Amid the maelstrom of political events that defined the summer, the resulting change from the George Floyd protests has been the most striking.
Not a single event since the Civil Rights Movement has encouraged such a deep analysis into the presence of police brutality and other racial grievances in Western society.
While renaming academic buildings previously attributed with contentious alumni may seem relatively bromidic to the theatrical toppling of statues and historic protests, the recent decision by the University of Edinburgh to temporarily rename David Hume Tower to 40 George Square has ignited anguished debates about the difference between writing history and venerating its most oppressive actors.
In a statement explaining the decision, the University cited “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.”
Leading Hume scholars have openly criticised the change, citing that while evidence of racism exists in Hume’s work, it would be inappropriate to judge the dead by today’s standards. Other critics are suggesting that the decision is a portend for a “cancel culture” that stifles academic freedom – one LBC headline even suggested that the University was ‘cancelling’ David Hume himself.
Still, those who campaigned for the change say that renaming buildings is a step towards diversifying academia and encouraging inclusion; advocating for sustained efforts to transform university culture.
“The renaming of David Hume Tower sends a symbolic message to the students, staff and the public that the University recognises their historical links to racism”, said Tumi Akeke of the BlackEd Movement, the student group instrumental in bringing about the name change.
“As a black student, I feel more comfortable to walk on campus because I know that despite the backlash from the public, the University of Edinburgh would still protect the dignity of their black students. It’s not something you see very often.”
Other students have also considered the name change to be a step in the right direction. “There’s a certain irony when an institution such as the University tries to glorify itself as being a heterogeneous, international community yet avoid the evident issue of racism in the work of perhaps its most notable alumnus,” said Emma Lawrence, a second-year philosophy student.
“It was definitely the right decision. Double standards would have been at play to keep the tallest building on campus named after a known racist.”
Amid the cacophony of voices lies one immutable fact: David Hume espoused racist views in his work and encouraged the institution of radicalised slavery.
The original petition that called for Hume’s name to be scrubbed from the building sheds light on a callous comment in his 1753 essay Of National Characters, in which he voiced the suspicions that “negroes” are “naturally inferior to the whites”.
Perhaps less widely known is that Hume also engaged in the transatlantic slave trade. Dr Felix Waldmann, the David Hume Fellow at the University of Edinburgh in 2016, unearthed a previously unknown letter detailing his encouragement to his patron Lord Hertford to purchase a slave plantation in Grenada. Later research revealed that Hume had facilitated the purchase of the plantation in another letter to the French governor of Martinique.
Writing in The Scotsman in July, Dr Waldmann laid out the danger in venerating Hume through public monuments. He argued that it would be unwise to place Hume among his 18th-century contemporaries who abetted in the slave trade, considering that his philosophy had led Hume to actively dissociate from other social standards of the time.
“Hume was a genius by the standards of the 18th century. He was not deferential to the convention. He was the antonym of the convention,” Waldmann writes.
“Anyone with Hume’s intelligence would recognise the enormity of slavery.” Consistent with the petition to rename David Hume Tower, Waldmann insisted there is a clear distinction between appreciating Hume’s philosophy and revering him as a person.
The classical composer Richard Wagner was a staunch anti-Semite yet is still celebrated for his genius and influence. “If I had to work in a building named after Wagner, or if I had to walk past a statue of the man, I would find it preposterous.”
Yet critics of the University’s decision express that Hume’s legacy is more fraught and complex than his comments on race that have entered the public spotlight. Among his work that is most admired, none of it is polluted by racism.
Writing in Prospect Magazine, the philosopher Julian Baggini suggests “we would have assumed Hume was as enlightened as any 18th-century white man who had not travelled further than Italy could have been.”
Ian Gordon Brown, once the principal curator of manuscripts at the National Library of Scotland and the Royal Society of Edinburgh called the renaming “craven” and accused the University of virtue signalling.
Yet Hume had also been highly critical of slavery in practice. On the Populousness of Ancient Nations, he describes slavery to be “more cruel and oppressive than any civil subjection whatsoever”. How best then to deal with Hume’s complex legacy?
Baggini argues that students and administrators at the University ought to question if there are better ways to approach controversial dead thinkers. “The idea that the dead should get a free pass on prejudice because they are ‘products of their time’ is too permissive. But the idea that they should be judged entirely by today’s, justifiably higher, standards is too harsh. It would leave virtually all the dead condemned.”
“While it would be improper to idolise a figure such as Edward Colston, the merchant whose riches grew from the exploitation of African slaves, “as his ‘achievements’ and racism are inextricably linked”, Baggini argues the same cannot be said for Hume. Akeke of BlackEd disagrees.
“The excuse that he was a ‘product of his time’ is an invalid argument. Black people existed and have been fighting for their rights and dignity long before the birth of David Hume. Racism was wrong then and it’s wrong now.” She continues, “the prioritising of Hume’s philosophical achievements over the dignity and equality of black people is very depressing and shows the kind of society we live in – where one human being’s work is enough to overlook their wrongdoings.”
The University of Edinburgh is not unique in its approach to tackling a toxic brand by renaming the David Hume Tower to 40 George Square. In other parts of the world, universities are facing the same issue of contending with buildings dedicated to figures with thorny histories.
Stanford University decided to rename Jordan Hall, which houses its psychology department and is dedicated to its founding president, David Starr Jordan, a marine biologist who dabbled in eugenics. In February, University College London committed to dropping the names of Francis Galton and Karl Pearson, two celebrated statisticians also known for their support of eugenics, from lecture halls that bear their names. The numerous institutions in London named after the slave trader Sir John Cass have also announced name changes planned for the future.
Edinburgh is also not unique in being a city where the impact of slavery is rife. It greatly benefited from the transatlantic slave trade through the likes of Lawrence and Henry Dundas, whose own history is under similar scrutiny.
With this in mind, the University would have had to grapple with the potential message being sent in not changing the name of the David Hume Tower.
Though 40 George Square is a temporary solution, the University must answer calls to creating meaningful change elsewhere, and to make sure the name change does not just become an empty gesture.
“Renaming DHT doesn’t mark the end of racism, but it’s still definitely a big step towards tackling racism,” added Tumi Akeke.
Image: Eve Miller