University of Edinburgh under fire after renaming tower commemorating David Hume

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The University of Edinburgh has come under fire after it renamed a tower bearing the name of 18th century philosopher David Hume over his links to slavery. 

The David Hume Tower will now be known as 40 George Square, the university confirmed, following pressure from activists, despite a petition amassing less than 2,000 signatures. 

The campaign to rename the tower began in July at the height of protests around the world after the killing of George Floyd in the US. 

Dr Felix Waldmann, a former Edinburgh professor who is now at Cambridge University, called Hume ‘unashamedly racist’ after discovering a previously unknown letter the philosopher wrote encouraging his patron to buy a plantation.

This led to the petition demanding action from the university over its links to Hume amid his use of ‘racial epithets’.  

However, the university’s decision to rename the tower has led to fury, with academics and politicians leading the backlash. 

Neil O’Brien, the Conservative MP for Harborough, in Leicestershire, wrote: ‘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.’ 

Last night, leading historian Sir Tom Devine, a Professor Emeritus at the University of Edinburgh, said: ‘The current Principal of Edinburgh University [Peter Mathieson] should hang his head in absolute shame.’ 

The University of Edinburgh confirmed it has renamed its tower commemorating 18th century philosopher David Hume over his links to slavery

The University of Edinburgh confirmed it has renamed its tower commemorating 18th century philosopher David Hume over his links to slavery

Dr Felix Waldmann, a former Edinburgh professor who is now at Cambridge University, called Hume 'unashamedly racist' after discovering a previously unknown letter the philosopher wrote encouraging his patron to buy a plantation

Dr Felix Waldmann, a former Edinburgh professor who is now at Cambridge University, called Hume ‘unashamedly racist’ after discovering a previously unknown letter the philosopher wrote encouraging his patron to buy a plantation 

Sir Tom said that if he was still employed by the university, ‘I would have fought tooth and nail against this decision’. 

He added history students are taught ‘never to indulge in the intellectual sin of anachronistic judgment – i.e. never to impose the values of today on those of the past’.

Sir Tom also said Hume was the ‘greatest philosophical mind Scotland has ever produced’.

‘In the year of David Hume’s reported letter on the plantations, there is no evidence that any groups in Scotland opposed chattel slavery in the colonies. In that sense, Hume was a man of his time, no better and no worse than any other Scot at the time.

‘By the criterion of this stupid decision, the whole of Scotland in that period deserved moral condemnation.’

Asanga Welikala, a lecturer in public law at Edinburgh university and co-convenor of the Keith Forum on Commonwealth Constitutionalism, said: ‘I do not agree with this decision. 

‘David Hume’s thought has inspired me throughout a 20-year career working to further constitutional democracy in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. 

‘As an employee of Edinburgh University I was not consulted in this.’ 

Another critic added: ‘It’s not clear to me how cancelling David Hume – whose racist views are not what he is known for; views which are consistent with his intellectual milieu – is meant to improve the lives of black people today.’

‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions’: The philosophy of David Hume, who rejected religion and wrote ‘racist epithets’

David Hume (1711-1776) was a UK philosopher (pictured, statue in Edinburgh)

David Hume (1711-1776) was a UK philosopher (pictured, statue in Edinburgh)

David Hume (1711-1776) is one of the most important UK philosophers, best known for his work on scepticism and philosophical empiricism.

In A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), Hume argued against the existence of innate ideas, and concluded that no theory of reality is possible and there can be knowledge of anything beyond experience. 

Hume believed that passions rather than reason govern human behaviour, proclaiming that ‘reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions’. 

His views on philosophy of religion, including his rejection of miracles and the argument from design for God’s existence, were also especially controversial for their time. 

Though Hume’s views on slavery were ambiguous, he infamously claimed there were human races and that non-whites were inferior to whites. 

The passage, from Essays, Moral, Political and Literary, reads: ‘I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the Whites.

‘There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. 

‘No ingenious manufacturer amongst them, no arts, no sciences. 

‘On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the Whites, such as the ancient German, the present Tartars, still have something eminent about them, in their valor, form of government, or some other particular. 

‘Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men. 

‘Not to mention our colonies, there are Negro slaves dispersed all over Europe, of whom none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; though low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. 

‘In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one Negro as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly.’

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A second added: ‘I am sceptical that the university of Edinburgh has much evidence of a building being named after the famous 18th century Enlightenment philosopher David Hume causing ‘distress’ to contemporary students. 

‘This sounds like an imagined projection of hypothetical distress. 

While philosopher Christina Sommers said: ‘My God. David Hume is cancelled. Shame on U of Edinburgh.’

The university said it is renaming the tower after an investigation involving its equality and diversity committee and its race equality and anti-racist sub-committee.

It said its work had been ‘energised’ since the death of George Floyd in the US in May and campaigning by the Black Lives Matter movement.

A statement read: ‘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 rename — 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 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.’

The university said the decision was taken ahead of a ‘more detailed review of the university’s links to the past’ and work is ‘considering many other issues beyond the naming of buildings’. 

Dr Waldmann, a former David Hume fellow at the university, discovered a previously unknown letter Hume wrote in 1766, encouraging his patron Lord Hertford to buy a plantation in Grenada. 

He also wrote to Victor-Thérèse Charpentier, the French governor of Martinique, on behalf of his friend, John Stewart, a wine merchant and lent Stewart £400 in early 1766.

Records of one plantation owned by Stewart, held in the National Library of Jamaica, show that by November 1767, it had 42 slaves.

Dr Waldmann said: ‘Anyone possessed of Hume’s talents would recognise the obvious enormity of slavery. 

‘But Hume endorsed slavery; indeed, he justified it.’ 

Hume is celebrated for his contributions to the Scottish enlightenment and is best known for his work on scepticism. 

In A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), Hume argued against the existence of innate ideas, and concluded that no theory of reality is possible and there can be knowledge of anything beyond experience. 

Hume believed that passions rather than reason govern human behaviour, proclaiming that ‘reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions’. 

His views on philosophy of religion, including his rejection of miracles and the argument from design for God’s existence, were especially controversial for their time. 

Though Hume’s views on slavery were ambiguous, he infamously claimed there were human races and that non-whites were inferior to whites. 

The passage, from Essays, Moral, Political and Literary, reads: ‘I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the Whites.’

‘Rename David Hume Tower at UoE’: online petition in full

‘David Hume wrote racist epithets not worth repeating here. 

An online petition is calling for the renaming of the David Hume Tower

An online petition is calling for the renaming of the David Hume Tower

‘Naming the most prevalent building on campus after Hume sends a very clear message to BIPOC students at Edinburgh that we are willing to overlook this racism for the sake of alumni glory. 

‘We should, however, not boast about the racist alumni of Edinburgh, especially given the institution’s long history of involvement in the field of eugenics and phrenology.

‘However, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ending racism at Edinburgh. 

‘The university should be taking great steps to provide further support and resources to BIPOC on campus. 

‘Nobody is demanding we erase David Hume from history. However, we should not be promoting a man who championed white supremacy. 

‘That is mutually exclusive with the goal of reducing the harm caused by racism at Edinburgh University to students of colour. 

‘We can take Hume’s writings and learn about them in context, but there is no reason the tallest building on campus should be named after him.’

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