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.

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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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