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.

Michael Cholbi

In the areas where I conduct research (moral and political philosophy), Hume’s influence has been and continues to be immense. No education in moral and political philosophy that entirely neglected Hume could be said to be complete.

Yet Hume himself has proven a morally and politically vexed figure. The removal of David Hume’s name from the university tower was driven by discomfort at, and moral and political objections to, Hume’s writings that support racism. I am not a Hume scholar and possess what I assume to be only an average university philosopher’s knowledge of his work. That said, the evidence that Hume held racist views is, to my eyes, compelling. (I lack the scholarly expertise to say how central or integral they were to Hume’s worldview.)

While I have some reservations about the procedures by which the decision to rename Hume tower were made, I largely agree with the substance of that decision. Institutions such as universities send powerful messages about their values by the names they give their most enduring artifacts. Some of those opposing the renaming observe (correctly) that Hume’s name on the tower does not celebrate his racism but his intellectual accomplishments and acumen. Fair enough. Yet while the intent of those who support Hume’s name on the tower is relevant to what we think of the supporters, it’s far less relevant to the decision regarding the name itself. At a certain point, symbols acquire a social meaning that transcends the intentions of those who create them. And in Hume’s case, that social meaning now includes the racist writings cited by those petitioning for the tower renaming. As a point of comparison: The Confederate battle flag in the U.S. may in fact serve as an object of cultural pride among some, but its use as a banner of the ‘Lost Cause’ and its longstanding associations with racial discrimination and violence cannot be distilled out from its positive cultural associations. Those displaying it cannot stipulate or decide that it is not (whatever their intentions in displaying it or whatever meaning they ascribe to it) a racist symbol, one likely to evoke pain in many audiences and moral indignation in others. Those seeking an object to celebrate Southern heritage will need to look elsewhere.

The university, and the Philosophy Department, lack the power to ‘cancel’ Hume, and his work will continue to be taught here (and elsewhere). I would advocate that we continue to learn from Hume, both positively and negatively, if you will: interrogating his philosophical positions and celebrating his insights while also analysing how evident intellectual brilliance can coexist with racist sentiments. What can we learn from Hume’s shortcomings with respect to our own constellation of attitudes and beliefs? Hume did much to cast doubt on the orthodox Christianity of his day. But I often sense that our present political environment could benefit from a renaissance in a virtue much celebrated in historical Christianity: humility.

More broadly still, how can our awareness of Hume’s shortcomings serve as a catalyst to positive social change and the realization of a more just world? Again, while I support the substance of the renaming decision, it is a decision with relatively modest practical and political stakes. The renaming is very unlikely, in my estimation, to do much to reduce police brutality against Blacks, ensure more equitable access to education or health care, address the hardships of immigrants, etc. Morally speaking, we can be very right about a very small decision. And I would urge that the eloquence, energy, and forethought that has led to the renaming be lent to other causes of arguably greater social import.

Perhaps communities cannot thrive without symbols, and now, like those deprived of the Confederate battle flag as an acceptable public symbol, we too need other symbols. If we must have heroes, a constructive strategy would be to ask, ‘if not Hume, then who — who better represents the University’s values and what is best in its history?’ My own meagre and very preliminary research suggests that Zachary Macaulay, James Knight, and Henry Homes (Lord Kames) might answer to our shared aspirations.

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