Is the University of Edinburgh right to “cancel” David Hume?

Great thinkers can have reprehensible views but there are better ways to deal with this paradox

September 15, 2020
Photo: David Hume by Allan Ramsay, 1766
Photo: David Hume by Allan Ramsay, 1766

For decades after its construction in the 1960s, the only controversy about the naming of the University of Edinburgh’s David Hume Tower was whether Britain’s finest philosopher, if not the world’s, deserved a better memorial than this modernist monstrosity. Yet this week, owing to far more serious controversy, the building was renamed 40 George Square, a response to the dishonour of his deplorable views on race.

This has been coming ever since Edward Colston’s effigy was sent plunging into Bristol’s floating harbour in June. Thanks to one short footnote, Hume became one of the obvious answers to the question: who’s next? It didn’t take long for placards repeating his notorious remarks on “negroes” to be hung round the neck of his statue on the Royal Mile.

This is an astonishing fall from grace. Hume has been revered among philosophers for centuries. In a large survey of philosophers conducted in 2009, he came clear top of a poll asking which non-living thinkers respondents most identified with, above Aristotle and Kant. It cannot be that so many have simply been wrong about his genius.

Could it be that Hume was both racist and still also one of the greatest philosophers who has ever lived? The University affirms this paradox. In its statement announcing the change of name—“initially temporarily until a full review is completed”—it points out that “In the last 18 months, the University has recruited three academic specialists in David Hume. These posts underline our commitment to scholarship, teaching and learning around David Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment.”

There is a way to resolve the apparent contradiction. If we ask just what it is about Hume’s thought that we most admire, we find none of it is tainted by his racism. Indeed, but for a footnote, we would have assumed Hume was as enlightened as any 18th-century white man who had not travelled further than Italy could have been. He mocked bogus stereotypes such as that “An Irishman cannot have wit, and a Frenchman cannot have solidity,” and saw that “Human nature is very subject to errors of this kind.” He was also highly critical of slavery, calling it “more cruel and oppressive than any civil subjection whatsoever.” He was pleased that it had largely vanished from most of Europe, saying that “The little humanity, commonly observed in persons accustomed, from their infancy, to exercise so great authority over their fellow-creatures, and to trample upon human nature, were sufficient alone to disgust us with that unbounded dominion.”

Why then was he still “apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites”? And why did he encourage a friend to invest in a plantation that he would have known was worked by slaves, as the historian Felix Waldmann recently revealed? A full answer is beyond us, but its general shape is all-too clear: Hume was both a product of his time and like people of every time, had his blind spots. His empiricism and scepticism made him “suspect” whites were superior rather than confidently assert that they were, but the habits of thought he applied so skilfully elsewhere should and could have stopped him taking the possibility seriously.

How then should we deal with this tarnished legacy? The University has opted to recognise Hume’s philosophical brilliance but not to celebrate him publicly. This is not inconsistent. It would be like believing that Roman Polanski is an awful human being who should be jailed while also believing he has made some excellent films. Study him in film school, admire his creativity, but don’t name your auditorium after him or give him an honorary degree.

I can see the merits of this approach. I can also see that, as a white man, I am not best placed to judge whether the university is right that asking students to use a building named after Hume will “rightly cause distress today.” But I would ask both distressed students and university administrators to question whether this really is the best way to deal with the mixed records of dead thinkers.

The idea that the dead should get a free pass on prejudice because they are “products of their time” is too permissive. But the idea that they should be judged entirely by today’s, justifiably higher standards is too harsh. It would leave virtually all the dead condemned.

A middle way is to ask whether in praising a person’s achievements we are inevitably praising their prejudices too. Colston would fail this test. Subtract slavery from his biography and you are left with nothing. His “achievements” and his racism are inextricably linked.

However, many others pass the test. Plato and Aristotle both lived in a city state that was run on slave labour. In an important sense, they depended on slave labour to produce their work. But it is also true that virtually every British writer of the 19th and early 20th century was a beneficiary of empire. That does not mean their work is imperialistic. Similarly, 99 per cent of the work of the ancient Athenians is completely detachable from the slavery that made it possible.

Consider by comparison how we deal with historical misogyny. Aristotle was undoubtedly sexist but today some of his greatest advocates are women. One is the classicist Edith Hall, who argues that given Aristotle’s openness to evidence and experience, if he were alive today he would need no persuading that women are men’s equals. Hume likewise always deferred to experience, and so would not be apt to suspect anything derogatory about dark-skinned people today.

Here we have an alternative way to live with the contradiction that Hume was a brilliant philosopher but also a racist. We should see that his racism is not merely detachable from his philosophy, it actually goes against its spirit and substance. No good Humean today could share his racist views, for reasons Hume himself would have recognised as good.

To be willing to celebrate a figure like Hume shows a willingness to confront the uncomfortable truth that even the finest minds have prejudices, weaknesses and blindspots. This is an important reminder that we too cannot assume ourselves to be free from these universal human vices. So before abolishing or renaming memorials to those who have views that offend or even distress us, maybe we should instead challenge our understanding of what such memorials are for. They are not there to encourage hero worship, to elevate certain figures above criticism. They are there to remind us of what made certain people great, without asking us to forget the their all-too human flaws.