Edinburgh Philosophy – Voices on Hume

Edinburgh Philosophy – Voices on Hume

As philosophers, our responses to the renaming of the David Hume Tower vary widely, as do the responses of the wider academic community. Out of respect for this diversity of opinion, all Philosophy staff have been invited to contribute to a blog to share their individual thoughts on the recent announcement.

Jonny Cottrell

I have long admired David Hume’s philosophy. His sceptical views about the limits of theoretical and practical reason, his account of our idea of causation, his sentiment-based moral theory, and his critiques of religion, are brilliantly original, fearlessly iconoclastic, beautifully argued, and—it seems to me—basically correct. Many philosophers more gifted than I am would disagree. But even they must allow that Hume’s contributions on these topics are of great and lasting philosophical significance and continue to inspire important work, both Humean and anti-Humean, in many sub-fields of our discipline.
I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on Hume’s philosophy and have continued to research it since. Academic work can be solitary, but Hume has kept me good company: on the page, I find him elegant, genial, and witty—sometimes, laugh-out-loud funny. I have come to feel much affection for him, as well as admiration. Several of my most-valued friendships have grown from sharing these feelings for Hume with teachers, classmates, and colleagues.
But alongside my affection and admiration for Hume, I have felt dismay and outrage towards him and his racism. Hume held racist views throughout his life, especially towards Black people. He published a note explicitly stating these views, without regard—or (worse) perhaps with regard—to the harms that would predictably befall non-white peoples as a result. And harm did indeed ensue. In 1774, the colonist and slave-owner Edward Long published his History of Jamaica, which quotes Hume’s note in order to defend the institution of slavery in America. By this means, Hume’s racism directly contributed to the cause of modern slavery and, since the legacy of slavery persists to this day, to the ongoing oppression of Black people.
Hume revised his racist note over the course of his career, and included it in the last edition of his collected essays that he prepared for the press, published in 1777. It’s clear, then, that the 1777 version of the note represents his considered view; it is not merely a careless passing remark, later forgotten or regretted. He clung to this racist view in the face of counterevidence, and in the face of criticism by his contemporaries, such as the philosopher James Beattie and the abolitionist James Ramsay. So, Hume’s racism cannot be excused on the grounds that it was ubiquitous in his day. As the examples of Beattie and Ramsay show, it was not.
Given what Hume says in the note, I can only imagine the pain that our BAME students must feel, when we ask them to learn and grow intellectually in a building called “David Hume Tower”. Suppose the University does nothing to acknowledge Hume’s racism, thereby manifesting indifference to it, while continuing to venerate his intellectual achievements. Our BAME students will surely construe this silence as condoning Hume’s contempt for them. And I fear that, via a kind of emotional contagion well described by Hume, they will be infected by this contempt, and come to feel like outsiders from the University community. I am therefore wholly sympathetic to the students petitioning for Hume’s name to be removed, when they say that its presence constitutes a harm to them. The University must act to redress this harm.
What, then, should the University do? One option, of course, is to remove Hume’s name permanently from the tower, in order to express condemnation of his racism and his contribution to the oppression of Black people. But this option risks other harms. The tower was given Hume’s name to express admiration for philosophical achievements that, I believe, well deserve to be admired. In removing his name from it, the University risks belittling those achievements. If students are thereby discouraged from seriously studying Hume’s philosophy—or encouraged actively to resist our researching and teaching it—then I think the University will have significantly harmed our entire intellectual community. If Hume’s name is permanently removed, the University must take steps to mitigate these dangers.
Another option is to restore Hume’s name to the tower, but install a permanent exhibit in the foyer, explaining and unequivocally condemning Hume’s racism and its legacy, while also explaining why the building is nonetheless named for him. Perhaps this would go some way to mitigating the harm done by the name ‘David Hume Tower’, while avoiding the dangers of removing it. And it would do more to fulfil our educational mission than merely removing Hume’s name from the building would.
I do not insist on either of these options. I’m sure that others, more imaginative than I, will suggest other ways forward, and I look forward to hearing from them.
But I do insist that the resolution of this debate, however it turns out, be reached through a dialogue involving the entire university community, not through a decision quietly made by a cadre of administrators. Let us take this opportunity to engage our staff and students, and—looking beyond our campus—the people of Edinburgh in a civilized and searching discussion of Hume’s thought, including both what is admirable and what is deplorable in it.

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