Great thinkers can have reprehensible views but there are better ways to deal with this paradoxby Julian Baggini / September 15, 2020 / Leave a comment
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…