Content warning: description of historic racist views
David Hume. You may have heard of him. Apparently, he has a tower somewhere on campus — a couple lecture theatres too. Deservedly so, so decree the academics. Hume is considered one of, if not the most influential British philosopher of the Enlightenment, positing theories of empirical excitement and causal creativity that laid the foundation for modern scientific thought, ethics and cognitive science. He’s a big deal and – dare one infer from his shiny toe – a cool guy.
Or is he? As we attempt to decolonise our institutions and examine the esteemed figures beyond the conventional historical narrative, as has occurred throughout campuses across the world, our dear Dave must also be cast under scrutiny.
The controversy that surrounds Hume is the racism expressed in a lengthy footnote of an essay entitled ‘On National Characters’ in which he writes that he is “apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites,” and that “there scarcely ever was a civilised nation of that complexion.” His comments are unquestionably racist. The ‘argument’ for contextual exoneration is a fallacy: many of Hume’s contemporaries, most notably fellow Scottish philosopher James Beattie, challenged him on this view. Hume’s comment should be condemned.
The debate regarding the veneration of those who espouse immoral views and whether their likenesses, namesakes and public esteem should be dismantled and removed if preserved at all, is often presented as a binary: to eradicate, to topple; to level or not to level. Likewise, the perhaps necessary heavy-handedness in the figurative and consequent literal deconstruction of such figures reflects a verdict of character that oscillates between a staunch guilty or reluctant not-guilty. Seeking nuance in such judgement seems wholly insensitive, if not outright immoral: how can a figure’s racism, or any problematic view for that matter, ever be weighed up as a factor amongst many as to whether they ‘make the grade’ of public esteem?
For instance, despite his racist view, Hume was a vocal critic of slavery, deeming it a “trampling upon human nature.” In contrast, the contemporaries against whom Hume’s racism is so pronounced, such as Beattie, did not advocate slavery’s immediate abolition, with other critics of Hume even advocating some forms of enslavement. The judgement of whether a figure such as Hume should be publicly venerated is perhaps clear-cut when scholarly achievements are in comparison with the importance of moral character — but moral character itself is no clear-cut issue.
Although there is a world of difference between the likes of David Hume Tower and Confederate monuments in the United States, most notoriously those of General Lee, the effects of each may not be entirely dissimilar. Whilst the former commemorates an esteemed academic who espoused a condemnable view, the latter is a veneration of a man whose legacy is defined by a violent and bloody endeavour to preserve slavery at whatever cost. Both, granted one more sharply than the other, symbolise a perception of historical esteem that values a certain ‘accomplishment’, be it military or scholarly, above the historical and contemporary lived experience of black and minority ethnic groups. By preserving this symbolisation in the public sphere, across each end of the spectrum, this historical message becomes a contemporary one.
Should David Hume Tower meet the same fate as the (rightfully) toppled Confederate monuments? According to the admittedly brazen above comparison, it seems so — yet Hume is worthy of commemoration as a philosopher. Thus the struggle appears to become the paradoxical task of how to divide a figure into commendable achievements that we highlight and problematic traits that we denounce. In the context of a university campus, it would hopefully seem obvious that Hume’s namesake tower serves as a recognition of him as a scholar — but nonetheless, it is equally important to address Hume’s condemnable views in just as public and overt a fashion.
Image: Bandan via Wikimedia Commons