Trinity College to Rename Its Berkeley Library
Trinity College Dublin’s main library has been known as the Berkeley Library, after philosopher George Berkeley, since its opening in 1967, but its name will now change, owing to Berkeley’s ownership of slaves and his writing of a pamphlet suggesting slaves would be more obedient if baptised.
The college said in a statement it will retain a stained-glass window commemorating the philosopher, whose name was given to the Berkeley Library and to the U.S. city of Berkeley, in what it said was a “nuanced approach” to criticism of one of its most famous scholars.
“George Berkeley’s enormous contribution to philosophical thought is not in question,” Trinity’s Provost Linda Doyle said in a statement that confirmed Berkeley’s work would still be taught at the university.
“However, it is also clear that he was both an owner of enslaved people and a theorist of slavery and racial discrimination, which is in clear conflict with Trinity’s core values,” said Doyle, a reference to four slaves Berkeley bought to work on his Rhode Island estate in 1730-31.
The Irish Times reports:
Trinity College Dublin said it would “dename the Berkeley Library while adopting a retain-and-explain approach to a stained-glass window commemorating George Berkeley. Portraits depicting Berkeley will be assessed in the future by a new overall College policy on artwork, while the academic Gold Medals memorialising Berkeley will be reviewed by the relevant academic department.”
A new name for the library has not been decided upon.
In 2020, Joe Humphreys, who covers philosophy for The Irish Times, reported on Berkeley’s slave owning (and other things about him, such as his use of “rhetorical nastiness that would make a seasoned internet troll blush”) here.
Berkeley has also been controversial at Yale, where a college is named after him.
UPDATE (5/8/23): The New York Times reports on the removal of Berkeley’s name from the library.
As far as I remember it hasn’t been known as the Berkeley since 1967; it was only in (I think) 1973 that it got that name.
My memories of Trinno are fond but hazy, so I’m happy to be corrected on this.Report
Berkeley, CA next!Report
As Clare Moriarty pointed out in conversation with Joe Humphreys of the Irish Times (https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/what-to-do-about-george-berkeley-trinity-figurehead-and-slave-owner-1.4277555), when thinking about Berkeley, CA, we should remember that “names outgrow the associations of their initial baptisms.”
Similarly, think of the connotations of the name “Charles III”. These depend far more on what Charles III has done with his life, than on what Charles II or Charles I did – even if the later Charleses were named in honor of earlier ones.
The residents of Berkeley have changed the connotations of their city’s name. We risk undoing this positive, necessary shift, if we reframe the name of the city as a monument to an expansionist slaveowner, so that we can then criticize the name. That is not sensible activism, it’s just selfishness.Report
* we should remember that sometimes “names outgrow the associations of their initial baptisms.” (I’m not saying that the university library’s name is an example of this.)Report
Interestingly, after re-editing E.T. then later regretting his politically correct re-edits, Steven Spielberg said that “All our movies are a kind of a signpost of where we were when we made them, what the world was like… For me, it is sacrosanct. It’s our history, it’s our cultural heritage. I do not believe in censorship in that way.” Maybe Spielberg is wise…
“Maybe Spielberg is wise…”
Maybe so. It seems to me his point is that making the changes solely for the sake of being politically correct isn’t worthwhile. Perhaps there’s wisdom in that.
Your point seems to be that Trinity would do well to heed Spielberg’s wisdom. If the name change is solely for the sake of being politically correct, then you make a good point. But Trinity cites a conflict in values, which might but might not be a way of citing political correctness. And if the name change is due to a value more important than being politically correct, you haven’t made a good point.Report
I agree with Spielberg but don’t think that’s relevant to the question of namings-in-tribute.Report
The library has been called Berkeley for a long time, and no one is attempting to prevent this fact from being known, so I don’t think it’s censorship, if that’s what you were proposing. The library is even taking a “retain-and-explain approach to a stained-glass window commemorating George Berkeley” (https://www.irishtimes.com/ireland/education/2023/04/26/trinity-college-dublin-to-dename-berkeley-library-due-to-founders-association-with-slavery/).
For thousands of years, people have chiseled off of buildings the names of leaders who fell from grace, and tried to stamp all traces of them out of the historical record, a practice known as damnatio memoriae. Today, lowering the prominence of a previously revered person – for instance, by removing their name from buildings, their face from banknotes, their statue from the plaza – while ensuring that their life is still remembered and discussed is not an example of this ancient practice.Report
It’s one thing for an artistic product like a movie, which people occasionally watch when they choose to, to remain a signpost of where we were when that thing was made. It’s another thing for a place that people actively use in their daily life, like a library, to remain that kind of signpost.Report
Well, of course, I’m sad, and I must confess that, even though I have known about this for sometime, it hasn’t stopped me from working on Berkeley. (I guess demanding moral rectitude from the people you work on may be quite demanding.) I was interested that in the Humphrey’s piece, Claire Moriarty mentioned something that is quite often ignored in this context, that Berkeley’s attitude toward the Irish peasantry was also quite unattractive, to say the least. I would have thought that this failing was more relevant to TCD than what happened in Rhode Island. (PS I disagree with Claire’s reading of Berkeley’s views on the Trinity.Report
I think you should credit Clare Moriarty (TCD) not Joe Humphreys for the quote on Berkeley trolling – she was the interviewee for that columnReport
Indeed, and this is now an academic publication: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17496977.2021.1963933?journalCode=rihr20Report
Now that TCD have decided that Berkeley “sought to advance ideology in support of slavery” etc, have they informed the Berkeley Institute in Bermuda of this fact? Surely they will have to change their name and correct their history?
For context here is a snippet from an article from their website titled: “Berkeley: doing its best for 120 years”:
Is that false? The only thing it says about Berkeley is that he wanted to establish a school but didn’t due to lack of funds. It doesn’t say anything about his views or actions re slavery. (I haven’t read the whole article but this is the bit you chose to quote).
More generally, when you say they’d ‘have to…’ do various things, that’s presumably only if they agree with TCD’s action, which they may quite reasonably not.Report
I think institutions can make decisions autonomously. When those are educational institutions, such as a university, they should do so in consultation with the relevant stakeholders (e.g., staff and students). That’s what Trinity have done, and it may be what other institutions choose to do. It’s less about what they ‘have to do’ (there’s no law or code) but more about what they (the institution and it’s stakeholders) wish to do.Report
I believe it says a bit more than that. The relation of the Berkeley Institute’s mission and aim is to Berkeley’s dream. They speak of ‘reviving’ and then finally state that they ‘acieved their dream of a new school for all’, which is “Berkeley’s dream of establishing an interracial school”.
I don’t believe they have to do anything. It was an attempt at satire. The point was to show that there is a different point of view from that expressed by TCD, and that it might be relevant for the assessment of Berkeley’s legacy, not least given the who and where of the Berkeley Institute. As far as I can tell they were never consulted on Berkeley’s Legacy so I thought it was worthwhile to mention it. Their assessment of Berkeley seems broadly in line with the public submission by Professor Nicolas Canny.
Christopher Lasch long ago correctly identified the narcissism manifest in this and other such endeavors we’ve seen over the past few years.
Our age is narcissist in the sense that it sees everything as a mirror of itself and has no interest in those worlds that don’t reflect its own image. As is the case with the infant who has no sense of a recalcitrant reality that doesn’t immediately satisfy his felt lack, the inability to recognize and accept not-self — the unchangeable past, for example — is simultaneously the inability to recognize and accept self. In brief, we have no sense of ourselves.
Thus the worst part of the current news: the top-down installation of a “new overall College policy on artwork.” Without a proper sense of the reality of the past, we lack a proper sense of ourselves. And, lacking that, we are powerless when opulently credentialed managers, bureaucrats, and administrators dictate our sense of ourselves to us, telling us what our desires should be, how we should interpret artworks, what personages are worthy of awe.
The over-administered life, the over-managed soul — this is emancipatory justice, I guess.Report
One motive for renaming the library is, I think, empathy for people who lived long ago, especially the individuals that George Berkeley purchased as slaves in 1729.
Are you saying that narcissism is a secret, stronger motive at play here?
Nearly any attempt to do the right thing – from helping a neighbor to speaking up online for what we believe – could, in principle, be suspected of narcissism, because these deeds often score us points with others, and because they always reflect our own values. Do you think the library’s decision is unusually suspect?Report
(1) In his books “The Culture of Narcissism” and “The Minimal Self,” Lasch defends a definition of narcissism that is different from the popular definition. By his account, it does not mean selfish or vain or attention-seeking, as you imply it means. In fact, according to his argument, narcissism is the manifestation not of an inflated sense of self, but of an impoverished one.
I explained this, though necessarily telegraphically. The second paragraph of my comment is a summary of Lasch’s definition. Nothing in what I say there (or elsewhere in my comment) has anything at all to do with “scoring points with others,” as you say.
Narcissism is not a motive: it’s pattern of regarding, treating, addressing, thinking, feeling, acting — a way of life. And a deficient one at that. Accordingly, I don’t think it is a motive at play in the renaming decision.
(2) In accordance with my comment, I submit that renaming the library does not “reflect” our values. It certainly matches our values: we all empathize with slaves and consider slavery an atrocity. But it’s not a reflection of our values.
What it’s a reflection of is the worldview of the professional classes. Their badges pinned neatly to their lapels, they all-too-happily accept the authority we grant them to label us as deficient and in need of amelioration, of “care.” We are deficient in empathy, or understanding, or psychic security, or moral clarity. And so we become clients in need of the ministrations of officers, counselors, managers, sensitivity readers, DEI trainers, and on and on — all so they can explain to us who we are.Report
So about these credentialed professional classes who oppress “us”… I’m just wondering which blue collar profession you hold? You’re what a long haul truck driver? A janitor? A waiter? A Wal-Mart checkout clerk? No, no even though my trucker uncles religiously read Daily Nous and all the other philosophy blogs as do the kids I went to high school who clerk or wait tables that just doesn’t seem quite right for some reason. So let me guess again… are you perhaps a philosophy professor or at least a guy with a PhD?
Sarcasm aside you don’t have to like this but come up with your own reasons and don’t pull that tired right wing trick of pretending to speak for the oppressed worker. It’s dumb, and those of us who actually have working class backgrounds find it beyond annoying.Report
I hear you: the only thing more distressing than the American right’s pretending to care about the working class is the left’s not even pretending to care!
Nothing I’ve said is meant to pit the professional class against the working class. (I see, though, how it might seem so: I referred to “the professional class.”) I just saw something that seemed to be precisely what Lasch was on about: another move in the infantilization game, whose players are clients and professionals, not working class and the PMC. (To be sure, though, anyone, including one of the working class, who desires higher education should care about how infantilizing it has become.)
I don’t speak for the working class. I don’t speak for anyone. I’m just describing a pattern that someone more interesting than I has seen and that, once described, has become salient to me too. I was part of the pattern, until I opted out and went back to being a member of the working class, into which I was born and to which I was happy to return.
I comment here because I think philosophy is valuable — though I think its current professionalized form is a corruption — and because I care about the preservation of that value. I just don’t have the constitution to change it!Report
Oh geez. And all my “we” talk. That’s misleading too. I meant: we who are categorized as the client, as opposed to the professional who categorizes us as deficient.Report
It is possible to acknowledge his profound contributions and still say “yeah let’s not name the feckin’ library after him.”Report
We should really stop honoring people, all of whom will have fallen short of deserving the honor because they either believed or did things in their own time that we disvale today or because eventually, in eyes of future persons with different values, will have done something beyond the pale to them.
We should, instead, double-down on honoring ideas and values when we bestow a name onto a building or monument. I’d rather have a library honoring free inquiry, humility, or even audacity than one honoring a flawed human vessel.Report
But like you said, future values (and ideas) may be quite different from ours, just like some past values of Berkeley are different from ours. Surely we can honor those who have achieved great things by our current measures, and leave it to future generations to decide what they do with these in their time.Report
I believe the U.S. is already in accord with your preference, where custom dictates that our great halls of learning be named in honor of that universal and enduring human value, money, whether obtained by donation or sale. Perhaps Trinity College will adopt this enlightened practice; I hope one day to visit there and see for myself the beautiful Sackler Room in the lovely Depends Library, named for that great humanitarian family and that essential product, respectively. Or rather, named for their money.Report
Kapnisto is absolutely correct. MIT has a Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer. Maybe in 100 years our offspring will find that despicable (maybe sometime sooner). I am sure every elite university is in the same boat. My, aren’t we wise and principled.Report
Hmm … These kinds of actions always lead me to wonder whether future humans (if we somehow manage to survive) will rename institutions and take down statues of individuals and groups who systematically or willfully raised, abused, owned, killed, or even consumed intelligent non-human animals when there were viable and sustainable alternatives. Hopefully, we will at least someday wake up to the horrors we inflict on non-humans and the lies and self-deception we engage in to rationalize that. It’s easy to judge and moralize about the past and other people’s lives; it’s much harder to gain an honest insight into the present and our own lives.Report
@David Jones – are you suggested there would be something bad about people in the future doing that? If anything, that worry by present people might them more honestly examine their actions in anticipation of how they may be judged in the futureReport