The Renaming of Hume Tower Reconsidered


“We review the available documentary evidence used to support current attacks on Hume’s moral character and, specifically, the twin charges that he supported slavery and was a racist…. Hume is not guilty on either charge. He did not support slavery and he cannot be regarded as a ‘racist’ in any modern sense of that word.”

So write David Ashton and Peter Hutton last month in The Herald, in a piece based on their longer consideration of the matter in Scottish Affairs.

In 2020 a successful campaign was launched to rename what was then called Hume Tower at the University of Edinburgh in response to allegations that Hume expressed racist views and supported slavery.

Ashton and Hutton write:

On the question of slavery, we show that Hume was an implacable and vocal opponent. In his collected works, Hume uses the word ‘slavery’ in 89 separate places and, whenever he makes a judgement about it, it is invariably critical. For him slavery was unjustifiable on any account, and he would have strongly opposed any attempt to use racial differences in order to justify it. To argue otherwise, is simply perverse.

Claims that Hume wrote a letter encouraging Lord Hertford to purchase a plantation, previously used to support the charge that Hume endorsed slavery, is a misinterpretation, they write:

Hume had been asked to write on behalf of Sir George Colebrook to tell Hertford of an opportunity to invest in a plantation. Hume’s only involvement was as an intermediary, communicating the interest of one party to another. At no point does he express an opinion as to whether Hertford should invest.

They note that the allegation of Hume’s racism stems from a footnote in which Hume writes “I am apt to suspect the negroes… to be naturally inferior to the whites.”  They say that “This is not only shocking but deeply puzzling, because it is completely at odds with what he has to say elsewhere in his published works,” and try to “account for this apparent anomaly.”

Here’s what they say:

Hume’s essay, to which the footnote is attached, was addressing culturally diverse and geographically separated human societies and their progress from early man to fully developed civilisations. His use of the word ‘inferior’ in this context, was not intended to differentiate between individuals in terms of their human value and rights (which he had already confirmed were equal in his view), but the development of their civilisation in terms of European values— especially with regard to written historical records. Some may see this as prejudice on Hume’s part but, if so, it is only in this limited sense and it does not amount to racism. Why not?

Modern definitions of racism have at their core, a justification for a disparity in power—the domination of one individual or group over another. But it is precisely this disparity in power to which Hume was implacably opposed. For this reason, Hume’s comments in the footnote, whilst seemingly prejudiced through 21st century eyes, cannot, by definition, be racist.

Whether others will accept their distinction between “limited prejudice” and “modern racism”, or, if they do, accord the distinction enough significance to deem the renaming of the tower “unjust,” as the authors do, remains to be seen.

(via Leiter)


Related: “Statues, Monuments, & Philosophy“, “The Ethics of Honoring“, “Edinburgh’s Philosophers on the Renaming of Hume Tower

Beyond the Ivory Tower. Workshop for academics on writing short pieces for wide audiences on big questions. Taking place October 18th to 19th. Application deadline July 30th. Funding provided.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

40 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jan
Jan
5 months ago

Hume doesn’t support slavery, but is fine with encouraging someone else to profit from it? I’m not sure I see a needle to even thread there.

Gremlin
Gremlin
Reply to  Jan
5 months ago

For what it’s worth, that characterization of the situation is explicitly what Ashton and Hutton claim to rule out.

Jan
Jan
Reply to  Gremlin
5 months ago

Show me the needle.

Marcus
Marcus
Reply to  Jan
5 months ago

The text from the report, as quoted above, specifically notes that Hume provide no opinion on the matter. He only communicated one person’s interest to another. There was no ‘encouragement’.

You can still take issue with the idea that he’d be willing to be an intermediary on the matter. Whatever. But, based on the information presented above, you cannot say it was ‘encouragement’.

Jan
Jan
Reply to  Marcus
5 months ago

Hume foresaw that serving as an intermediary would likely increase the likelihood that an investment would be made. He would have been asked to do so, had the person who made the initial request thought otherwise. Again, the hair you’re trying to split is just too thin to support a distinction needed to defend Hume here.

Like all of us, great philosophers are human beings. Human beings make mistakes. Why is this so hard to accept? I find this baffling.

Jan
Jan
Reply to  Jan
5 months ago

“would not have been asked”

Marc Champagne
5 months ago

There is the issue of what Hume’s views were and the issue of whether this is even relevant (his eventual fame, for example, stemmed from other arguments). The defense shared here does not challenge the idea that purges are good, only that this particular thinker should be spared the purge. If so, then I cannot help but think that the most important battle has already been lost…

Last edited 5 months ago by Marc Champagne
Jan
Jan
Reply to  Marc Champagne
5 months ago

Hmmm…I’d taken this post to be about

  1. Whether Hume had racist views
  2. Whether there is evidence that Hume supported slavery.
  3. Whether Hume should be honored with a building named after him.

and not 4. whether we should read Hume’s philosophy or whether he is rightly famous for his philosophical contributions.

That’s a change of topic. We should be able to talk about 1-3 without weighing in on 4.

But perhaps I’m misreading you, Mark, and you have something else in mind when you wrote of a “purge”. I would be interested to hear more about what the important battle is!

Animal Symbolicum
Reply to  Marc Champagne
5 months ago

I take your point. But lying in the background of the defense shared here is a principle that might prove relevant to the most important battle (if it has not already been lost).

That principle — radical, deranged-sounding — is something like due process: maybe we should take time to find, discuss, and assess the relevant evidence before condemning someone for being racist, misogynist, transphobic, etc.

It might turn out that Hume was indeed racist. It might turn out that we don’t have enough evidence to conclude either way. But at least something approaching a fair hearing would’ve transpired.

Gorm
Reply to  Animal Symbolicum
5 months ago

Next you are going to tell us maybe dentists are trying to fix our teeth, rather than cause us pain.

Enrico Matassa
Enrico Matassa
Reply to  Marc Champagne
5 months ago

So you’re equating taking someone’s name off of a building with a political murder spree like the sort Stalin or Mao used to go in for? If not, then talking of purges is misleading. If, on the other hand, you do think the two morally on par I’d suggest your thinking on this issue might be at the very least a bit muddled.
And if we’re actually talking about naming buildings and not political murder it’s pretty clear that there are some thinkers we wouldn’t want to honor with a building or statue, and if there name were on a building we’d want to take it off ASAP. That’s not even censorship or canceling. I actually think Heidegger is one of the great philosophers of the 20th century. I’d also think it wildly inappropriate if any German university had a building named after a literal Nazi like him no matter how great some of his works might be. He ought to be on many class syllabi. That doesn’t mean his name ought to be on the building those classes are taught in.

On the Market
5 months ago

Having visited the building formerly known as David Hume Tower — an aesthetic insult to an otherwise beautiful cityscape — I wonder whether both sides in this could not consider the present situation a happy compromise. Hume is neither honored by having his name on *a* building nor dishonored by having his name on *this* building.

Jason Brennan
Reply to  On the Market
5 months ago

More strongly, we know now that the University of Edinburgh is the kind of school that makes rash decisions that sound good to ignorant and misinformed grandstanders and angry mobs. The school isn’t worthy of having a tower named after Hume because he’s too good for them.

Towering Depravity
Towering Depravity
Reply to  Jason Brennan
5 months ago

Given the University of Edinburgh’s history of never giving Hume an academic post, does it deserve to associate itself with him? Isn’t that like e.g. the University of Vienna naming a tower after a great Jewish intellectual alumnus whom they condemned to privatdozent-hell when he was still alive, because of antisemitism, thereby exploiting his name-value to puff up their status?

A university using the name of someone they excluded due to religious prejudice (or racism, sexism etc.) AFTER that person becomes recognised as a “great philosopher” seems very low. Their rapid change of the name suggests that, at least for contemporary staff, it was self-interested rather than an instance of institutional contrition: it’s morally depraved (and I don’t think that’s too strong a term – it’s one I rarely use, but it fits the behaviour of the modern University of Edinburgh towards Hume for centuries) to stop honouring someone out of contrition for past deeds and recognition of their accomplishments just because of fear.

I actually have more respect for some the University of Edinburgh staff of the 18th century. At least some of them rejected Hume out of the fear of the wrath of God, which is a more respectable reason (taking into account their perspective) than fear of losing out on a promotion or research funding.

This is also the university that still honours Julius Nyerere with an honourary degree (awarded before he became a murderous dictator who led his country to penury and extreme dependency, but never revoked) because they’re not afraid of being mobbed for it, and they’d be afraid of the reaction.

Maybe Hume, who actually had courage and moral fibre, wouldn’t want to be associated with the University of Edinburgh? Does the University of Edinburgh deserve to be honoured with Hume’s name and if so why?

Honorary
Honorary
Reply to  Towering Depravity
5 months ago

And the university that awarded Mr. Truman’s degree.

R1 Tenure Track
R1 Tenure Track
5 months ago

If I proposed that we tear down the George Floyd statue in Newark, NJ on the grounds that Floyd participated in a home invasion in which he pointed his pistol at a woman’s abdomen and watched as his accomplice pistol-whip her, offering her no aid (all in the publicly-available police report), people would **entirely correctly** rush to the comments to tell me that the George Floyd statue obviously does not commemorate **that part** of Floyd’s life or legacy. May I suggest that we take the same attitude toward Hume and the statue commemorating his life and legacy?

William Vanderburgh
Reply to  R1 Tenure Track
5 months ago

We could rename it “The Not-THAT-Part-of-Hume Tower,” in the spirit of Boaty McBoatface.

Last edited 5 months ago by William Vanderburgh
On the Market
Reply to  William Vanderburgh
5 months ago

Might I suggest A-Treatise-of-Human Nature-Being-an-Attempt-to-Introduce-the-Experimental-Method-of-Reasoning-into-Moral-Subjects—Tower ?

DoBetter
DoBetter
Reply to  R1 Tenure Track
5 months ago

Except of course that statue in Newark does not commemorate any part of George Floyd the person. It does not commemorate his life or legacy. George Floyd became a symbol of victims of police violence and the protests against structural racism. If you are an R1 tenure track prof, you ought to have the minimal research skills to know what was going on with the protests in Summer 2020. That it was George Floyd that Derek Chauvin murdered wasn’t why people protested. So, are presenting a false equivalence. Hume is being commemorated for his life and legacy whereas George Floyd is not. It is George Floyd as a symbol of victims of racist police violence and the struggle against it that is being memorialized (this is true of a lot of such memorials). One is about a man, the other is using the image of a man as a symbol for confronting injustice. Your comment is ignorant. You should aspire to become better at thinking. Moving past defending racism with poor analogies would be something to aim for.

R1 Tenure Track
R1 Tenure Track
Reply to  DoBetter
5 months ago

You’re just confirming the point I was making with the Floyd/Hume analogy: statues can be, and often are, about some parts of a person’s life and not others. The George Floyd statue is obviously about the killed-by-police part of his life, NOT the home invasion part. (You seem to claim that it’s not about ANY part of Floyd’s life, but that’s obviously false. Floyd serves a symbol for police brutality as you observe because he was, in his actual life, a victim of police brutality. That part of his life explains why a statue of HIM, rather than me, has the symbolic value it does.) So, if statues can commemorate or honor one part of a person’s life without commemorating or honoring the whole life (as we all should grant), why not the same for Hume? The Hume statue obviously honors Hume for his philosophical achievements and not for his views about race, just as the George Floyd statue obviously commemorates his death at the hands of police and not his home invasion.

Laura
Reply to  R1 Tenure Track
5 months ago

Or given that one of his past convictions hinged on a single investigator who was later found to be fabricating evidence, and the police report from the day of his death offers a rather different interpretation of those events, we might adopt a more cautious approach to conclusions based on another such police report (or even the plea deal made in those circumstances). In short, we could use caution before leaping to conclusions about life judgments of many people, including Hume, but for opposite reasons.

R1 Tenure Track
R1 Tenure Track
Reply to  Laura
5 months ago

I believe Floyd is guilty, not because I believe the police, but because I believe the testimony of the woman who was pistol-whipped, robbed, and had nothing to gain by fabricating the story and falsely identifying Floyd: Aracely Henriquez. Doubt the police all you want. Do you doubt her testimony?

Laura
Reply to  R1 Tenure Track
5 months ago

I subject everything to doubt, yes, including witness testimony, which Is frequently prone to error and the cause of a large proportion of wrongful convictions. I’m not privy to enough evidence to judge with certainty, just like I’m not privy to enough evidence to judge details about other people like Hume with certainty. Again, same results but for the opposite reason.

Leslie Glazer PhD
5 months ago

while the term ‘purge’ here might seem hyperbolic, it does seem that analogues to the McCarthy period or the witch hunts of the past are appropriate. The attack on Hume that led to the sign on his statue, the petition, and then the removal of his name on the building all happened in the mob fueled witchhunts that have become common these days, especially in this case after the George Floyd death and the BLM protests. That this happened based on what appears in this article to have been incorrect information distorted and taken out of context only highlights all of this. I just think we should be careful about throwing the first stones. I do not know Hume’s heart on these matters. My guess is that it is very likely that there were few in the 17 and 18th centuries, and perhaps even up to just a generation ago, who didn’t say something at some time that by todays standards would be considered racist or sexist. We have to have more nuanced standards.

Laura
Reply to  Leslie Glazer PhD
5 months ago

Do we need to know what’s in someone’s heart? The expression of a racist view can stand on its own – it doesn’t much matter what sentiments the person expressing it might have felt. Unless perhaps we think he was compelled to speak against his own personal opinion for some reason? I take one point above to be that Hume consistently argues against slavery and his inclusion of the racist statement stands out as odd in context. I agree with you about nuance, but nuance includes acknowledging the full expression and complexity of a person’s views or writings. For me that doesn’t interfere with keeping the statue, but if it does for others, it doesn’t make them a mob or mean they’re on an unjustified witchhunt. Maybe it simply means they care about their moral values.

Evan
5 months ago

The authors say that Hume’s judgement was not about the rights a group is entitled to, but about the manner in which their civilization developed, and that he was “implacably opposed” to justifying one group’s domination over the other. This doesn’t appear to be Hume’s view at all. He makes clear in “Of National Characters” that he think the differences between groups (and he describes many) are the result of the the manner in which their civilization developed. For instance, “the common people of Switzerland have more honesty than those of thee same rank in Ireland”. Meanwhile, “the Jews in Europe… are as much noted for fraud.” He explains these apparent differences in terms of different cultures’ different modes of life.

Luckily for us, Hume also finds a cure for these shortcomings. In his History of England; the Irish (whom Hume describes as “buried in the most profound barbarism and ignorance” and “distinguished by those vices alone, to which human nature, not tamed by education or restrained by laws, is for ever subject”) are savage because they weren’t colonized by the Romans. Meanwhile, in “Of National Characters” the English achieve the status of the highest and least superstitious civilization in large part due to Roman colonization. Colonization, for Hume, has the power to lift savages out of their savagery. The fact that differences between peoples is the product of how their civilization developed doesn’t separate him from modern racists, it provides part of the basis for his support of British colonization. Because the apparent shortcomings of savages are not rooted in biology, these peoples can be cured by British imperialism just as the English were cured by the Romans.

It’s clear that Hume endorsed this position even when it means the denial of the rights of colonial subjects. He was criticized in his own time by Irish historians like Charles O’Conor and David Curry for the description of the Irish Revolution of 1641 that he provides in his History of England, the same book which explains why the Irish suffered developmentally from their failure to be Romanized. He tells us that the Irish “ignorantly preferred [their traditional way of life] before the more secure and narrower possessions assigned them by the English.” Of the Irish rebels, Hume says that they simply hate the English colonists “on account of their religion” and envied them for their “riches and prosperity”. The English colonists in Ireland, by Hume’s estimation, had lived “without provocation” and “in profound peace” until the Irish rebels dealt the most profound and barbarous cruelty that “ever, in any nation, was known or heard of.” He also clutches his pearls while describing, without a trace of irony, the manner in which the Irish cruelly forced the English landowners out of their ungodly mansions and wasted the food in the fields.

I’m not sure what modern definition of racism wouldn’t include believing that the savage nations of the earth would benefit from colonization by the English (as the highest heirs of Rome), whether or not they are too ignorant to see how they benefit, and that we can use the British occupation of Ireland as a model of a peaceful and just playing out of this process which does not warrant provocation on the part of colonial subjects.

Julia
Julia
Reply to  Evan
5 months ago

It’s also important to note, however, that Hume doesn’t seem to think that the explanation he provides for differences among European nations (different cultures / historical development) works for differences between Black and White people. About the latter difference he says in the infamous footnote: “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.” In short, he thought there was a natural difference (and indeed, a natural original distinction) between Black and White people. It’s not like the difference between the Irish and the English.

Stefan Storrie
Stefan Storrie
Reply to  Julia
5 months ago

We had a discussion about Hume’s view on the Irish here on DN back in July 2020.
 
I have since given a talk on the matter at the ESEMP conference in Copenhagen in 2022 and I am now finalizing a paper on the topic. I would agree with Evan’s view that Hume is concerned with justifying English colonial domination by appeal to racial inferiority of the colonized, and that he further uses the idea of England as the heir to the Roman Empire in this context. Much more can be said about this, for example that Hume understands civility largely in terms of legal systems, which explains why is is interested in discrediting Brehon law.
With regard to Julia’s rejoinder, I think that on balance Hume actually want to say that the difference between the English and Irish are very similar to the difference that he mistakenly believes exist between Black and White. There are 3 reasons for this:
1.Hume thinks the Irish were vastly more barbaric also prior to Roman times. They were more barbaric that e.g., the Briton’s “from the beginning of time”. Sure, one could insist that Hume believes that this is due to culture. But I have not found any explanation for such a primordial cultural difference in Hume and it therefore seems more like an unsubstantiated prejudice about Irish ‘nature’.
2.Hume not only refers to the Irish as ‘barbaric’ but also as ‘savage’. While the barbarian-civilized continuum was used to describe European groups, ‘savage’ was a term typically reserved to describe indigenous non-European cultures. For example, in the Natural History of Religion, Hume refers to “savage tribes of America, Africa, and Asia”.
3. In both An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals and the History Hume fully endorses Edmund Spencer’s account of the Irish in A View of the present State of Ireland (1596). Hume cites Spencer specifically when discussing Irish ‘savagery’. Spencer’s view could perhaps be characterized as ‘proto-racialist’ as he was writing before Darwin, but held that the Irish were an ‘evil race’ and that race was a kind of hereditary feature transferred from one generation to another. This is why Spencer is against English men marrying Irish women, in his words: “how can such matching but bring forth an evil race, seeing that commonly the child takes most of his nature of the mother, besides speech, manners, and inclination”. In this work Spencer also argues for fresh genocide of the Irish through mass starvation, following from the ‘success’ of the famine of Munster that killed 30,000 Irish.

Celtic Philosopher
Celtic Philosopher
Reply to  Stefan Storrie
5 months ago

“In both An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals and the History Hume fully endorses Edmund Spencer’s account of the Irish”

I don’t have the History to hand, but at least Hume’s description of Spencer in the Enquiry seems more like praise rather than a full endorsement:

“It is indeed observable, that, among all uncultivated nations, who have not as yet had full experience of the advantages attending beneficence, justice, and the social virtues, courage is the predominant excellence; what is most celebrated by poets, recommended by parents and instructors, and admired by the public in general. The ethics of Homer are, in this particular, very different from those of Fenelon, his elegant imitator; and such as were well suited to an age, when one hero, as remarked by Thucydides [Lib.i.], could ask another, without offence, whether he were a robber or not. Such also very lately was the system of ethics which prevailed in many barbarous parts of Ireland; if we may credit Spencer, in his judicious account of the state of that kingdom.”

Also:

“Hume thinks the Irish were vastly more barbaric also prior to Roman times… I have not found any explanation for such a primordial cultural difference in Hume and it therefore seems more like an unsubstantiated prejudice about Irish ‘nature’.”

Hume’s explanation is in the lines that you partly quote from the History:

“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 restrained by laws, is for ever subject.”

Nonetheless, there is a well-founded consensus among Hume scholars that Hume was prejudiced against the Irish. For exmaple, in the History, he is selectively credulous when it comes to evidence in favour of atrocities by the Irish; he would dismiss such weak evidence in other contexts. What is more dubious is the claim that this prejudice was racial, i.e. founded in beliefs in biological differences between the Irish and others. Hume’s historical-cultural explanation of alleged Irish “barbarism” suggests Hume was bigoted rather than racist, though (perhaps idiosyncratically) I don’t see such bigotry as any better than racism.

Also, there might be evidence that you don’t cite which favours the interpretation that Hume was racist rather than bigoted. I’m not an expert on this topic at all.

Stefan Storrie
Stefan Storrie
Reply to  Celtic Philosopher
5 months ago

Thanks ‘Celtic Philosopher’.

You asked about the passage from the History where Hume Spencer. It is vol. 4, Chapter XLIV:
“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.”*
*”See See Spencer’s account of Ireland, throughout.”
 
Is this not, as I said, a ‘full endorsement’ of Spencer’s account of the Irish? Note how Hume placing the Irish as closer to ‘savages’ than ‘barbarians’ align with Spencer’s ‘proto-racialism’, as I suggested in the previous comment.
 
You say that the explanation for Hume’s view of exceptionalism of Irish primordial Barbarism is explained in the “from the beginning of time” quote. You don’t say how that quote does that, could you please explain? To me the quote, unambiguously, only explains why the Irish continued in this state of extreme barbarism after the Roman invasion of Britain. What I was asking was why Hume thought Ireland was exceptionally barbaric prior to the Roman invasion. 

Celtic Philosopher
Celtic Philosopher
Reply to  Stefan Storrie
5 months ago

It’s an assertion by Hume that Spencer provides evidence in favour of the claim he makes throughout the book. It’s a stretch to call that an endorsement of every judgement that Spencer makes in the book.

Ah, I misinterpreted you. I’m not familiar with that part of Hume’s thinking; I checked the “from the beginning of time” quote you referenced, but as we’ve seen, it’s not a comparison with the Britons. Maybe such a comparison exists elsewhere, but adjacent text to the “from the beginning of time” quote rules out a biological race explanation for Hume:

“As Britain was first peopled from Gaul, so was Ireland probably from Britain; and the inhabitants of all these countries seem to have been so many tribes of the Celtae, who derive their origin from an antiquity, that lies far beyond the records of any history or tradition.”

Hume later notes that Scandinavians invaded Ireland, just as the rest of Britain, so he can’t be supposing that the Irish were missing out on some special “Germanic blood” or the like, as so many racialists would later claim.

So I still don’t see the case for interpolating a biological race theory into Hume’s writings on Irish people. The best evidence you present seems to be that he doesn’t (as far as I know) condemn Spencer’s judgements, but obviously that’s different from endorsing them.

Mohan Matthen
5 months ago

I don’t want to comment on the issue of whether Hume should be commemorated in any way. He was obviously a very great philosopher and thinker, and he didn’t commit or incite any crimes against humanity. I don’t want to argue about whether that’s sufficient for a statue or named tower.

On the other hand, I do think that Hume was clearly a racist and not entirely a benign one. “On National Characters” is not the only place that you can infer his views; “On the Standard of Taste” is another. He thought that all non-Europeans and some Europeans were inferior in sensibility and intellect. “On National Characters” is a compendium of crude generalizations of a sort worthy of Archie Bunker; “On the Standard of Taste” echoes some of these. The notorious footnote in NC cruelly lampoons a known individual black man, comparing his intellectual performance to that of a parrot. It is said that the individual in question knew what Hume had written and was wounded by it. The callous and cruel sideswipe in that footnote is enough for us to form a low opinion of Hume’s character.

Ashton and Hutton dismiss the charge of racism on the grounds that modern racism justify a disparity of power. I’m not clear where they get this from. Racism is simply the view that race predicts intellectual or moral ability–whether universally or probabilistically. Hume explicitly holds that race does. He illustrates his view by saying that while Cervantes might be superior to some French or English writers, the majority of Spaniards were inferior to most French and English.

His opposition to slavery has nothing to do with this question. One can oppose cruelty to animals while still thinking that animals are inferior to human beings in all sorts of ways. The charitable view of Hume on slavery is the he emphatically opposed it, but did not think it wrong to profit from it in certain indirect ways–e.g., by holding shares in a company that used slaves to manufacture its product. This view is compatible with the assertion, which Hume was also committed to, that all Blacks were intellectually and artistically inferior to any white European. (He doesn’t seem to take the probabilistic view on this question.)

Stephen Menn
Reply to  Mohan Matthen
5 months ago

I agree with Mohan. Hume’s views in that footnote are clearly racist. It’s worth our naming Hume’s victim, the Jamaican poet Francis Williams, even if Hume doesn’t bother to. Hume’s racial views may have been widespread in his time, but they weren’t universal–I don’t know any reason to think the University of Edinburgh will be renaming the Dugald Stewart Building any time soon. What puzzles me is why people find this footnote such an “anomaly” within Hume’s work, as if he were generally a progressive, one of us, and so this has to be explained away. I’m not seeing what’s progressive in Hume’s social or political views–unlike, say, Thomas Reid or his follower Stewart. Being theoretically against slavery gets you only so far.

Mohan Matthen
Reply to  Stephen Menn
5 months ago

Thank you, Stephen. It is, as you say, important to name and honour the individual, Francis Williams, upon whom Hume inflicted pain and injustice–casually, and without the slightest compunction.

Hume’s racism had a pernicious influence on his work. Most directly, it allowed him to disregard a role for culture. The repeated exposure theory of aesthetics offered in ST is inadequate to account for cultural factors In the appreciation of art. A person brought up with European classical music is going to have a lot of difficulty appreciating Indian classical music. Hume explains this by positing the superiority of European music and the Europesn mind. So, the absence of culture in his evaluative framework is a genuine philosophical weakness.

To summarize:: Hume was a racist and his racism infects his philosophical work.

Enrico Matassa
Enrico Matassa
Reply to  Stephen Menn
5 months ago

Analytic philosophers just like Hume for his snarky atheism and trendy style of empiricism. The sad truth is that Hume isn’t even that creative. His oh so clever and revolutionary compatibilism? That’s just the bog standard Calvinist take on free will and responsibility with God pulled out. The irony is he learned it in church. And his incredibly radical views on causation are just Malebranche without God. And the skepticism is mostly warmed over Bayle. The only thing original in Hume is his godawful overwrought prose. The best that can be said of Hume I think is that he was Adam Smith’s friend (who by the way didn’t share his racism).

Duncan MacTavish
Reply to  Mohan Matthen
5 months ago

I agree with Mohan also. I’d also like to make an additional point. Even those who *don’t* agree that the textual evidence is clear that Hume is a racist, should *at least* be willing to grant the following claim (given the footnote — which FYI is even worse when quoted in full):

CLAIM: There is at least enough evidence for thinking Hume is a racist that reasonable people will disagree about this.

Anyone willing to grant CLAIM (rather than the stronger view that the evidence is clear and straightforward) has good cause to note want Hume’s name on a tower at UofE. The reason is that while naming a tower after someone might lead people to view the whole affair through the lens of ‘free speech’, this is the wrong lens: it’s about honouring someone with an award. If CLAIM is true, that’s all you need (if you’re the folks at UofE) to see the problem with naming the tower after him. Honouring someone with a tower, given CLAIM, is irresponsible.

I mention the above because if this is all right, then it offers some perspective on the relationship between i) whether Hume was actually a racist; and ii) whether it was appropriate or not to have taken his name off the tower. As I see it, the relationship that matters is not between i) and ii) but between CLAIM and ii).

Evelyn Rose
Evelyn Rose
5 months ago

I don’t see how a good faith interpretation of the textual evidence can hold that “His use of the word ‘inferior’ in this context, was not intended to differentiate between individuals in terms of their human value and rights.” ‘This context’ must mean, most proximately, the notorious footnote.

The full footnote:

I Am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, 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 between these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are Negroe slaves dispersed all over Europe, of whom none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; though low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly. [NC 20n6.1, Mil 208]

Doesn’t this textual evidence support the claim that Hume thinks that Black people are intellectually inferior by nature, and thus, less valuable intellectually? Isn’t it, also, an example of Hume mentioning slavery and colonization and not criticizing it?

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
5 months ago

These sorts of discussions tend to take for granted an assumption that seems implausible to me: that the naming of buildings, statues, etc. or the selection of classroom readings implies an overall moral approval of the person involved, and therefore that some action is called for if the person in question is less than a saint (or maybe considerably less than a saint).

I want to make clear, at the outset, that I really do read this much-discussed footnote of Hume’s to be racist, and moreover indefensibly racist. The issue has been raised that it’s not racism, but just bigotry. I’m not persuaded by that yet; but even if I were, I would hardly think it was much better. The fact remains that Hume says here some harsh and unfair things about a huge number of people on the basis of the ethnicity they were born into, and moreover he has done so on the grounds of very weak evidence. It also seems that his own sense of pride in the supposed superiority of his own ethnicity is a major factor in this. For all these reasons, I am disappointed and unhappy with him for writing this footnote, and it leads me to hold a worse impression of his character and judgment.

Still, he achieved great things as a philosopher (whether or not his philosophical views were correct), and he had a profound influence on the development of ideas, raising questions it made us stronger to have to grapple with. Without a doubt, he was an important philosopher. That’s why he has a statue and once had a building named after him. It isn’t meant to say anything about his character or this footnote in one of his least-read works.

Let’s try a thought experiment: suppose that it were to come out that Martin Luther King Jr. once committed a bank robbery and in the process kidnapped and then murdered an innocent bank teller. Now, that would be a shocking revelation, and it would probably change what most of us thought of him. But it would not change the great things he did. In that case, should the streets named for him be changed, and should his name be removed from the national holiday? I don’t think so at all, though I know that many would disagree with me. The assumption so many people seem to be making is that these namings or statues entail a moral assessment of the person’s entire life. I don’t see any grounds for thinking this. Nobody is morally perfect, and some people who make amazing positive changes (or just achieve important and impressive things) are also awful human beings in other respects.

Rather than foster what I see as a childish idea — that those who achieve great things tend to be morally perfect, or that those who are morally imperfect should not be praised for anything they do — I feel it would be better to grapple with the fact that people are complex.

Incidentally, I don’t know how much this is denied. As many others have pointed out, Karl Marx said many more offensive things about black people, Jews, etc., and engaged in all sorts of crude generalizations. He also treated the people in his life in a morally appalling way. And yet, he is remembered and honored for his remarkably influential writings, notwithstanding the remarkable harm they arguably caused. There are, as has been said by many others, no campaigns to have Marx’s writings removed from curricula, or to have statues and other things named or built in his honor removed, even though there are millions of people living today who have suffered under Marx-influenced regimes, who might find these things upsetting.

I had always assumed the idea to be that nobody’s perfect, and we won’t agree on everything, and history and people who are great in some ways are bad in others, and we just have to learn to accept that (though that doesn’t stop us from making negative comments about the people). If I’m wrong and we have to rename or tear down everything named after someone who did or said something bad, fairness demands that we not do so in a partisan or selective way.

Aaron Goldbird
Aaron Goldbird
Reply to  Justin Kalef
5 months ago

I don’t see how someone thinking that it’s a good idea to change the name of this building at this time (or remove this statue at this time or whatever) implies that they think “we have to rename or tear down everything named after someone who did or said something bad”. Someone could even hold that it’s a good idea for Hume’s name to be removed because he did or said some specific nasty things, without thinking that more general rule applies in all cases. We could say that Hume’s offending words are a reason for name-removal without being a sufficient reason. We might think the nasty things Hume wrote are especially acute or name-removal-worthy because of his stature, or beause of opportunity, or because of the particular relevance of the content of his racist nastiness to issues of particular social salience.

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Aaron Goldbird
5 months ago

Which of those doesn’t apply in the case of Marx?

The main reason why his many crude and insulting racist claims and slurs are not being agonized over is, apparently, that most people don’t even know about them, even though they appear in many places and not in a single footnote to one of his least-read works. But that only raises the further question: why is it that we hear about the one but not the other?