UPDATE: Over at his website, my Chicago colleague Brian Leiter, a philosopher and legal scholar, has a good take on Hume. An excerpt:
What’s bizarre about the mass delusion now gripping the Anglophone world, even outside the U.S., is that no one yet knows whether George Floyd was killed because he was Black, rather than poor, marginalized, and non-cooperative (which cops hate!), the factors that actually explain most police killings (race is largely an epiphenomenon).
And what’s even worse is that none of this has anything to do with Hume.
Hume was a man of his time in some ways, but we don’t read him to figure out whether we should invest in the slave trade. We read him because he transcended his time, because he touched the fundamental questions about what it is to be a human being in the world: what do we know, what should we value, what is there really? In that regard, he is like Plato, the enemy of democracy, and Aristotle, the defender of slavery, as well as Hobbes, Kant, Marx and Nietzsche: he speaks to all human beings, despite his parochial prejudices.
That these analysts of human being should be erased from the landscape, because of their local prejudices, is a symptom of our times, not simply of the narcissistic stupidity of “identity politics” and the craven spinelessness of academic administrators, but, more importantly, of the reactionary forces of the moment which will love nothing better than the erasure of the cosmopolitan ideals we have inherited: the forces of reaction, after all, are committed to vindicating the local traditions and prejudices and customs. They can happily join forces with the identity narcissists in eradicating those thinkers concerned with the human.
Good god, will the madness ever stop? What surprises me is that the Scots, whom I always saw as a levelheaded race, are going at cancellation and wokeness hammer and tongs. The latest example comes from the report of The University of Edinburgh’s Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion committee; click on the screenshot to read it.
Here’s the entirety of the announcement (my emphasis):
The work of the University’s Equality & Diversity Committee and its Race Equality and Anti-Racist Sub-committee has continued over the summer. It has been further energised following the killing in May of George Floyd and the ongoing campaigning by the Black Lives Matter movement. Our Race Equality and Anti-Racist Action Plan is accelerating and amplifying our efforts.
It 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. For this reason the University has taken the decision to re-name – initially temporarily until a full review is completed – one of the buildings in the Central Area campus.
From the start of the new academic year the David Hume Tower will be known as 40 George Square.
The use of the building will also change: a shortage of study space because of the social distancing requirements means that the building is being re-purposed to provide additional student study space for 20/21.
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.
This is ahead of the more detailed review of the University’s links to the past in the context of meaningful action and repair; this work is ongoing and is considering many other issues beyond the naming of buildings. It is a substantial exercise of research, engagement and reflection, upon which we will be able to adopt refreshed and appropriate policies on a range of issues such as the future naming of buildings as well as how we should commemorate our history more generally. The city of Edinburgh is also undertaking a similar review and the University is in discussions with the civic leaders about subjects which affect us both.
Make no mistake about it: though the renaming is said to be temporary, I’d bet £50 pounds it’ll be permanent.
This may be a response to a student petition to rename the Tower, though they made a misstep at the beginning:
A previous iteration of this petition campaigned for the name to be changed to Julius Nyerere Tower. It has been brought to my attention by multiple students that Nyerere was harmful in his own ways, both through his ties to dictatorship and through his homophobia. This petition now only campaigns for the renaming of David Hume Tower. Thank you so much to the students who contacted me to educate me. I sincerely apologize for any harm I have caused.
Julius Nyerere was black, so that seemed a safe choice. He was also the first President of Tanzania and a staunch anti-colonialist. But he also presided over one-party rule and, as Wikipedia notes, “Nyerere believed that homosexuality was alien to Africa and thus Tanzania did not need to legislate against the discrimination of homosexuals.” So cancel him.
Oops! Denigration of gays, ties to dictatorship = no go. So be it, though I really get peeved when I see people grovel and apologize for “harm” and “pain” they caused. Seriously? A suggestion to name the building after Julius Nyerere caused “harm”? What kind of harm?
In the end, the only people not suitable for cancelation will be saints. Normal people will always have some flaws, and the Pecksniffs will find them, just as the prim ladies of London found bad words in Dr. Johnson’s dictionary.
Note that Hume’s comments on matters of race (none are specified) are described as “not uncommon at the time” (read “common at the time”). But that’s enough to efface a monument to the great thinker and philosopher. An article in The Scotsman by Felix Waldmann notes that Hume also did another bad thing:
. . . his views served to reinforce the institution of racialised slavery in the later 18th century. More importantly, the fact that he was involved in the slave trade is now a matter of record, thanks to a discovery in Princeton University Library. It was there that I recently found an unknown letter of March 1766 by Hume, in which he encouraged his patron Lord Hertford to purchase a slave plantation in Grenada.
This is the only surviving evidence of Hume’s involvement in the slave trade, and it was completely unknown to scholars until I published it in my 2014 book Further Letters of David Hume.
Through additional archival research, I discovered that Hume had not only contacted Hertford; he had facilitated the purchase of the plantation by writing to the French Governor of Martinique, the Marquis d’Ennery, in June 1766. Indeed, he lent £400 to one of the principal investors earlier in the same year.
. . . But it was a discovery which I expected would one day force scholars to re-evaluate their judgement of Hume, who was not otherwise known to have participated in the slave trade and who devoted a considerable part of an essay in 1748 denouncing the practice of slavery in ancient Rome.
Is that enough to rename the Tower, then? Not to my mind. Even the students didn’t find this arcane information; a scholar did. But since it’s now come to light, well, he was supposedly complicit in slavery.
Hume was a seminal figure in the history of philosophy, and expressed views that even the Scotsman says were quite common in Scotland at the time. Since every white person before about 1940 made invidious and bigoted comments about race, all should be canceled. And we’ll lose all trace of that kind of history, or of any achievement made by those who ever made a bigoted comment.
But note that Hume’s Tower honored him not for his views on race, but for his intellectual achievements. According to Coyne’s Dictum that prescribes cancellation only for those being honored for actions that are dishonorable (like Confederate generals), and not for those being honored for the good things they did, the Hume Tower’s name should stay. (I stole my dictum from someone else, but I can’t remember who.)
The Tower honors his thought, not his racism. Let the name stay. But it’s already too late.