Intellectual sins

The longer the Hume racism debate goes on, the more I’m convinced his name should not be removed from The University of Edinburgh’s tallest tower

Julian Baggini
Jan 22 · 7 min read
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(cc) Enric

Back in September, The University of Edinburgh announced that it was “temporarily” renaming David Hume Tower. An online petition had drawn attention to a notorious racist footnote written by the 18th century philosopher and argued that “we should … not boast about the racist alumni of Edinburgh.” The petition did not call for Hume to be cancelled, making it clear that “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.”

Four months later the University has announced its Race Action Plan, which will involve a consultation on whether to make the name change permanent. A debate organised by the philosophy department acted as a launch to those discussions. It was feisty at times, bordering on the bitter, with historian Tom Devine calling philosopher Tommy Curry “naive” and Curry in return claiming Devine’s comments were “asinine”. Despite the heat, the discussion did shed some light on three key issues: whether Hume should have known better, the role he played in sustaining oppressive structures, and the question of whether renaming the tower is hypocritical tokenism.

The argument about whether Hume should have known better is an important one. Defenders who say his racist comments were just a product of his time are not excusing his racism but arguing that it is too harsh to judge Hume personally for holding it. Curry argued that there were plenty of voices at the time that recognised the humanity of black people, not least those of black people themselves, and that their exclusion from white, western enlightenment thinking was itself a manifestation of racism.

I have no reason to doubt this, but it doesn’t mean that Hume deserves criticism for being part of these structures of oppression. The historian Thomas Ahnert pointed out that the racism Hume repeated was endemic in his society where there was no strongly anti-racist sentiment.

One of his colleagues, Dr Felix Waldmann, wrote last year that Hume was exposed to strong counter-arguments and should have heeded them, citing objections to Hume’s footnote written by James Beattie. But Ahnert pointed out that Beattie made his remarks very briefly as part of a viscious 500 page attack on Hume’s views on religion, in the last years of Hume’s life. To hope these words would have made an impact is too optimistic. Ahnert concluded that you cannot argue that Hume upheld his racist views in the face of strong counter-arguments or pressure to change his mind.

Tom Devine backed this up, although perhaps his clearest statement of his position was made back in September when he said:

In history we teach our students not to indulge in the intellectual sin of anachronistic judgement, i.e. never to impose the values of today on those of the past. In 1762, the year of David Hume’s reported letter on the plantations, there is no evidence that any groups in Scotland opposed chattel slavery in the colonies. The surge of abolitionism and widespread horror at man’s inhumanity to his fellow man only came later. In that sense, Hume was a man of his time, no better and no worse than any other Scot at the time. By the criterion of this this stupid decision, the whole of Scotland in that period deserved moral condemnation.”

Although I have argued that the historical context mitigates the case against Hume, I have been reluctant to use this as a reason to excuse him too much. Listening to Ahnert and Devine, however, I have become more convinced that to judge Hume harshly is to judge him anachronistically. To be clear: that does not make his racist views any less repugnant, it simply means he was not repugnant as a man.

A second line of attack is that Hume’s views should not be seen as an isolated footnote, a thoughtless aside in any otherwise deeply thoughtful career. Curry argued that Hume bolstered bogus racial science and so helped maintain the structures of oppression. Kant was one of many who used Hume’s words as evidence for the inferiority of non-whites, writing:

Mr. Hume challenges anyone to cite a single example in which a Negro has shown talents, and asserts that among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who are transported elsewhere from their countries, although many of them have even been set free, still not a single one was ever found who presented anything great in art or science or any other praiseworthy…”

The philosopher Mazviita Chirimuuta echoed this objection when she argued that Hume’s work had been used to perpetuate an idea of racist western civilisation in which the West stood for civilisation, modernity and progress against the ancient, the barbarous and the primitive.

The problem with this argument is that pretty much all of western intellectual culture is damned by the same logic. The argument seems to be that as Hume was part of an imperialistic culture, he was implicated in an imperialistic project. That’s true, but does that mean that everyone so implicated must now be denounced? That’s not what Chirimuuta said and I think it’s pretty clear it would be wrong to draw that conclusion. As with the first objection, this seems to judge the past as though it were the present and to fail to recognise that no thinker can emerge in a vacuum, unaffected by the spirit of their age.

Nor does it seem reasonable to hold Hume to account for how his words were subsequently used. As an audience question put it:

I would like to challenge the strength of the claim that we should ban or question an author based on the consequences his ideas had in future generations. If, as some of the panelists claimed, this is enough to erase Hume’s name from Edinburgh uni premises, then we should promote to do the same with other authors as well in other parts of the world. The first examples that come to my mind are Marx and Nietzsche, whose ideas, taken by others, were used to justify atrocities during most of the twentieth century.

Here you have to remember that Hume’s remarks were a footnote which he began with the phrase “I am apt to suspect…” What followed was racist but of a tentative, provisional kind. We can be in little doubt that Hume’s philosophy is in essence, antithetical to racism, being based on the principle that a “wise man … proportions his belief to the evidence”.

The final set of issues concerns the potential hypocrisy of coming down like a ton of bricks on Hume when worse offenders are let off the hook. As Ahnert pointed out, the capital of the USA is named after a man who actually owned slaves. One questioner also pointed out that the Divinity building at the University has a statue of John Knox who wrote that women are inferior to men and born to serve them. The questioner was against removing the statue of Knox saying “I don’t see the statue as offensive, but as a representation of a particular period of history. But it seems strange to me that we are renaming David Hume tower because Hume was ‘racist’, but Knox’s ‘sexist’ views are somehow acceptable.”

I put a question myself, almost on behalf of a concerned Chinese student at the University who had sent me an email. Polemically, I asked

How can the university take the moral high ground over one footnote written in a racist world over two hundred years ago, when it is not only silent about actual slavery conducted now by the Chinese Government but actively works with it, working closely with Huawei and hosting a Confucius Centre? Isn’t this an easy idealism with regards to people long dead and a shameful pragmatism with regards to sources of money today?

Disappointingly, no one on the panel tried to answer this, with one simply saying it was matter for the University administration. Having dodged my question they to my mind also fudged the one about women. But this seems crucial. I have argued elsewhere that too much is often made about where you “draw the line” as though the lack of clear boundaries means you can never make distinctions. Not all slopes are slippery. But the question of gross hypocrisy is different. It’s about the justice of drawing lines in completely different places for arbitrary reasons.

Overall, the discussion made me more convinced that it would be a mistake to remove Hume’s name from the tower that bears his name. We should acknowledge and condemn his racism. We should understand how European history and colonial oppression cannot be separated from each other. We should study the ways in which oppressive concepts and ways of thinking may be found lurking behind the works of canonical thinkers. And we should be expanding the cannon, looking beyond dead white men.

But Hume was a philosophical titan who will surely be included in any list of history’s greatest thinkers, even a maximally diverse one. The ideas and habits of thought he promoted are ones that lead us to tolerance, respect, modesty and better understanding, not to bigotry and ignorance. The stain on Hume’s character is real, but it should be seen as an all-too human flaw on a profoundly and fundamentally humane thinker.

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