Should We Continue to Honor Hume With Buildings and Statues?

A campaign is underway to pressure the University of Edinburgh to rename Hume Tower.

The building, named for philosopher David Hume, was built in the early 1960s. Hume was born in Edinburgh, studied at the university, and worked there as a librarian.

[Hume Tower. Photograph by Simon Phipps.]

The call to remove Hume’s name from the building is part of a broader movement to reconsider the various public honors bestowed on those with racist views. A petition to rename the building currently has over 1,300 signatures.

Some have also urged the removal of the statue of David Hume from Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. The statue was erected in 1997 and is a popular attraction (and not just among traveling philosophers).

In his essay, “Of National Characters,” Hume says:

I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) 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 manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient GERMANS, the present TARTARS, have still something eminent about them in their valour, 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 Negroe slaves dispersed all over Europe, of which none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity, tho’ low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In JAMAICA indeed they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but ’tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.

One might ask, as Aaron Garrett (Boston University) and Silvia Sebastiani (EHESS) do in their essay, “David Hume on Race” (ungated version here):

Should we care any more about what David Hume wrote and thought about race than about his views of on many other subjects that are not central to what we understand as his importance as a philosopher? And if we do indeed care about Hume’s thought about race should we care about what Hume thought on these issues any more than we do about other philosophers?

They answer “yes” to both of these questions.* Even if we agree with their answers, though, there is still the question of whether (and if so, how) we should continue to honor him with buildings and statues.

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* See also these observations by Eric Schliesser (Amsterdam).

Related posts: “Statues, Monuments, & Philosophy“, “The Ethics of Honoring“.

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