University criticised for removing David Hume's name amid racist 'distress' concerns

The David Hume Tower has been renamed 40 George Square.The David Hume Tower has been renamed 40 George Square.
The David Hume Tower has been renamed 40 George Square.
The University of Edinburgh is to remove the name of David Hume from one of its campus buildings, citing concerns that the 18th century philosopher’s views on race cause “distress” to modern day students.

The building, which will be used as a student study space in the current academic year, will now be known as 40 George Square.

The university said that the decision, which it described as an interim measure, formed part of a wider review of its links to the past.

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However, the move has been criticised by several academics, including some employed by the university. They pointed out that Hume’s wider writings offered profound insights into human nature and served as a source of inspiration to generations of thinkers.

It comes after growing criticism of Hume’s views on race and his association with the slave trade, a reassessment of his legacy sparked in large part by the Black Lives Matter movement.

In July, The Scotsman revealed how an academic specialist on Hume had discovered a previously unknown letter he wrote in 1766, in which he encouraged his patron, Lord Hertford, to buy a plantation in Grenada.

Hume even went so far as to write to Victor-Thérèse Charpentier, the French governor of Martinique, on behalf of his friend, John Stewart, a wine merchant involved in the purchase of several plantations.

Dr Felix Waldmann, a former David Hume fellow at the university, who made the find, urged the institution to “consider carefully” whether it could continue to name a building after Hume, given he acted as an intermediary for brokers purchasing slave plantations in the Caribbean.

Dr Waldmann, a lecturer and fellow in history at Christ’s College, Cambridge, said it was inevitable that the focus on the involvement by prominent Scots in slavery meant suspicion would fall on commemorations of a man regarded as a titan of the Scottish Enlightenment.

This summer also saw the creation of an online petition condemning Hume for writing “racist epithets" and calling for the building to be renamed. It has been signed more than 1,700 times.

Details of the name change were confirmed in a statement on the university’s website about the work of its equality and diversity committee and its race equality and anti-racist sub-committee.

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“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,” it explained.

“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 statement explained that the “interim decision” had been taken because of “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.”

It added: “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.”

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The review and process of reflection, it went on, would allow the university to “adopt refreshed and appropriate policies on a range of issues.” such as the future naming of buildings as well as how it should commemorate its history more generally.

It said the work of the committees had been “energised” following the killing of George Floyd and the ongoing campaigning by the Black Lives Matter movement

Dr Asanga Welikala, a lecturer in public law at the university and co-convenor of the Keith Forum on Commonwealth Constitutionalism, was among those to oppose the renaming of the tower.

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He wrote on Twitter: “I do not agree with this decision. David Hume’s thought has inspired me throughout a 20 year career working to further constitutional democracy in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. As an employee of Edinburgh University I was not consulted in this.”

Jonathan Hearn, professor of political and historical sociology at the university, wrote a blog post in which he noted that Hume had written views that were “racist, offensive, and worthy of condemnation.”

However, he argued that Hume’s copious writings on philosophy, history and political economy were “full of profound and lasting insights into human nature and history,” which while not “absolving” his racist comments, do “outweigh” them.

He added: “Among other things, Hume’s work provides enduring insight into the dilemmas of modern moral order, and the natural roots of human morality.

“Those who read him carefully will be rewarded. By all means, criticise his errors, debate his ideas, and if necessary, remove his name from buildings. But he deserves to be remembered.”

Sunder Katwala, director of the identity and integration thinktank, British Future, said he was “sceptical” that the university had much in the way of evidence that maintaining Hume’s name on the building would be a source of distress to contemporary students. Indeed, he describing the claim as “an imagined projection of hypothetical distress” on the part of the institution.

He added: “If the university administrators believed in the reason that they give, it would be logical to regard statues of Hume as no longer acceptable

“Most people would think that a big over-reaction, given the scale of his contribution and the common sense 'what is he best known for' test.”

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