A building at the University of Edinburgh is being renamed to eliminate references to David Hume, the Scottish enlightenment philosopher accused of racism.
In a statement, the University of Edinburgh says it is going to rename the David Hume Tower after a petition started by students argued that Hume, one of the key members of the Scottish liberal enlightenment, was a racist. “Naming the most prevalent building on campus after Hume sends a very clear message to BIPOC students at Edinburgh that we are willing to overlook this racism for the sake of alumni glory,” it argued:
Nobody is demanding we erase David Hume from history. However, we should not be promoting a man who championed white supremacy. That is mutually exclusive with the goal of reducing the harm caused by racism at Edinburgh University to students of colour. We can take Hume’s writings and learn about them in context, but there is no reason the tallest building on campus should be named after him.
Hume, who studied at Edinburgh during the 18th Century, suspected “the negroes to be naturally inferior to whites,” but also argued against the institution of slavery in separate essays – an unconventional position to hold at the time.
The statement from Edinburgh said that “is important that campuses, curricula and communities reflect both the University’s contemporary and historical diversity and engage with its institutional legacy across the world.”
“The interim decision has been taken because of the sensitivities around asking students to use a building named after the 18th century philosopher whose comments on matters of race, though not uncommon at the time, rightly cause distress today,” the statement continued.
The building will be temporarily renamed to its street address, 40 George Square, until a more suitable name is decided upon by a committee. However, in doing so, the building now accidentally honours King George III, of whom George Square is named after, who opposed the abolitionist movement.
Early media reports had claimed the building was being renamed after George Floyd, but this was incorrect. It is true, however, that the work of the university’s “Equality & Diversity Committee” had been “energised” following the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests and riots.
The decision of the University of Edinburgh to remove Hume’s name was backed by the Student’s Union, but was slammed online by members of staff and politicians.
Jonathan Hearn, a professor of Political and Historical Sociology at Edinburgh, said that while he disagreed with Hume’s “racist and offensive” views, he still admired him:
Hume deserves to be criticised for this belief, and if that were all there were to him, to be largely forgotten. But his copious writings on philosophy, history and political economy are full of profound and lasting insights into human nature and history, that do not absolve, but do outweigh this error. Among other things, Hume’s work provides enduring insight into the dilemmas of modern moral order, and the natural roots of human morality. Those who read him carefully will be rewarded. By all means, criticise his errors, debate his ideas, and if necessary, remove his name from buildings. But he deserves to be remembered.
“David Hume is one of the greatest and most influential Scots in history,” argued Maurice Golden, the Scottish Conservatives spokesman for culture:
It’s wrong to suddenly be ashamed of someone who is clearly not known across the world for his links to the abhorrent slave trade. He is globally renowned as a philosopher and thinker. We need to have a more reasonable, mature debate about the rights and wrongs of the past. We can proudly respect our history and recognise when people got it very wrong at the same time. This decision does not do that.
I do not agree with this decision. David Hume’s thought has inspired me throughout a 20 year career working to further constitutional democracy in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. As an employee of Edinburgh University I was not consulted in this. https://t.co/uRV19e052H
— Asanga Welikala (@welikalaa) September 13, 2020
Edinburgh University has cancelled / deleted the great enlightenment philosopher David Hume.
What a cowardly, stupid, craven, pathetic, spineless, dumb thing to do. Shame on them. https://t.co/3X6xBGu7pg
— Neil O'Brien MP (@NeilDotObrien) September 13, 2020