crucial importance is whether Hume’s racism compromises his philosophy—in the way that, to my mind, Heidegger’s national socialism compromises his philosophy. (I acknowledge scholarly disagreement on this issue.)
I venture to say, on the basis of my reading and teaching of Hume—though I am by no means a Hume scholar—that it does not. Hume’s naturalism, Hume’s sentimentalism, and Hume’s scepticism are not vitiated by Hume’s racism. One racist footnote does not erase The Treatise of Human Nature, The Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, nor Hume’s essays.
I venture to say this as a philosopher, in my own voice and as an expression of my own judgment, all the while acknowledging that I speak and think from a limited perspective: I am white and male and the beneficiary of many privileges. I have read and thought about Hume’s work, but I have not studied it in the way Hume scholars have done. I acknowledge that my perspective has blind spots. However, as things are with blind spots: I don’t see them. Yet I don’t think that the fact that I have blind spots makes it impossible for me to reach a reasonable judgment of Hume’s philosophy—acknowledging all the while the possibility of reasonable disagreement and the reality of superior expertise.
I return to my feeling of sadness over the renaming of Hume tower: Is it really true that Hume’s greatness cannot be celebrated by naming a building after him?
Well, perhaps that is the wrong way to celebrate it. For, I fear, it is a self-celebration that differs from the self-celebration of the rich mainly in its currency—intellectual prestige. Did Hume tower bear Hume’s name to honour Hume, or to celebrate ourselves as Hume’s heirs?
Perhaps it is, indeed, the wrong way to celebrate Hume’s greatness to name a building after him. However, surely it is far better than a celebration of capitalism (or monarchy, militarism, or other forms of power). And perhaps, once Hume’s racism has been made salient, it is, indeed, impossible to celebrate Hume’s greatness by naming a building after him, even while his philosophy rightly remains as much an object of study as it ever has been.
Nonetheless, I yearn to be at a university that has a Hume tower, standing alongside buildings named after other philosophers, including unjustly marginalized philosophers, and, while properly acknowledging Hume’s deep flaw, nonetheless celebrates one of the greatest philosophers of all time.