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 Gill

The question of whether or not to rename the Hume Tower is not the same as the question of whether or not to remove monuments to confederate war heroes. Confederate monuments honour allegiance to a racist cause; confederate generals are valorised because they fought on the side of slavery. The Hume Tower honours Hume’s non-racist philosophical contributions; Hume is valorised despite his racist views. One could hold that Hume’s racist views infect all his thinking, that it’s impossible to separate out anything of value in his philosophy from his racist views, so any honour to Hume is an honour to racism. My own view is that Hume’s racist views do not infect all his thinking in that way. I believe Hume made philosophical contributions that can be distinguished from his racist views. I realize not everyone agrees with me. The question of the extent to which racism infects Hume’s thought as a whole is disputed. My point is that it’s different from the question of whether or not to allow to stand honours to confederate war heroes.
Some may hold that honour to Hume’s philosophical contributions inevitably suggests honour to Hume as a person, and that any honour to Hume as a person involves acceptance of his racist views. If this line of reasoning implies that any honour to the contributions any person has made involves acceptance of every view that person held, then there will be virtually no contributions it will be appropriate to honour. Virtually every contribution in history has been made by someone who held some views we now find (or future generations will find) offensive. That seems to go too far. However, it’s also possible to go too far in the other direction. If people are guilty of significant evils, it may be inappropriate to name buildings after then even if they did make notable contributions to science or art. It seems to me that we cannot make a perfectly general claim about whether or not individuals’ offensive views make it inappropriate to honour their contributions. We have to look at individual cases. How Hume will fare from such an assessment is something that is worthy of serious thought.
Honestly, though, I am not very concerned about whether Hume has a building named after him. My concern is with the intellectual environment on campus, and how we fulfil our educational mission. I believe studying and talking about Hume’s philosophy enriches our culture and the lives of our students. The renaming of the building could go along with our continuing to study and talk about Hume’s philosophy in that way. But the renaming could also lead to a disregarding of Hume’s philosophy. My concern is that we take care to promote the former, and discourage the latter.
An important reason to rename the building is that its being named after Hume can be the opposite of welcoming to people who belong to groups who suffered as a result of the racist views he endorsed and who have been traditionally excluded by the University. I feel limited in what I can say about the experience of people in these groups. But I hope it’s not unreasonable to aspire to study and talk about Hume’s philosophy in a way that leads to understanding of both his failings and his contributions, while being intellectually welcoming to all.

1 reply to “Michael Gill”

  1. Yusef Ali says:

    Did Hume have any opportunities to reconsider his racist views of African people by way of his more enlighted contemporaries? Where there any historically available visual stimuli by African people that might suggest they have in fact been apart of great civilizations and exercised some sense of law and ethics? If one can agree that Hume might have had access to these material facts and for his inability to process such information actually might suggest he suffered from some form of schizophrenia.

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