David Hume canceled

September 13, 2020 • 10:00 am

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.

The building formerly known as the Hume Tower

h/t: Eli

41 thoughts on “David Hume canceled

  1. A few years ago, the woke were at pains to say that their cancellation style was not as reckless as the destruction of historical artifacts by ISIS on the grounds that those artifacts did not represent current ISIS values. That argument is becoming harder to sustain.

  2. Let’s cancel the wokesters and their revolting self-importance and self-righteousness.

    They are poisoners of life.

    1. I was thinking the same thing. Nobody is perfect. Assuming there are still human beans left on this rock some 100,200 year from now, will they look back at our time and find good reason to cancel Robin DiAngelo? Ibram X. Kendi? Etc.?

      Will they be judged to have done something seriously unacceptable and evil? Will it be necessary to erase *them* from History?

      Granted that everybody screws up in one way or another (are there any PERFECT human beans?) I would agree that the ratio of good to bad differs from person to person.

      Hitler was a painter, and did he like d*gs? Good, but look at the atrocities he committed! OTOH, Hume was a great thinker who also held socially acceptable opinions that we now disagree with.

      So now they’re changing the name of Hume Tower. Virtue signaling!! Wow! Such goodness!

    1. That was my reaction too. I was reading along, all set to make a snarky comment, and then the picture scrolled into view. Oh well, if that’s the tower, get his name off of it as soon as possible.
      The snarky comment was that soon it will be “anyone who wore a shirt made of cotton that was picked by a slave,” and none shall pass that test.

      1. Bravo, Darwinwins! Maybe we will next see descendants of historical figures begging to have their names removed from the ghastly building named after them. The heirs of Marc Zamansky will probably be first, to
        get their name off the hideous Tour Zamansky at the Univ. of Paris branch in the 5ieme.
        Other candidate buildings will come to mind.

    2. Yes, very ugly. It looks like the kind building that both US and UK crime shows use to tell the audience that the characters living there are poor and lead crime-ridden lives. Hume is getting the better end of this deal.

    3. My thoughts too.

      While I might object on general principles to the complaint, after viewing it, I really can’t see the problem with dis-attachding Hume’s name from this concrete block nightmare.

  3. Yes, I’m deeply disappointed at my university’s idiocy on this matter. I spoke at a debate hosted by the Black Ed movement. I was against the renaming, obviously, but I thought even then that it was a lost cause given the reactions of people in the debate live chat bar. Alas, I tried.

    1. I just noticed the comment on the building’s ugliness. Indeed! But it is very tall and has great views from the top. During the aforementioned debate I provocatively suggested that yes, maybe we should remove Hume’s name from the tower- and put it on a much grander building! That suggestion has yet to be taken up…

  4. Professor Ceiling Cat writes, “In the end, the only people not suitable for cancellation will be saints.”

    I propose that we cancel Jesus.

    Matthew 15:26 tells us that when the Canaanite woman asked for help, “But Jesus replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”


    And in Matthew 7:6 he is alleged to have said, “Do not give dogs what is holy; do not throw your pearls before swine. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.”

    Jewish people here, tell me if I’m right. I get that traditionally (I have a dear friend who is a d*g lover, though) the Jews considered d*gs and pigs unclean (as do Muslims).

    Jesus indirectly equating the Canaanite woman to a d*g strikes me as like using the N word, were she black, or the K word were she Jewish. The guy strikes me as a bigot. I don’t care for Matthew’s Jesus and wouldn’t welcome him in my house.

    Yeah, cancel Jebus, too.

    1. ‘And in Matthew 7:6 he is alleged to have said, “Do not give dogs what is holy; do not throw your pearls before swine.’

      Too, let’s not forget the mistreatment of out-of-season fig trees and swine.

  5. “Since every white person before about 1940 made invidious and bigoted comments about race”

    Is that true? Given that most of the words from the past that we have are disproportionately from members of ruling classes, it’s hardly surprising that they made bigoted comments about race, given that they made bigoted comments about everybody who wasn’t a member of their own ruling class.

    I’m sure most of them made far more bigoted statements about the working class and the peasantry than they did about other races.

    Members of ruling classes have always made bigoted comments about anybody outside their own ruling class. This has been true for all ruling classes throughout the world and throughout history.

    If pre-war western ruling classes were the one exception to this rule it would be amazing.

    If there is an exception to this rule, it is 21st century western ruling classes.

    1. In the United States, at least, there is little evidence, with a few exceptions, that the white masses did not share the racism and bigotry of the ruling class. This was the genius, in some instances on an unconscious level, of the ruling class: divide the masses (black, white, immigrants), have them fight and compete against each other, thus allowing them to remain unchallenged in their power. It is a strategy that has worked to the present day. Leftists have been agitating for more than a century to overthrow capitalism, always thinking that the revolution, peaceful or otherwise, is just around the corner. The disappointments have been many and will continue. The masses, regardless of ethnicity or race, have no interest in overthrowing capitalism. At best, they are willing to support the introduction of tepid socialistic elements into the system.

  6. The two long sentences below are a lovely example of a university administration trying valiantly to broaden the scope of their work “beyond the naming of buildings,” but being completely unable to name a single other thing they are doing besides renaming buildings.

    “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.”

  7. I have no problem with the confederate flag coming down or statues of generals coming down or busts of thinkers who have fallen out of favour being removed from hallowed spaces. The only thing that bothers me is when they replace these things with the name or likeness of another “great honourable” person.” How about we stop naming things for “great honourable people” altogether? It’s a silly practice. David Hume is not a great honourable person. No one is. We all have flaws. Deep flaws.

    You question “what actual harm” is caused by naming a building after Julius Nyerere. I ask what actual harm is caused by not naming any buildings or erecting any statues at all to “great honourable humans” from our past?

    Hume is not important. Some of his ideas were helpful. That’s it. No need to lionize him or anyone else. This idea that we would not be where we are today without the great David Hume or without the great MLK is preposterous. Someone else would have had their ideas or made their proclamations or similarly helpful proclamations.

    Let’s teach out children about these people and their ideas but let’s not pretend like humanity owes them for their greatness or that we ought to lionize them in stone or in the name of a building. No human is worthy of a statue or a moral high ground set in stone. Let’s just end this whole practice and concentrate on relaying good ideas new and old. We can cite who it was who first presented these ideas without lionizing them and pretending that humanity owes everything it is to these few great mostly men.

    However, if there is a statue of Jimmy Page out there somewhere, nobody better put so much as a smudge on it or I will hunt them down and treat them to the slow and painful death they deserve!

    1. I was upset to read that Hume, a great intellect who was far ahead of the curve on numerous fronts, was being trashed – until I saw the building. What a carbuncle!
      Take his name off of this, wait until the insnity has passed, and then put his nmae on something more befitting.

  8. Brian Leiter has posted two comments on the matter, “David Hume has now been ‘cancelled’ at the University of Edinburgh” and “Let’s out-woke ‘the woke’: from now on David Hume will be known as ’40 George Square’“. In the former, he writes,

    Enzo Rossi (Amsterdam) points out the additional irony that the former “Hume Tower” will now be known simply as its address “40 George Square,” after King George who opposed the abolition of slavery.


  9. Oh FFS….

    I really want to see how these Super Wokes get around the problem of religion. What do you do when billions of Christians and Muslims are worshipers of a book containing a clearly anti-woke Deity, who has retrograde views of women, who commanded to kill gays, and who was involved in genocide?

    The wokeness starts to look inconvenient there.

    Secular students should demand from their universities “safe spaces” away from Christians and Muslims. How are they to feel “safe” around people who hold the view their God will be torturing the secular students forever, and that they deserve it???

    I can almost see some wokes someday actually going after the bible. But not the Koran, because…intersectionality.

    1. Arguably the most forward-thinking, original philosopher of the Enlightenment. Was so forward thinking in fact that the world still hasn’t caught up with most of his revolutionary scepticism. His observations on causality, consciousness, epistemology, etc. were all transformative.

      But he suffered from one fatal flaw: he stubbornly refused to time-travel to the 21st century and jot down a list of morally acceptable beliefs, then return to his own time and live by them. Thus he must be canceled.

  10. You ask me, this is the height of silliness.

    But, hey, to everything there is a season. A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away.

    And until this, too, passes, screw ’em.

  11. In my former life, as such, I suffered from an inability to recognize vaguely known neighbors at our local supermarket, and former students when I passed them in the hallway.
    I shall in the future beg for forgiveness from any pain and harm that I caused.

  12. I am sure there will be an outcry over this decision by Edinburgh University’s many and widespread alumni. I for my part am appalled and saddened.

  13. Jesus, could they have built an uglier building to name after the great Enlightenment philosopher? It’s the worst of Bauhaus meets the New Brutalism. Looks more like council housing than a proper academic building.

    1. My time at Edinburgh preceded the erection of this monstrosity and others which have obliterated a beautiful Georgian square of what were originally elegant townhouses. Several of my lectures took place in some of these buildings, a few of which had retained original features such as open fireplaces. The vast expansion in tertiary education from the 80s onwards made it necessary to build upwards if the university was to be contained, for the most part, in a relatively small area. It did not follow however that such an ugly building be erected.

  14. I completely agree. And for me also, the whole concept of “harm” in this context is absurd.

    Part of the cause, I think, is what they call “administrative bloat” at the unis – the Diversity, Inclusion, Equity bureaucracy.,
    When you employ witch-finders, they’ll find witches.

    This all strikes me as particularly Maoist, or Khmer Rouge – take your pick and the OPPOSITE of justice, in part b/c NO mob justice is ever justice. It is regressive, fanatic, petty, run by children and a cultish fraud known as BLM.

    It’s also a big fat sizzling steak for the insane right that will hand the election to Trump with its juvenile histrionics and (even inadvertently) giving cover to civil violence.

    The similarities between religion and this movement are so obvious it’s almost parody. It ticks all the boxes. And guess where the inevitable blow back against all this is going to blow back to (hint: it won’t be to young white liberals).

    I’ll see you at the next struggle session, we’ll compare dunce caps before we’re shipped to re-education camp.

    D.A., J.D., NYC

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