Edinburgh University has stripped David Hume’s name from one of its buildings, saying that the 18th century philosopher’s views on race caused “distress” to students. The university has been blasted for ‘cancelling’ a “genius.”
Hume was one of the most important figures in the Scottish Enlightenment. An empiricist and student of human nature, he was a skeptic of organized religion, and his rejection of Christian miracles and the idea that the complexity of the world did not prove the existence of God made him a controversial figure in his day.
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Hume, however, is now the latest victim of ‘cancel culture.’ In a letter to students this weekend, Edinburgh University announced it would rename David Hume Tower as 40 George Square. The decision was made by a group of anti-racist committees, who concluded that Hume’s comments on race “rightly cause distress today.” The new name is temporary, and may become permanent after a review by the university.
Prior to the renaming, students petitioned the university to name the 14-storey building after Julius Nyerere, the first president of independent Tanzania and a graduate of the university. Though they decried Hume’s “racist epithets,” the effort to rename the tower after Nyerre ran into trouble when the students discovered the Tanzanian leader’s “ties to dictatorship” and “homophobia.”
A testament to the insanity of our times that the University of Edinburgh takes issue with the NAME of David Hume Tower, and not the hideous structure itself.
“40 George Square.” Lipstick on a pig! pic.twitter.com/k2xergZp92
— Payton Alexander (@AlexanderPayton) September 13, 2020
On race, Hume’s views were typical of his time. “Negroes,” he wrote in a 1753 footnote to his essay ‘Of National Characters’, are “naturally inferior to the whites.” Furthermore, while Hume described slavery in 1739 as a condition that “exposes us to a thousand wants, and mortifications,” he advised his patron, Lord Hertford, in 1766 to buy a plantation in Grenada, and put up £400 of his own money toward the purchase.
The links between Hume and slavery were dug up in 2014 by historian Felix Waldmann, who ironically benefited from a Hume Fellowship at the university two years later. According to Waldmann, Hume was wealthy enough not to need income from the plantation, and should have recognized “the enormity of slavery.”
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Holding thinkers of the past to the standards of the present is a difficult task, when even Hollywood movies from four decades ago no longer meet the morality standards of today.
Indeed, most of the philosophers whose works underpin Western thought would be canceled in an instant if they were around in 2020. Aristotle saw some people “marked out for subjection” from the moment of birth, while Plato saw the “superior ruling over and having more than the inferior” as just. Later, the Christian theologists of the Middle Ages saw slavery as a natural condition, with Thomas Aquinas describing the master/slave relationship as one similar to that of a parent and child.
What’s more, while the philosophy of personal liberty was developed in earnest during the Enlightenment, some of the era’s most prominent thinkers saw black people as naturally inferior to whites. Immanuel Kant, for example, once remarked that “this fellow was quite black…a clear proof that what he said was stupid.” The hierarchy of the races was accepted by many Enlightenment thinkers, with German anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s 1795 description of the “Caucasian” as the world’s most advanced race treated as scientific fact at the time.
Hume’s cancellation was met with disbelief online. “So much easier to symbolically flagellate dead 18th century geniuses than meaningfully work on structural issues now,” wrote University of Sussex philosophy professor Kathleen Stock, adding: “not sure they’ve really thought this through.”
David Hume tower to be renamed: "the 18th century philosopher whose comments on matters of race, though not uncommon at the time, rightly cause distress today". So much easier to symbolically flagellate dead 18th century geniuses than meaningfully work on structural issues now https://t.co/CHDof9FJSM
— Kathleen Stock (@Docstockk) 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
I’m not even sure there was really a *major* push to get Edinburgh University to bin David Hume & yet they have done so anyway. There is a performative quality to this; a kind of cry for attention. That it makes them a laughing-stock hardly matters.
— alexmassie (@alexmassie) September 13, 2020
“The simple answer,” Jonathan Hearn, a sociology professor at Edinburgh University, wrote in his blog, “is that we judge people, including intellectuals like Hume, in the round, on their general contributions and accomplishments, not by seeking out any failing we can find and focussing all our attention on that.”
Edinburgh University is not unique in its desire to purge itself of any connection to racism, especially not in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in the US this summer. In just one example from the US, activists demanded Harvard University rename its Board of Overseers, on account of the word ‘overseer’ having a connection to plantation slavery.
In the UK, the Natural History Museum has mulled removing its Charles Darwin exhibits, citing his “colonialist scientific expeditions.” On campus though, efforts to sanitize history predate the current Black Lives Matter protests, with Oxford students demanding the removal of a statue honoring colonialist Cecil Rhodes as far back as 2015, and Liverpool students demanding former Prime Minister William Gladstone’s name be removed from a residence hall, claiming he didn’t fight slavery hard enough.
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