I arrived in Edinburgh this summer, and soon after heard reports that there was an effort underway to remove David Hume’s name from the tower at 40 George Square. I imagined that this would be a long and contentious effort, and feared that it would be divisive. I also felt extremely conflicted, unsure of where to stand on the issue. I am American and I have watched with approval recent attempts to remove statues of former slave owners and Confederate generals and to remove symbols of the Confederacy from public institutions in the US. I support Black Lives Matter, and I believe that public places, and especially schools and universities, need to do more to be open and welcoming to students from traditionally (and currently) underrepresented backgrounds. I also believe that listening to the voices of BAME students in describing their lived experiences at university is essential to bringing about changes that are long overdue.
And yet, when I learned that David Hume tower might be renamed, I didn’t know what to say or think. I am one of three Hume scholars who have started in the last two years at the University, I wrote my PhD dissertation on Hume, and I am member of the executive committee for the International Hume Society. In short, I love Hume. Yet I worried that my refusing to support the effort to remove Hume’s name from the tower would be hypocrisy: was I only willing to support efforts to remove statues and change offending names until it hit close to home? Is changing the name the right thing to do, my personal feelings and professional allegiances notwithstanding?
The evidence is conclusive that David Hume did, indeed, have deeply racist attitudes. This evidence takes the form of a now infamous footnote. I won’t describe its content, since it can easily be found, but it is extremely offensive and hurtful. Years ago, it was commonplace among Hume scholars to dismiss this in various ways: “it’s only a footnote,” “everyone [or rather, everyone white] was racist back then,” or “you should look at what philosopher x wrote, it’s much worse.” These defenses are clearly unacceptable: it may be only a footnote, but Hume carefully crafted it, even revising it between editions of his work. When you look at the historical context and content of the footnote, Hume was taking a controversial stand in a philosophical debate about race and not merely echoing widely accepted views. And of course, to plead that others are even worse seems a weak defense at best.
It also seems to me a mistake to try to weigh up the wrongness of the footnote against the contribution of his work as a whole, as if we might be able to give Hume high marks overall with a deduction for this mistake. One might claim that the attitudes expressed in the footnote are quite alien to his philosophical project as a whole, but even this, it seems, is a question that requires careful deliberation and scholarship, and not something that can be pronounced out of hand.
The last time I taught a semester course on Hume, I invited a Hume scholar who has done extensive research on Hume’s footnote to visit my class and talk about his work. His visit was extremely rewarding and several students told me it was the highlight of the semester, one even said that it was the highlight of his time at university. The footnote, we learned, is best understood in the context of 18th century debate over Montesquieu’s views about the role of climate in the origin of races of human beings. Hume objects to Montesquieu’s theory that racial differences are largely owing to climatic influence, and instead seems to support an early version of polygenism, the theory there are distinct races with separate causal origins, usually thought of as distinct acts of creation. This historical context is not meant to excuse or defend Hume; on the contrary, understanding the philosophical context of the footnote makes Hume look even worse, because it would have been consistent with his position to simply deny the alleged inferiority of non-white races, but instead he contorts his own view in an attempt to “explain” the alleged superiority of whites. Yet understanding the context of the footnote serves another purpose: it helps us understand the painful, convoluted, but also extremely fascinating history of the very concept of race, and this history is a part of how we’ve arrived where we are now, asking who deserves to be honored with the name of a building or a statue in a square and thinking about the impact that these choices have on the university community.
If we don’t “weigh” the wrongness and harm of Hume’s racism against the value of his contribution to philosophy and culture, if there is no balancing the one against the other, then what are we to do? Here I find myself grappling with a problem that is extremely difficult and personal. Many of us—I dare say most of us—have loved ones, whether living or deceased, who hold or held attitudes that we find objectionable, offensive, sometimes even reprehensible: racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, antisemitic, classist, or otherwise hateful or discriminatory attitudes. How can we reconcile the person we love with the attitudes that we hate? How do we interact with them in the present? In the hopes or expectation that they will change? And of those that are deceased, and therefore cannot change? How do we remember them?
This is, perhaps, ultimately why I feel so conflicted about Hume. How do I reconcile Hume’s racism with the person whom Adam Smith, in the eulogy he wrote after Hume’s death, described as “approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit”? And what would such a reconciliation look like? And how does such reconciliation avoid minimizing, apologizing for, or dismissing Hume’s racism? Yet in this problem lies, I think, a deep truth about the messiness of human beings and of our history. I work in the history of philosophy. I love the history of philosophy precisely because it is messy: it forces one to confront points of view that are very foreign and sometimes even unintelligible. At times these views are uncomfortable and even extremely distressing, and Hume’s racism is just such a case. Nevertheless, facing, trying to understand, and acknowledging these views is the historian’s obligation and opportunity.
Is changing the name of David Hume tower the right response? I still don’t know. It seems to me that the decision whether to change the name ought to depend primarily on whether having the name on the building causes members of our community to feel unwelcome or undermines their sense of belonging at the university. I won’t presume to speak on others’ behalf on this question. But here is what I do know: as an institution of higher learning, and as David Hume’s alma mater no less, we have an opportunity and an obligation to try to understand—in all its complexity and messiness—Hume’s writings, their context, their influence, and their legacy. Not to minimize or excuse his faults, but to face them, as we must learn to face our own. Changing the name with little public debate and minimal fanfare may help avoid negative press and controversy, but it also squanders an opportunity to reckon with and learn from the past. I call on the University not to shirk this responsibility and to promote reflection, deliberation, and discussion about Hume’s work and his legacy and the proper response to it.