Should We Continue to Honor Hume With Buildings and Statues? (updated)


(UPDATE: This post, originally published in July, has been moved to the top of the page and updated with the news that the University of Edinburgh has decided to rename Hume Tower. See here.)

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.

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.

UPDATE (9/13/20): The University of Edinburgh has announced that Hume Tower will be renamed:

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 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.

You can read the full announcement here.

NOTE: As an experiment to improve the quality of discussion in the comments, those wishing to comment on this post must use their full names and submit working email addresses with their comments (email addresses are not published). No anonymous or pseudonymous handles may be used. Comments may take longer to appear than usual. If you haven’t done so in a while, please read the comments policy.


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


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

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James A DeHullu
James A DeHullu
1 year ago

Dear friends,

In general, I think it would be helpful if more people realized and accepted the fact that the world is not made up of people who are entirely good or entirely evil. There are few people from the past (of any political persuasion) who can pass the test of perfection as we define it today. And that will probably turn out to be true 150 years from now for those of us alive today.

If we look closely at the usual list of liberal and conservative heroes, we will find that most of them had serious failings. They all shared some of the common views of their time. Margaret Sanger, for example, deserves to be regarded as a hero in the fight for birth control, but some of her views on eugenics would not pass muster today. If there is a statue to Sanger somewhere, should we take it down? Or would it be better to admit that our heroes are flawed and learn more about her ideas and her historical context?

It seems to me that in judging people and monuments from the past we should first determine a list of morally relevant characteristics and on that basis develop a typology of cases. We can then think more clearly about what action (if any) is best for each type of case. In some cases, teaching about the full context may be the best response. In some it may be relocating a monument. In others, perhaps something else is appropriate. (Notice that I am speaking of the ‘best’ response, not the right or the obligatory response.)

Perhaps we all need to take a deep breath and try to think more calmly and systematically about the proper criteria for judging people and monuments from other times. After all, someday we may be judged by the standards of some future age.

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Pablo Hubacher
Pablo Hubacher
Reply to  James A DeHullu
1 year ago

I agree to some extent. Also, I am by no means an expert on the ethics of statue removal. But, I do not think that it is argued for the “heroes” from the past to be perfect, or that only those which prove to be perfect according to some catalouge can be honoured.
I think it is more the effects which statues of people endorsing racist views brings about, which legitimizes their removal. So, if I try to immagine being a Person of Colour studying at Edinborough, it does not seem a good thing to me that I need to walk past a statue and a building on a daily basis named after a man which thought people of my skin complexion to be inherently inferior and who disregarded their complex history. Furthermore, I think People of Colour should be free of being reminded by theses statues of the omnipresence of racist views and their long lasting destructive history (apart form the fact that People of Colour are reminded of this often enough, also without the statues).
What it is important to me is that I do not understand these claims as going into the direction of forming a comprehensive moral judgement about a person of the past which then in turn would legitimize them being honoured or not. I think that this is not the point. What it is rather about in my understanding, is that some people have voiced that they don’t want to be forced to live through a painfull reminder of a history of oppression each time they walk into their university building.Report

Pablo Hubacher
Pablo Hubacher
Reply to  Pablo Hubacher
1 year ago

What I forgot to add: Whether or no the removal of such statues is the “best reponse” seems to depend on the context. Perhaps in some cases, adding descriptions which contextulizes the monument is the more adequate response. Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  James A DeHullu
1 year ago

I definitely agree that we shouldn’t ask for a test of perfection, and that we should acknowledge that every actual individual does both good things and bad. However, we might still acknowledge that the standard we have is a lower bar than perfection, and also allow that this bar might change over time as we become more aware of certain rights and wrongs, and goods and bads, both of morality itself (as for instance, we now nearly universally agree that slavery was wrong, even though the agreement was not so universal in the past) and also of the individuals involved (some of whom may have committed wrongs that were not known by others at the time they were honored). Some people then ask whether there is any person that will pass through all these tests and never have their statue removed for all time, implying some sort of reductio against even this lower bar.

But I think a useful analogy is to consider what it takes for a scientific theory to be worth including in college textbooks. We don’t think a theory should need absolute certainty to be included. After all, we agree it is worth including some theories in there, and no theory has absolute certainty. But we still should require that a theory have moderate to strong support for its truth, and/or be more helpful for understanding than its competitors. The pessimistic meta-induction points out that no scientific theory should be expected to meet these standards for all time, so that for every theory, there will be some decade in which it is removed from the science textbooks. But that is no reductio, because by that time we will have new theories available that do meet our standards, even if we expect they won’t meet our standards for all time either.

I’d say the same is true for statues and honors like building names. We can expect that perhaps none of our heroes, whether past or present, will meet the standards for all time to remain. But by the time our current heroes are seen as morally too problematic to honor, we will hopefully have new heroes, who will also be flawed and imperfect human beings, but will meet the higher standards expected of that time, even if they too will fall at some future date. (And none of this picture needs to assume anything like a linear concept of “progress” or continual improvement – we can still think our current judgments are likely better than the judgments of the past people that erected the statues, even if we are not convinced that all future generations that deplore our new current choices will be right to do so.)Report

Thomas Riggins
Thomas Riggins
1 year ago

Jesus never condemned slavery and his Apostle Paul demanded that slaves should obey their masters — all the images of these supporters of slavery should be irradicated and Jesus especially should be removed from crucifixes and replaced by Spartacus. Hume is small potatoes when it comes to these two.Report

Mark Alfano
Reply to  Thomas Riggins
1 year ago

This is a puzzling response. There’s a lot of daylight between the historical Jesus, to the extent we have any idea what he said and thought, and Paul. These differences are well-documented both by theologians and by philosophers who thought and wrote about them.Report

Thomas Riggins
Thomas Riggins
Reply to  Mark Alfano
1 year ago

It’s just that pro slavery people used Jesus and Paul to justify slavery since these two had no problems with it. Hume was wrong but small potatoes if God was not objecting.Report

James Arnold
James Arnold
1 year ago

There is nothing in the CNN article linked to to suggest that protesters are calling from the removal of the Hume statue. Unless, that is, the placing of the placard is itself taken as a statement in favour of its removal.

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Tristan J. Rogers
Tristan J. Rogers
1 year ago

I find it hard to believe that philosophers would even entertain this as a serious practical question (i.e. whether to remove public honors to Hume, not our overall moral appraisal of Hume’s character). I can’t improve on what James DeHullu said above about the complexity of history and the shortcomings of human nature (and character). I think philosophers are seriously mistaken if they think contemporary moral reflection can somehow arbitrate the history of philosophy in this foolish way. If Hume must go, then why not Aristotle, who defended slavery? I know slippery slope arguments are generally frowned upon. But a few years ago it was ridiculed that statues to Washington and Jefferson may come down if we allow the Confederate statues to go. And look where we are now. I also find it ironic that professional philosophers rightly bemoan the shutdown of philosophy programs while standing idly by as some propose to pave over the history of philosophy. Is it any wonder why the general public doesn’t see philosophy as worth preserving when we act as though it isn’t? Report

Wes McMichael
Wes McMichael
Reply to  Tristan J. Rogers
1 year ago

Hi, Tristan.

I’m not sure why it is hard to believe that philosophers would, at least, *entertain* the idea of removing Hume’s name from a building or a statue in his honor. I would understand the incredulity (and would share it) if the proposal was to “pave over the history of philosophy,” for instance, by removing him from curricula, but I don’t take this idea to be tantamount to that. In fact, the petition explicitly states, “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.”

I take it that naming a building after someone or erecting a statue is an honorific that a current society has the right to bestow or remove. Why is it patently absurd to *entertain* the idea that Hume’s blatantly racist views disqualifies him as a proper recipient of the honor of having a building named after him or having a statue in his honor? Vulnerable groups of students at the university say they are negatively impacted by the presence of the name on the building and the statue. That seems to me to be justification enough to, at lease, *entertain* the idea.

Again, I am with you and the creators of the petition that Hume should not be erased from philosophical history. I’m teaching a class in History of Modern Philosophy next semester, and I’m most excited about my lectures on Hume. His works are probably my favorite to teach. My hesitation is whether or not individuals with explicitly racist views should be honored with building names and statues, when doing so negatively impacts vulnerable groups.

[I also agree with you that there is a big difference between removing these kinds of honors when an honored individual has much to commend them that has nothing to do with racism and objects such as Confederate statues, where the honored individual is being honored for something like trying to divide the United States into two countries.]

Maybe you can help me understand how you read the elimination of a public honor as the same thing as paving over the history of philosophy. I find it consistent to say that I think Hume is one of the most interesting philosophers ever *and* that perhaps his blatantly racist views disqualifies him as a person who should be publicly honored. I hope that I can excite students about Hume’s ideas without necessarily honoring him as a person. Do you feel that my position is inconsistent or ridiculous on the face of it? Report

Tristan J. Rogers
Tristan J. Rogers
Reply to  Wes McMichael
1 year ago

Hi Wes,

Thank you for your comment. Paraphrasing Cicero, I suppose there is no proposal so absurd that some philosopher has not already entertained it. Perhaps you are right and I exaggerate when I say that this is tantamount to “paving over the history of philosophy.” I did admit that there is a slippery slope argument at work here, which I do not think is completely unreasonable, given the moment we are in, when many complex historical figures are being removed (often unlawfully) from our public spaces. Is it such a stretch that taking down the Hume monument and renaming the building might lead to removing Hume from the philosophy curriculum? If you study similar historical movements, actions like the latter often follow the former, and usually fairly swiftly.

Do you really believe Hume “championed white supremacy”? A single speculative footnote in a single essay? I am not a Hume scholar, but I am not aware of any similar passages that make up a significant portion of his thought. In fact, in “Of the Populousness of Ancient Nations,” Hume strongly condemns the ancient practice of domestic slavery, which was not the same as 18th century chattel slavery, but still puts him in better company than most of his contemporaries. Is it really a stretch to think that he might have agreed with his friend Adam Smith on the moral abomination of slavery, even as he wrote the racist footnote in “Of National Characters”?

On the issue of public honors, I am not persuaded that the present generation of a given society has an unlimited moral license to bestow and remove honors. We live in a continuous link with those who came before us, and our moral sensibilities are shaped by the thoughts and beliefs of the past. When we remove an honor we are claiming that it was wrong for previous generations to have honored such a person. Maybe there are some clear-cut cases. But once you account for the counterfactual of the existing beliefs of the time, coupled with the positive reasons for honor, it is very hard to sustain the thought that a figure like Hume should not be publicly honored in our societies.

In the case of the Hume statue in Edinburgh, the above argument is complicated by the fact that it was built in 1995. [Does anyone know when the building was named?] So perhaps you could argue that, by the standards of 1995, Hume’s comment somehow disqualified him from public honor, although I think the weight of his thought and influence greatly overrides that moral stain. So yes, I do think Hume is deserving of honor. We are honoring his achievements, not his personal qualities, even though, setting aside the offensive footnote, I find Hume to be one of the most likable figures in the history of philosophy. Report

Wes McMichael
Wes McMichael
Reply to  Tristan J. Rogers
1 year ago

Hi, Tristan.

You make an interesting point about the rights of current society to override the honors bestowed in previous ones. I like how you framed it as a continuous link. That is something I should reflect on more.

I guess the slippery slope argument doesn’t get much traction for me, though. It does, in fact, feel like a bit of a stretch for me that there is a necessary (or very probable) slide from removing statues to removing ideas from curricula. Maybe my intuitions about others are off and yours are correct, but as someone who has sympathy for the idea that perhaps honors should be removed, but ideas still taught, I read my sentiments into those like the authors of this petition who seem to share my sympathies.

I teach at a community college, roughly, in your area (I’m in Fresno). The vast majority of my students are non-white. Minoritized students often report feelings of not belonging or being othered. Their professors do not look like them; the administrators do not look like them; the readings are by people who do not represent them; many feel they are viewed suspiciously by campus security and police; etc. I can imagine that students already struggling with feeling like they do not belong at a college could feel further alienated by honors bestowed on those who made explicitly racist statements, like those Hume, even peripherally, made.

I love my students, as I’m sure you do yours. I want all of my students to feel that they belong in my classroom and on my campus (and in my society). For me, it is worth it to remove some honors for the sake of my most vulnerable students. I don’t worry really worry about the path down the slippery slope, especially in this case, where the authors of the petition anticipate and address that very concern.

Oh, and to answer your specific question about Hume, no, I don’t think he is a champion for white supremacy (the quotation marks makes it appear that I said that, which I hope I did not). I think he wrongly adopted some common beliefs of his time, and I personally can’t be too harsh in that regard. As a pretty unreflective kid who grew up in Mississippi, I can empathize with that kind of unreflective adoption of beliefs, as I was even guiltier in this same area than Hume when I was young. I think it would be arrogant of me, indeed, to think I would have done better than Hume in his context, when I did so poorly in my own.

I like Hume a lot, but to be crass, he is dead, and my students are alive. I care more that they feel at home in my class and on my campus than I care that Hume is honored with a building name or statue. If I didn’t think vulnerable students could legitimately feel further alienated by honoring Hume, I would have no problem with it, for some of the reasons you and others have mentioned in this thread (e.g. it is peripheral to his primary ideas, and he more or less reflected the beliefs of his time). I think the reality is that my students (and some of my colleagues) often struggle to feel that they are valued members of academia. A few toppled statues and some revised plagues doesn’t seem to me a great loss, if by doing so my students feel more welcome in my class and campus.

Thanks for the conversation. Apologies if I don’t continue it. I am teaching summer classes, and I have a lot of grading starting tomorrow.Report

Tristan J. Rogers
Tristan J. Rogers
Reply to  Wes McMichael
1 year ago

I appreciate your comment, Wes. Thank you.

I agree that the views and feelings of students matter too, though I suspect we may disagree on how to incorporate and respond to their concerns.

I’m teaching this summer too, so let’s leave it at that. Best wishes to you!Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Tristan J. Rogers
1 year ago

Tristan, some philosophers think we should entertain as a serious question whether Black people are dumber than whites, and some even seem to take this as essential to viewpoint diversity, free speech and Science! The fact that philosophers would entertain the removal of statues and renaming of monuments honoring people who held abhorrent views or did reprehensible things as a serious practical question, especially in the current movement, strikes me as one of the least hard-to-believe facts about our profession, and not a regrettable one at that. And that’s perfectly compatible with hoping, like you, that we don’t pave over the history of philosophy and continue to discuss Hume’s philosophical views on their own merits.Report

Tristan J. Rogers
Tristan J. Rogers
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 year ago

Well, as I suggested above, I do not, in general, have a high opinion of what philosophers believe is worth entertaining, especially when it comes to practical matters. So perhaps my initial expression of disbelief was exaggerated for rhetorical effect. Can I assume you also favor (or at least entertain the proposal of) removing public monuments and honors to other figures in the history of philosophy with abhorrent views, such as Heidegger, Kant, Marx, Aristotle? If so, let’s hope you are right about the downstream effects of these proposals on the philosophy profession. Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Tristan J. Rogers
1 year ago

I certainly think it’s a proposition worth *entertaining*, regardless of what I think the conclusion should be. What I think personally of the current proposal wrt Hume is irrelevant (fwiw Dmitri Gallow’s post articulates wonderfully the complexity of the question), but of all the questions not worth entertaining in philosophy this shouldn’t be on top of your list. Report

Tristan J. Rogers
Tristan J. Rogers
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 year ago

Yeah, I was exaggerating about whether it’s worth *entertaining*. If the costs are low enough, I suppose anything is worth entertaining philosophically. But given the general mood right now, those costs seem rather high to me, especially as I noted, when philosophy programs are closing. Whatever we say about the merits of honoring Hume, Aristotle, Kant, Marx, et al., if the public sees professional philosophers stand by as the field’s greats are removed from the public square, what should they reasonably conclude about the value of philosophy programs?

As Enzo Rossi noted, maybe there is a tribal dimension to this, as Hume is a particular favorite of mine. I suppose if it were Heidegger (e.g.), I would care less. So I wouldn’t say it’s a top priority, but I think the broader issues raised are very important. In any case, I appreciate your comment (and I thought Dmitri’s post was very good too–would that we had the “like” button back!). Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Tristan J. Rogers
1 year ago

Sounds reasonable to me, Tristan. Like Wes, I guess I don’t share your worry, but since I also favor the contextualizing option (over removal and renaming), our disagreement is of minor importance.

I also miss the “like” button sometimes, but I understand why Justin turned it off and think it’s probably better like that all considered (it wasn’t clear what “likes” we signaling, much less whether they signaled it reliably).Report

Margaret Atherton
Margaret Atherton
1 year ago

I do think that something needs to be done although I am not sure that statue removal, which seems a bit rough and ready, is the way to go in this and comparable instances. Berkeley after all is a slave owner. I think we do need to recognize and explore how it is that men who held views we otherwise take seriously could have been so wrong in this instance. I don’t think, moreover, that “men of their times” will cut it since there were in fact abolitionists in the period. In any case, I think it is more worthwhile to dig into these matters than to knock over statues.Report

William Peden
William Peden
Reply to  Margaret Atherton
1 year ago

The existence of abolitionists in 18th century Britain proves that Hume was not ahead of his times, but it doesn’t show that he wasn’t a man of his times. As far as I know, abolitionism, and anti-racism in general, were not widespread opinions among those born in early 18th century Scotland – or anywhere else at that time.Report

LESLIE GLAZER
LESLIE GLAZER
1 year ago

We can learn from the past. But, past. opinions cannot reasonably be judged by the standards of the present. At least not without realizing the anachronism of the judgement. HIstory is an arena for reflection: what can one learn from it? Why did people believe the things they did? Humanity and science and wisdom are works in process, and often advance as patchwork. Applying standards of purity and wokeness misses what is there on offer. In this regard Hume’s opinions on race should be considered. Just as we can evaluate the dietary rules, ideas about physics or medicine, miracles, ideas about witches, and so on, we can evaluate ideas about human nature and society. Perhaps even in the 18th century Hume should have known better. But, this can only be determined relatively by considering the ideas and knowledge of the time about humans, societies, peoples, cultures and such. An idea can be false without necessarily being vicious, and an idea can have negative consequences without being at its origin completely unreasonable or hateful. And a person can hold such false ideas, without that being an indication of their being without greatness for other reasons. Let us judge carefully.Report

Jerome H. Lacroix
Jerome H. Lacroix
1 year ago

To analogize, a number of advocates for animal rights compare the industrial “production” of meat to slavery and concentration camps.
If they are right, a reckoning is on the horizon (within a century or two) and virtually no civil rights hero is “safe”. Was Dr. King a vegan? Was Rosa Parks? Ida B. Wells? You get the picture. If they had no awareness of their wrongs, they should have.
Sometimes a memorialized person’s wrongs are so great (e.g. does anyone deplore the disappearance of Hitler statues?), or the justification for their memorialization so dubious (e.g. confederate monuments), that one shouldn’t deplore some historical scrubbing. Does the “thought crime” (I don’t use the term derisively — it’s literally the reproach here) of racism, coming from one of the greatest voices in our tradition, imply that honor is unwarranted? I don’t think so. Otherwise, as I outlined above, every memorial is coming down every generation or two.
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Wes McMichael
Wes McMichael
Reply to  Jerome H. Lacroix
1 year ago

Maybe an important difference between racism and animal rights is that when people of color see their society bestow an honor on someone who thought they were inferior prevents them from feeling like they are respected members of that society. Animals will not feel othered by honors given to those who did not respect their rights; many people of color do.Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Jerome H. Lacroix
1 year ago

I don’t think people should see this as a reductio. If we eventually do come to a broad agreement that participation in animal agriculture at a time when plant-based living was feasible is morally equivalent to slavery, this will likely be due to the efforts of new generations of morally admirable people that go above and beyond the examples of the figures you mention. We won’t even run out of great people who are worthy of some of our respect, even if the people we currently think are great will some day not be respected by future generations because of moral flaws that we are improperly aware of.Report

Mark Alfano
Reply to  Jerome H. Lacroix
1 year ago

It’s also worth distinguishing between people who have nothing to say about serious moral wrongs in their societies, people who privately participate in but don’t publicly support, advocate, and enact them, and people who go all-in supporting them. If Rosa Parks had nothing to say about eating animals and ate animals herself but didn’t actively work to make the conditions of animals farmed for their meat especially horrible, that’s quite different from the case of someone who made it their life’s work. This is why it’s so easy to justify taking down Confederate monuments: they celebrate racists for their racism. Presumably, Hume is not being celebrated for his racism, so that’s a somewhat different case. But why not have a tribute to the Enquiry (assuming there aren’t also reasons to be cautious of that — I’m no Hume scholar) rather than to Hume? Celebrating *men* rather than intellectual progress is arguably part of the problem, and if we celebrate intellectual progress the charge of “paving over the history of philosophy” becomes even more indefensible.Report

Dmitri Gallow
Dmitri Gallow
1 year ago

I think we should draw a distinction between different kinds of monuments. In the first place, there are monuments commemorating historical figures who held immoral views or committed immoral acts, but where the figures are not—or at least not clearly—being commemorated /for/ their immoral acts. In this category, I’d place the Washington monument, the statue of Churchill in Parliament Square, and Mao Zedong’s mausoleum in Beijing. I assume that the Washington monument is not celebrating the fact that Washington owned slaves, that the statue of Churchill is not praising his Kenyan concentration camps, and that Mao’s mausoleum is not praising the great famine or the cultural revolution. In the second place, there are monuments which commemorate historical figures /for/ their immoral views and actions. In this category, I’d place the confederate monuments littering the southern United States.

When it comes to these second kinds of monuments, I’m broadly in favor of removing them from public squares, and re-locating them to museums where they are properly contextualized as remnants of historical injustices—past wrongs from which posterity has much to learn. (There are complicated cases here—I grew up next to Stone Mountain, in Georgia, which, if you aren’t familiar, is, in essence, the Mount Rushmore of the Confederacy, a monument to the failed insurrection begun in the 20th century. It cannot simply be moved away—it can either be destroyed or not. I completely understand those who disagree, but I would prefer to preserve the carvings, and add to them the likenesses of figures like MLK Jr. and Maynard Jackson—again, re-contextualizing the existing monument as a lesson about past injustice.)

When it comes to the first kinds of monuments, I think matters are more complicated. It should be possible for a civilization to learn from its historical forebears, even when those forebears are not morally perfect people—even when they are flawed and complicated human beings (as we all are). We often find historical lessons and struggles easier to comprehend, remember, and unite around when they are personified by an individual. Gandhi held views most of us would vehemently denounce; he did things that most of us would condemn. But statues of Gandhi simply do not commemorate those things. They commemorate India’s struggle for independence. The person has come to represent more than himself—he has come to represent a national, civilizational struggle. I do denounce Gandhi’s racist and sexist views, along with his treatment of young girls; but I am not at all opposed to statues of Gandhi, since those statues simply do not celebrate those views or those acts.

I expect both of these views to be controversial, but I nonetheless think of them as the ‘easy cases’. The hard cases, I think, arise when a single figure comes to stand for two very different things for two groups of people. When I visited Beijing, I was aghast at the widespread commemoration of Mao. For me, Mao represents the Great Leap Forward; he represents the Cultural Revolution. I do not see him as a historical figure in any way worthy of commemoration. But I understand that, within China, he is understood differently. (My likely simplistic understanding is that, due to the influence of Deng Xiaoping, many in China regard him as “70% good, and 30% bad”, and those people take the monuments as commemorations of the 70%.)

I expect that the situation is similar with historical figures like Jefferson or Woodrow Wilson. I was raised white in the American south, and when I learnt about Jefferson, I learnt about the Declaration of Independence—including the original anti-slavery passage. I learnt about him calling for the criminalization of slavery. I did not learn about him owning and raping slaves. But I am aware that, what Jefferson symbolizes for me is not what he symbolizes for many of my fellow citizens—for many of my compatriots, Jefferson has become a symbol of how racism was woven into the history of the United States from it inception. And, understandably, they see this as a horrific thing to commemorate.

An important difference between Mao and Jefferson is that I am not a compatriot of the Chinese who esteem Mao. The myths around which they build their sense of national unity do not directly concern me; and so—while I believe we have much to learn from each other—it is not important to their sense of national unity that we come to share an understanding of what lessons Mao holds for China. When it comes to historical figures like Jefferson and Wilson, however, matters are different. It is important that citizens in the United States come to share a unified understanding of the lessons of their civil war, for instance. And it is important to not have a significant portion of their citizenry feel that their monuments commemorate the subjugation of people like them.

Because I think of these historical figures and their monuments as mere symbols—props in an exercise of civilizational myth-making—and not prizes or awards doled out to the commemorated figures, I’d rather not think about them by evaluating the moral righteousness of those represented. They were complicated admixtures of virtue and and vice, all of them. Rather, I’d like to think about them on the model of symbols with multiple conflicting interpretations. Take the swastika. In a multicultural society, we could have a Buddhist temple displaying swastikas nearby a predominantly Jewish community. In cases like these, I think that there are competing legitimate interests. Adjudicating these conflicting interests requires communication, understanding, and accommodation on all sides. Perhaps the Buddhists should use a different symbol. Perhaps, once the Jewish community comes to understand its significance for the Buddhists, this won’t be necessary. But ideally, the disagreement would become an opportunity for different groups to come to a deeper understanding of each other.

I can’t say exactly what I think should happen with these monuments; but I think that the decision should start with a calm and respectful dialogue about what they mean to us; why we value them, or why we don’t. We should come to that discussion aspiring to a deeper understanding of those who see things differently, and a willingness to accomodate the interests of our fellow humans. We are, all of us, capable of sincerely entering into these kinds of difficult conversations without insult, mockery, or prejudice; and if we are to seize the opportunity these tumultuous times afford us—the opportunity to better ourselves, individually and collectively—then I think it is important that we do so.Report

Xan Bozzo
Xan Bozzo
1 year ago

We have benefited from history. Many of us were educated from a young age to see those around us, who are different from us, as equals. Indeed, we have not only been taught this, we can see it regularly in our daily lives.

Those in the past did not have this benefit. They didn’t because of the racism, sexism, and pernicious ideologies then prevalent. (This, of course, is not say that they do not persist today.) The credit we deserve for our moral beliefs today, on these matters, is inversely proportional to the blame they deserve then. (Since we are talking about Hume here, I do mean to limit this claim to beliefs.)

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t condemn it — we should. It was wrong and terrible, one of the worst stains in human history. But would we (collectively) have done any better? And if not, than perhaps we should get rid of statues altogether…Report

Joanna Demaree-Cotton
Joanna Demaree-Cotton
1 year ago

Most of the comments so far are concerned with the judgment of moral character across historical periods – the extent to which we are able to do that well and the extent to which it is appropriate. I wonder whether this is a red herring. Statues are ways of expressing certain values as a society. If someone comes to represent values that we now reject (eg support for slavery), then this affects what having the statue up or having it removed expresses, seemingly largely independently of whether or not that person was blameable for having those values or whether we are able to judge the extent to which her/his character is flawed. (This leaves open what the Hume statue or its removal expresses.)Report

William Peden
William Peden
1 year ago

If the building was named or the statue was placed to honour Hume’s racist views, there would be a strong case for change. Also, if Hume’s racist views were how he was principally known, then that would make a difference. Yet I studied philosophy, at Edinburgh, in the David Hume Tower, and I wouldn’t know about his views but for attending a talk by Amartya Sen at the Hume Centenary conference in 2011. Similarly, more or less all 18th century philosophers had views that today we’d recognise as homophobic, but that’s not what they are known for, and it doesn’t make a case for iconoclasm. On the other hand, if Hume was principally known for writing tracts against gay rights (which he didn’t do) I would have no problem with removing his statue.

However, being inclined towards positivity, I think that we could do more in Scotland to honour Adam Smith and Thomas Reid: two famous 18th century native philosophers who WERE an abolitionist, who WERE outspoken against slavery and racism, and one of whom (Smith) saw anti-slavery as an important moral philosophical topic to talk about in his books. Nonetheless, because of Smith’s association with capitalism, naming things after him has actually been a target of controversy:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_Smith_College#Adam_Smith_College_Students'_Association

It’s hard to find Scottish philosophers who are widely admired for their ideas, wrote against slavery, AND aren’t seen as being impure due to their economic views. Smith’s views are also awkward for those who want to associate capitalism with slavery, due to a lack of imagination or ability in formulating direct arguments against the former.

Reid’s anti-slavery is harder to track down, but existed: for instance, he taught prominent 18th century abolitionists like James Ramsay and was part of a petition against slavery sent to the House of Commons from the University of Aberdeen during Reid’s twilight years. The enthusiasm behind this petition was what Reid was referring to when he said “I comfort my grey hairs with the thoughts that the world is growing better, having long resolved to resist the common sentiment of old age, that it is always growing worse.”

James Beattie was also a Scottish abolitionist, but I don’t see him being honoured by philosophers in Scotland any time soon, because he’s seen today as not being a good philosopher at all.Report

Enzo Rossi
Reply to  William Peden
1 year ago

The University of Glasgow has an Adam Smith Building.Report

Cora Diamond
Cora Diamond
1 year ago

Beattie isn’t a great philosopher, but he is important because his anti-slavery lectures were part of the class on moral philosophy and were heard by hundreds of men who went on to teach in Scottish schools and preach in Scottish churches.
Another significant figure opposed to slavery, with Scottish connections, was Samuel Johnson. He contributed to one of the early anti-slavery court cases in eighteenth century Scotland.

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Caleb Kendrick
Caleb Kendrick
1 year ago

Unfortunately, a large number of early modern philosophers held these opinions. I think this is a bit of an overreaction because, unlike say a Confederate general, Hume isn’t bReport

Caleb Kendrick
Caleb Kendrick
1 year ago

*best known for defending racism.Report

Robert McDougall
Robert McDougall
1 year ago

Hume was born in Edinburgh, studied at the university, and worked there as a librarian.

Are you sure about that? He served, as is well known, as librarian of the Faculty of Advocates, but that’s a professional association, not a part of the university. As far as I know, his association with the university is limited to studying there, without taking a degree; commenting adversely on the quality of its professors; and applying, unsuccessfully, for a chair in philosophy.Report

Gordon Knight
Gordon Knight
1 year ago

I think I am probably repeating points made by others,but there is a huge analogy between between statues that commemorate Confederate generals and that commemorating Hume. The Hume statue does not *commemorate* his racism, it commemorates his value as an important and really smart part of the empiricist tradition. I’m no empiricist, but to pretend that Hume was not important in this intellectual tradition, a tradition that historically has links to J. S. Mill and other liberal opponents of oppression (even if Hume did not recognize this. The confederates were politicians/military men whose sole cause for “celebration” is that they supported slavery and racism– I mean that is all they have going for them! Should we tear down statues of Aristotle because he notoriously defended slavery? Aristotle was explicit about this–should we topple his statues? Plato probably owned slaves.. should we eliminate him from the cannot? I find all this anti-liberal ‘left’ bullshit anti-intellectual and dangerous.. In our age, freedom is usually attacked from the right. The left should not buy into it. Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Gordon Knight
1 year ago

I think the comparable case would be something like a statue of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia, or (perhaps?) a statue of Robert E. Lee at Washington and Lee. If the statue is specifically commemorating those people as founders of the institutions, and not commemorating their fights for continuation of slavery, then they are doing something very different than the monuments to those same people in some other places.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
10 months ago

“a tradition that historically has links to J. S. Mill and other liberal opponents of oppression (even if Hume did not recognize this.”
Two points about this: 1. I know that Anglophone philosophers like to say this about empiricism but actual historical record is much more complicated and unclear. I think Justin E.H. Smith makes a darn good case in his “Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference” that the emphasis that empiricism puts on observable differences between human beings is actually much more hospitable to racist thinking than is the rationalism of Descartes and Leibniz. 2. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I hear Mill himself cited as an opponent of oppression. Let’s not forget that the man worked for the East India company and so arguably played a more direct role in oppressing, exploiting, and generally doing injustice to others than did even some widely pilloried figures like Heidegger. This idea that British philosophers were all for freedom while the continentals weren’t is just bad history.
Also, Aristotle and Plato are also false comparisons. It’s hard to find any of their contemporaries who had the insight to see that slavery was wrong. There are plenty of Hume’s contemporaries who didn’t share his racism. Even Kant, whom the Daily Nous absolutely loves to beat up on on this issue, had enough insight to question (and I would argue rethink) his own racist commitments in ways that Hume never did. I’m not saying we should tear his statues down– though I’d be all for tearing Mill’s down– but I do think we should rethink the idolization of Hume that’s all too common in Anglophone philosophy.Report

Eric Brown
Reply to  Sam Duncan
10 months ago

Gorgias’ pupil Alcidamas gave a speech in about 369 BCE in which he argued against slavery (at least in the case of the Messenians, who had been enslaved as helots by the Spartans), on the grounds that “god has set all human beings free; nature has made no one a slave.” That’s more than two decades before Plato died. How well known was Alcidamas’ speech? Aristotle cites it in his Rhetoric, and in his Politics, he mentions nameless people (presumably including Alcidamas) who found slavery unjust. Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
Reply to  Eric Brown
10 months ago

I stand corrected then and I really shouldn’t have went in for overstatement! But I do think it’s fair to say that anti-slavery sentiment was far more widespread and better known by Hume’s time than it was in Aristotle or Plato’s.Report

GordonKnight
GordonKnight
1 year ago

And i fear these kinds of discusions are a distraction. At least in US there are cities which are basically ignored…. Black majority cities have had to deal with white flight and are in our political system ignored… entire communities of the underclass (there is a white underclass too..check out the trailer park near you) Report

Enzo Rossi
1 year ago

I confess I felt some irritation when I heard about this. Maybe it’s just my philosophical tribalism, maybe not: yes he was racist, but is his racism saliently linked to the reason why we remember him fondly? That’s where I’d probably draw a line if we’re talking about statue removal or renaming a building. Whereas contextualisation plaques seem a good idea to me. There are few statues in Europe that don’t need one. But I do hope Hume doesn’t end up like any old slave trader.
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Travis Figg
Travis Figg
1 year ago

I don’t really have a settled opinion on statues and such in honor of Hume, so I’m not going to comment on that. However, I notice some commenters pointing out that Hume is being honored for his contributions to philosophy rather than his racism, and I wanted to make a brief comment on that.

I assume, of course, that the purpose of statues, buildings, etc. dedicated to Hume is to honor his contributions to philosophy. So I don’t disagree with that factual point. But I think there is an underlying idea that Hume’s philosophy and his racism are entirely separate. What is true is that we philosophers typically separate Hume’s philosophy from his racism, by prioritizing the reading and discussion of some works and ideas of Hume over others. Whether they are actually entirely separate is a different question, which isn’t resolved by the decisions we make regarding what to read and discuss and what not to.

We might legitimately ask:
1) Does the fact that Hume holds views we find obviously immoral suggest a problem for his theory of moral sentiments?
2) Does the fact that Hume holds views that we think there is strong evidence against suggest a problem for his epistemology?

At the end of the day we might answer one or both of these questions in the negative, but they’re worth asking. If we answer “no,” the obvious next question is “why not?” and that question strikes me as philosophically worthwhile. Report

LESLIE GLAZER
LESLIE GLAZER
1 year ago

Intent matters here. Why was the statue created and placed? In Humes case it was obviously not because of his views on race. And, it isn’t clear the above paragraphs say anything about the relevance of Hume’s philosophy, or even person or character, other than to show how even someone who is arguably brilliant in certain respects can and likely does have some stupid views , or views conditioned by their time and place. They are only human after all. As philosophers, we would also need to analyze the intent of Hume’s statement from its truth value. The sections quoted from our contemporary position would be false, and would seem offensive because of how deeply this falsehood is held to be, leaving any statement of it to be racist, bigoted, and hateful considering the history we are all aware of. But, I am not expert in what empirical evidence Hume was aware of, direct from his own experience or from secondary sources, or even what evidence there even was extant to be aware of in eighteenth century Scotland. This would be important to know before making any judgement about his immorality as such. The immorality comes not simply from holding a view, which in itself may be true or false, but in insisting on a view where the evidence is there to be seen, because of ideology or hate or greed or to puff up one’s ego. Report

Stefan Storrie
Stefan Storrie
1 year ago

Interesting discussion. I am not sure Hume’s racism is confined to Of National Characters. In his History of England, Chapter 55, when giving an account of the 1641 Irish rebellion, he appears to want to suggest that the first victim of British colonialism, the Irish, were subhuman. He refers to them as “inhuman foes”, and “inhuman barbarians” and speaks of “their inhumanity”. This does not appear to be only a reference to an accidental quality of lack of benevolence due to religion. Instead, he seems to be saying that they were inhuman because they were Irish. As Hume puts it: “Nature, which, in that rude people [the Irish], was sufficiently inclined to atrocious deeds, was farther stimulated by precept; and national prejudices empoisoned by those aversions, more deadly and incurable, which arose from an enraged superstition.” As Hume was then known as a leading historian, it is plausible that his account of the Irish was used to justify the Penal Laws, which in effect were a kind of Apartheid, forbidding intermarriage with Protestants, expulsing Catholics from Public office, ban on Catholics buying land etc. It is hard to believe that Hume would not be aware of his role in this.

Berkeley is a curious case. He was not a racist, and in the Anniversary Sermon scolded the British colonists’ “irrational contempt of the Blacks, as creatures of another Species”. Yet he was a slave owner and he appears to have been a rather enthusiastic proponent of slavery. This extended to the ‘idle poor’ in Ireland. In the Querist he asks his reader whether “other nations have not found great benefit from the use of slaves”, before asking “whether all sturdy beggars should not be seized and made slaves to the public for a certain term of years?”

Contrary to the report in the unfortunate recent Irish Times piece on Berkeley and slavery that made it in to the ‘Heap of Links’ on this webpage, Berkeley scholars *have* been trying to understands Berkeley’s position. Gaustad’s Berkeley in America, Berman’s Berkeley: Idealism and the Man, and Caffentzis’ Exciting the Industry of Mankind George Berkeley’s Philosophy of Money, are perhaps the prime examples. My own guess is that Berkeley’s firm commitment to the doctrine of Passive Obedience, in which all human being are to some extent slaves, would have some role (together with a fair dose of hypocrisy and privilege) in the account. But I am hoping that more scholarly work on these issues are underway now and look forward to learning about it.
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Robert McDougall
Robert McDougall
Reply to  Stefan Storrie
10 months ago

[Hume] appears to want to suggest that the first victim of British colonialism, the Irish, were subhuman. He refers to them as “inhuman foes”, and “inhuman barbarians” and speaks of “their inhumanity”.

In eighteenth century English, “inhuman” mostly means “cruel”. And that’s what it means in each of the instances you refer to:

An universal massacre commenced of the English, now defenceless, and passively resigned to their inhuman foes.

The generous nature of More was shocked at the recital of such enormous cruelties. He flew to ONeale’s camp; but found, that his authority, which was sufficient to excite the Irish to an insurrection, was too feeble to restrain their inhumanity.

Abandoning themselves to despair, refusing all succour, they expired; without other consolation, than that of receiving among their countrymen, the honours of a grave, which, to their slaughtered companions, had been denied by the inhuman barbarians.

And that’s what it means in its other occurrences in the fifth volume of Hume’s History of England, to look no further; as when Hume writes of the “inhuman tortures” with which the Dutch East India Company put to death the English factors (i.e., traders) on the island of “Amboyna”, or the “inhumanity” of Parliament refusing quarter to Charles I’s Irish Catholic soldiers, or the “inhuman insult” of Parliamentary soldiers spitting in Charles I’s face. We can agree, I hope, that Hume didn’t “want to suggest” that the officers of the VOC, or members of Parliament, or Parliamentary soldiers, were in fact subhuman.Report

Stefan
Stefan
Reply to  Robert McDougall
10 months ago

Many thanks for your comment Robert. Looking at the other attributions of ‘inhuman’ in the History is also helpful here. I also agree that the mere attribution of ‘inhuman’ to a group of people does not in eighteenth century English automatically means ‘subhuman’.

I don’t think that the term ‘inhuman’ can simply be equated with ‘cruel’. When Hume means to say that someone is cruel, he generally uses the word ‘cruel’. To refer someone’s ‘inhumanity’, and in particular, to refer to them as ‘inhuman barbarians’ (He does this twice in reference to the Irish in chapter 55. It would be interesting to see if this epitaph is used elsewhere in the History) seems to have a stronger connotation given the meaning, not only of the word ‘inhuman’, but also of ‘barbarian’.

What swayed me about the ‘subhuman’ reading of ‘inhuman’ in this context is, as I explain in my original comment, Hume’s meditation on the “Nature” of the Irish, which, Hume says, is “rude” and “sufficiently inclined to atrocious deeds”. It seems to me that Hume is searching for an explanation of the inhuman barbarism of the Irish and finds it in their “Nature”. The word “Nature” can of course also mean many things. In this instance Hume appears to have something like “essence” or “Nature as opposed to Nurture” in mind, because he distinguishes “Nature” specifically from “precept”, “national prejudice” and “enraged superstition”. As I see it then, Hume thinks the Irish, ‘by their very Nature’, are inhuman and barbaric, and I conclude from that that he took them to be less than properly human.Report

Robert McDougall
Robert McDougall
Reply to  Stefan
10 months ago

I don’t think that the term ‘inhuman’ can simply be equated with ‘cruel’. When Hume means to say that someone is cruel, he generally uses the word ‘cruel’.

English has synonyms! Though perhaps not exact ones; “inhuman” is generally stronger than “cruel”.

Nature, which, in that rude people [the Irish], was sufficiently inclined to atrocious deeds …

Yes, this could plausibly be taken to mean that the Irish differ in nature from other peoples. But a different interpretation is possible, that the Irish inclination to atrocity was the effect of nature mediated by “rudeness”, or rather, not mediated by cultivation. And “rudeness” is a mutable attribute&emdash;nurture not nature. So we have, in Stanley’s proof text, the reference to “the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient GERMANS”; the qualifying “ancient” implying that rude and barbarous peoples are not condemned by nature to remain such.

This interpretation fits better with other passages in Hume. In his essay Of National Characters, already cited, he argues that, among “whites”, at least, differences in national character are the effect of “moral”, that is, social, causes; it’s only when he casts his view as far abroad as “the negroes” that he is “apt to suspect” a difference in nature. In chapter XLIV of his History, he blames the “rudeness and ignorance” of the Irish, or rather its continuance while other European nations were improving, on the “rapine and insolence” and “ill-judged tyranny” of the English; so that:

By all this imprudent conduct of England, the natives of its dependant state remained still in that abject condition, into which the northern and western parts of Europe were sunk, before they received civility and slavery from the refined policy and irresistible bravery of Rome. Even at the end of the sixteenth century, when every christian nation was cultivating with ardour every civil art of life, that island, lying in a temperate climate, enjoying a fertile soil, accessible in its situation, possessed of innumerable harbours, was still, notwithstanding these advantages, inhabited by a people, whose customs and manners approached nearer those of savages than of barbarians.

That is, the Irish were barbarous, or even savage, not by nature, but because English misgovernment kept them so.Report

Stefan
Stefan
Reply to  Robert McDougall
10 months ago

Thank you for pushing this benign interpretation of Hume’s approach to the Irish people Robert. It is challenging me to think through the issues is more detail, which is much appreciated. However, I am not convinced.

You disagree with my criticism, arguing that ‘Nature’ should be given a non-essentialist reading because it is qualified by the term “rude people”. One meaning of the word ‘rude’ is ‘ignorant and uncultivated’, and assuming that this is the use of the word that Hume always intends when speaking of the Irish (instead of one if its many other meanings, for example ‘roughly made’), it indicates that ‘Nature’ is here a mutable nature that is dependent on contingent factors.

You then point out that Hume connects this rudeness to the tyranny of English rule in the 1500s. At one point you say that Hume “blames the ‘rudeness and ignorance’ of the Irish, or rather its continuance” on the English rule.

The two options are quite different. If Hume *blames the very existence of the ‘rudeness’* of the Irish people on English rule, then he is making the progressive point that England is suppressing Irish cultural and moral self-realisation. If, on the other hand, Hume means that English rule has simply *allowed for the continued incivility* of the Irish, then the question remains: does Hume think that Irish incivility/inhumanity and barbarism, on his estimate, is exceptional?

As I understand it, you seem to favour the more progressive reading as you conclude that “the Irish were barbarous, or even savage, not by nature, but because English misgovernment kept them so.” If this is the case, then we should expect Hume to, at the very least, not single out the Irish as, from time immemorial, particularly savage. Because if this is his view, then he cannot also hold that English rule is the reason for the particular savagery.

But Hume clearly thinks that the Irish from time immemorial are particularly savage and ‘inhumane’. In Ch. 9 of the History he states: “The Irish, from the beginning of time, had been buried in the most profound barbarism and ignorance; and as they were never conquered or even invaded by the Romans, from whom all the western world derived its civility, they continued still in the most rude state of society, and were distinguished by those vices alone, to which human nature, not tamed by education or refinement by laws, is for even subject.”

In the same chapter: “They [the Irish] had felt the invasions of the Danes and the other northern tribes; but these inroads, which has spread barbarism in other parts of Europe, tended rather to improve the Irish”.

It is hard to understand how a leading historian could write something so extraordinarily inaccurate. Latin was taught at schools at a high level in Ireland from at least the 5th century AD, and there was extensive cultural interchange between Irish and Roman culture (rather than conquest) in what was on any account a golden age of Irish society. To take one example: The ‘The Book of Kells’, (an illuminated manuscript Gospel book in Latin), which is one of the great cultural artefacts of the time, was somehow kept safe in Kells Abbey, even though the Abbey was plundered and pillaged by Vikings many times in the 9th century.

At any rate, Hume clearly states that the Irish from “the beginning of time” was profoundly barbarous and ignorant. It is hard to make sense of any of this, if we do not assume that Hume had an extraordinarily prejudiced view of Irish inferiority, i.e., Hume’s view of the Irish is racist.Report

Craig Burley
Craig Burley
10 months ago

It is not judging figures from the past by the standards of the present to decline to bestow further honours upon them in the present. Hume is a present figure for the purposes of asking whether we should honour him by naming buildings after him in the present. To decline to apply our standards to him is to relax all standards.Report

Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
10 months ago

>To decline to apply our standards to him is to relax all standards.

I take it that part of what’s at issue here is that if “the standards of the present” are used to remove honors from Hume then, assuming we value consistency in our normative frameworks, we should remove honors from anyone who is at least as bad as Hume was. Goodbye Kant! Goodbye Berkeley! Hasta la vista Socrates! In fact, we’ll be hard-pressed to find a single historical figure that meets our contemporary standards of normative excellence because, frankly, I don’t think anyone alive today meets them either. So we must either accept this or treat it as a reductio.

My honest thought is that we shouldn’t be in the business of commemorating *people* in the first place. People are messy, imperfect, and always bound to disappoint you eventually. Anyone who loves On Liberty but hasn’t checked out Mill’s “A few words on non-intervention” is in for some really racist positions on ‘barbarous’ peoples. Commemorating Mill (or Aristotle or Hume or Confucius, Laozi, Mencius, Avicenna and the other pillars of Philosophy) is going to be problematic if we’re being consistent with ourselves. Commemorating On Liberty, on the other hand, or the Inquiry or the Phaedo? I’m not sure that’s anywhere near as problematic.

Will everyone be happy if we do this? There are definitely some who seem happily willing to engage in the genetic fallacy and destroy all of these works but I don’t think that that’s what these student protesters are asking for, at least not in this case. Report

Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
10 months ago

I’ll pause to add the seemingly deep irony of renaming the Hume Tower 40 George Square. By all accounts the square built in 1766 and named in honor of King George III. Given that George III used his vast institutional power to fight abolition and support slavery to the bitter end. George III, unlike Hume, was most definitely not silent about slavery nor was he silent about race. Somehow, this seems far worse, to me, than leaving it as the Hume Tower and if this was done so that students wouldn’t be reminded of power structures that historically marginalized them….oops?!Report

Duncan Richter
Duncan Richter
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
10 months ago

“By all accounts the square [was] built in 1766 and named in honor of King George III.” Not quite all accounts. The university claims the square was named after its builder’s brother: http://ourhistory.is.ed.ac.uk/index.php/George_SquareReport

Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
Reply to  Duncan Richter
10 months ago

I’m happy to be corrected about this (genuinely surprised actually). I’ll have to look into George-the-brother’s beliefs about race and slavery, just to be sure then. Report

Mark Silcox
Mark Silcox
10 months ago

One question I’m a bit surprised not to have seen addressed here is why philsophers should care even a tiny little bit about who gets commemorated with statues and who does not. If any of statues in question were even remotely exemplary pieces of art, I could see the point of treating this as some sort of deeply urgent controversy, of the same sort that one might have about, say, whether or not to show one’s students Birth of a Nation or teach them Aristotle’s Poltics. But are we really in this crazy game because we hope that some day some dopey civic-leader type will chuck up a lumpy rednition of us in brass in the publc square, for future generations of clambering todlers to skin their knees upon? Should we worry about our any aspect of the “commemoration” of our intellectual heroes other than, say, making sure their books stay in print?Report

Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
Reply to  Mark Silcox
10 months ago

Mark,

Not claiming to speak for others but in my case I care because this isn’t just about statues. Removing a state has expressive functions that go far beyond moving some bronze around or changing its shape. That seems too reductive. By the same toke we can ask why we care about adding new commemorative monuments to the Confederacy, they’re only lumps of bronze after all?!

But I think we both know that the removal of the state or the changing of the name is about signalling a commitment to certain values and it makes perfect sense for philosophers to care about those values and to assessing them for consistency and cogency. There will never be a statue of Caligula’s Goat in the world but that’s not why I’m invested anyway. Report

Alfred MacDonald
10 months ago

either name buildings with semi-arbitrary strings of numbers and letters, or fuck off. every person a building can honor will eventually be problematic. commit all the way to the logical conclusion or stop wasting everyone’s time. Report

Argon G
Argon G
Reply to  Alfred MacDonald
10 months ago

Why do you think it is a forced choice between alphanumeric strings and time wasting?
Debating whom to honor is a valuable cultural activity. Hume’s time has come & gone. We should debate the next honoree, even if the next honoree’s time will come to pass like Hume’s. Surely it is valuable to honor them until their time runs out. Don’t you agree?Report

Alfred MacDonald
Reply to  Argon G
10 months ago

no, the long-term durability of maps and the viability of of people able to get to where they’re trying to go is more important than honoring some guy, and updating buildings to a new dude every so often is a timesink in and of itself. either we do names permanently or we do Building PHIL1, PHIL1-A, PHIL2 and so on. I’m sincerely, dead-ass serious in favor of either option. what I don’t want is this half-measure handwringing every time a group needs a pet project. it’s a phenomenal waste of time. give it a permanent name so we can always find the place, whether that’s a person or a string of characters, then move on. Report

Argon G
Argon G
Reply to  Alfred MacDonald
10 months ago

The long term viability of maps? Updating maps is electronic. It’s not like people use paper maps & atlases. I feel comfortable discounting “the long term viability of maps” as a non-issue.

I think a debate over whom to honor is time well spent. This debate asks us to acknowledge our values, survey recent history, and identify an exemplar of those values. That’s good. It helps us maintain cultural and personal integrity by forcing us to do something risky: tell the world whom we think is worth honoring.

Please don’t misunderstand me, tho. I’m not against PHIL-1, PHIL-2, etc. Those are adequate names, too. I’m concerned that the process of picking such boring names leaves value on the table. We won’t have to self-reflect. Report

Alfred MacDonald
Reply to  Argon G
10 months ago

“This debate asks us to acknowledge our values, survey recent history, and identify an exemplar of those values”

well, I would agree with you if I thought this is what was happening, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening. it really seems like a significant subset of person sees “[person] building” and then think “do they deserve it?” first and foremost. overwhelmingly, I think the majority of people do not care either way, nor do they ever think about. and, finally, another subset (I don’t know how significant) fits what you’re describing. a lot more thought seems to be put into this demonizing thought process than a reflective one, even though on paper it should be reflective.

this also answers the “why we can’t be trusted with people-buildings” question below, I think. on paper, we should be able to reflect on why a building is named a certain way, but how much does this actually happen relative to some kind of kneejerk demonization? I’d rather just cut out the kneejerk stuff.Report

Argon G
Argon G
Reply to  Alfred MacDonald
10 months ago

The practice of renaming buildings after new honorees is valuable when done well. It seems you and I both agree on that.

If the question of whether the University of Edinburgh is acting appropriately is just a matter of whether the University is doing the renaming of Hume Tower well or poorly, then it seems like the question can be settled by hearing from representatives from the University. Is thoughtful reflection happening? If yes, then what they are doing is valuable. If no, then not.

I’m willing to trust the University of Edinburgh and its constituents to do the process well, using thoughtful reflection. You seem generally pessimistic about whether the process of renaming Hume Tower involves thoughtful reflection.

I’m interested to hear more from you. What would it take for the University of Edinburgh to receive your blessing? What would the University have to demonstrate or show to get you to agree that their process of renaming Hume Tower is appropriately thoughtful and reflective?Report

Alfred MacDonald
Reply to  Argon G
10 months ago

seriously man. we do this with apartment buildings all the time. if someone’s drunk friends can find building 11-2 when getting pizza, we can manage as philosophers. Report

LESLIE GLAZER
LESLIE GLAZER
10 months ago

if we canceled and censored every person who had ever said or believed something misogynist, racist, or who believed their nationality, religion, culture, or ideology was superior to whatever was seen as Other to them, well, then, my guess is no one would be left. Humes statement {i believe it was even a footnote] seems more ignorant that hateful. Maybe he should have/could have known better. I don’t know. Better to ignore stupidity. Or if one is actually worried someone will become convinced by the ignorant idea, then demonstrate its ignorance. Report

Alfred MacDonald
10 months ago

maybe my last comment came off as unnecessary flippant or aggressive, but I’m quite serious about this: if we can do Building 11, Building 12A and so on for apartment complexes, we can do this for big important philosophy buildings. it’s debatable that humans can be trusted with people-buildings, but we have verifiable proof that even the drunkest students can figure out where Building 9 Floor 2 is. let’s just rip the band-aid off and use the apartment system for everything. Report

Argon G
Argon G
Reply to  Alfred MacDonald
10 months ago

Of course we can can give all buildings generic names. Nobody is arguing we can’t. Clearly, nobody wants to use universal generic names. The mere fact that we can use generics doesn’t give us reason to use them. Still, I feel like my point isn’t landing.

The process of cultural development is valuable. Debating whom to honor is part of the process of cultural development. So, debating whom to honor is valuable.

Debating whom to honor is valuable even if after 500 years we want to reopen the debate. As society’s values change, we should want to represent our values in the world. Part of that representation exists in names. Names are, in some sense, an aesthetic object.

You said something interesting that, I think, I might not agree with. What do you mean that “humans cannot be trusted with people-buildings”? I don’t understand that locution. I don’t trust a toddler with a gun, because of the significance of the risk. I don’t trust a drunk with a car, because of the risk. But naming a building after someone doesn’t risk anything. We can always just re-name the building in a worst case scenario. Could you elaborate what you mean by that phrase, humans can’t be trusted with people-buildings?Report

Edward Moad
Edward Moad
10 months ago

I think most of you miss the point with your faux universalist framing of the issue. Its not a question of whether we should “cancel everyone who is not perfect.” If someone threatens or attacks me I target that person for takedown, not “everyone who is imperfect.”
Brown students facing honored figures in society advocating their disenfranchisement are targeting their enemies. Its perfectly rational and requires no general commitment to cancel everyone “less than perfect.”
As far as slippery slope arguments go, well yes. The more power in society non-white people are able to organize for themselves the more influence they will have on the culture. This in turn will result in more power, etc. I wish them the best. Who knows what the buildings will be named, who the statues will be, and what will be on the curriculum in the future.
The white supremacist world order did bring a number of valuable advances – chiefly the conditions of its own demise, including a faith in perpetual progress. Now its time for some of that – a new and better culture for the future and letting go of idols.Report

Tommy J. Curry
Tommy J. Curry
10 months ago

The idea behind the renaming of the building is not simply about the personal views of Hume, but the role such views played in launching and sustaining programs of empire and anti-Black racism. As I have argued similarly with an eye to suffragism as well, the historic role that anti-Blackness and colonialism have in the construction of Western knowledge cannot remain peripheral to how we understand and evaluate figures. I believe this is a great showing by the University of Edinburgh. Members of the department certainly study and research Hume so taking his name off of a building merely signals that the university does not in fact support racist slave traders or thinkers who endorsed a worldview requiring the inferiority of Black peoples. Report

Pete
Pete
Reply to  Tommy J. Curry
10 months ago

“As I have argued similarly with an eye to suffragism as well, the historic role that anti-Blackness and colonialism have in the construction of Western knowledge cannot remain peripheral to how we understand and evaluate figures.”

This comment, especially with respect to the role of anti-Blackness as it relates to “Western knowledge”* is something I hear quite often these days.

It makes almost no sense to me…

If we are talking the entire body of knowledge generated by Europeans over the last several centuries (we’ll limit it to this period, especially as this is the timeframe of the emergence of modern notions of racism)**, then it’s clear that the overwhelming majority of it has absolutely nothing to do with “anti-Blackness” whatsoever. And if it did, I would expect us to see substantial percentages of works with references and footnotes to Black Africans and their subordinate status to White Europeans. I don’t see any evidence of this. I see evidence of racist thoughts written down in certain works, but I’ve never seen good evidence of these thoughts as instrumental to an understanding of, say, Hume’s comments on causality or personal identity. To add to this, the vast majority of White settlers to new regions of the world didn’t give a shred of thought to populations of Black people and their supposed superiority (or inferiority) to them. This continual harping on “anti-Blackness” as being a foundational component to “Western thought” makes about as much sense (actually way, way less sense, since religion was embedded in society at the time) as commenting on how modern scientific practice and notions of liberalism and democracy should be suspect because Europe was a center of Christendom for centuries. Yes, it was. No, the theology of Christianity can be safely jettisoned without injury to the Enlightenment ideals one might want to keep (even if, as some historians might suggest, religious elements like “protestant work ethic” helped these revolutions in thought occur).

* There are not “knowledges” out there, only knowledge simpliciter (I am here assuming “knowledge” is a precise enough concept, whether it be theorized through JTB, JTB + no defeaters, as a primitive notion that can’t be further analyzed, etc.). If an indigenous tribe in the Americas, or in some part of central Africa, happens to understand a plant’s ability to heal someone of a certain ailment (without having to understand the biochemistry involved), then they have that knowledge before anyone else does. Once others acquire that knowledge, they will now “know” something that they didn’t before. It’s the same knowledge. It’s not “indigenous Amazonian knowledge” vs “white European cis hetero knowledge”, and the very idea that people are beginning to talk in this manner is uncomfortably similar to the era of philosophy a bit more than a century back, when certain philosophical ideas were considered “German” or “Jewish” or whatever the hell else.

** Racist (or at least proto-racist) thinking seems to have been with us for some time. Discussions of racism are very often US-centric and tend to focus (rightfully so for those living and existing here) on racist ideas as they relate to this region of the world. But not having a global awareness of racist tendencies ends up leading to commentary about how “white people invented racism!” and other examples of what I like to call “candy ass thinking”. A couple of examples that might be shocking to some readers, since they don’t even appear in many books that purport to be about the history and genesis of racism:
1) Imperial China (circa 100 AD): Wusun people being referred to as “barbarians who have green eyes and red hair” (they are then compared to macaques based on this description)
2) Al-Jahiz: This Afro-Arab writer penned what is (to my knowledge, but anyone out there that knows better can chime in) the earliest extant piece of racist theorizing in history, titled “The Superiority of Blacks over Whites” (written in part it seems as a response to the brutality East Africans were subject to during the Arab Slave Trade)Report

Bruce Buchan
Bruce Buchan
10 months ago

Thanks for the article. I’ve been moved to write one myself to provide an Australian perspective: “The Hum(e)an face of Enlightenment: On history and racism” Its been published on the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s ‘Religion and Ethics Report’. You can find it here: https://www.abc.net.au/religion/david-hume-racism-and-the-demands-of-history/12673740

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