This essay, on the debate about the legacy of David Hume, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short tribute to Ruth Bader Ginsburg.) It was published on 20 September 2020, under the headline “David Hume was a complex man. Erasing his name is too simplistic a gesture”.
“Learn, Mr Hume, to prize the blessings of Liberty and Education, for… had you been born and bred a slave, your Genius, whatever you may think of it, would never have been heard of.”
So wrote the members of the 18th-century Aberdeen Philosophical Society, one of the leading debating salons in Scotland, in response to an essay by the presiding genius of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume. In “Of National Characters”, first published in 1748, Hume had explored the reasons for national differences.
Five years after publishing the essay, Hume appended a footnote: “I am apt to suspect the negroes, and in general all the other species of men… to be naturally inferior to the whites.” This footnote incensed not just the Aberdeen Philosophical Society but many other thinkers of the time.
Now, 250 years later, Edinburgh University has decided to join the fray. Last week it announced that its David Hume Tower is to be renamed because the philosopher’s “comments on matters of race… rightly cause distress”.
It’s the latest in a series of controversies about how, in challenging the inequities of today, we should relate to the inequities of the past. From the toppling of the statue of the Bristol slaver Edward Colston to the furore over Rule, Britannia!, from the arguments over Winston Churchill’s legacy to the campaigns to “decolonise” the education curriculum, recent debates about racism have interrogated not just the present but the past, too, and our relationship to it.
Much of this questioning of how the past is portrayed is necessary, particularly as traditional accounts have often whitewashed the historical record of racism and empire. There is a danger, though, that we end up with a cartoonish view of history and, guided by contemporary needs, ignore its complexities. There is a danger, too, that we fight not the struggles of the present but those of the past; and that symbolic gestures come to replace material change.
Edinburgh University claims it had to act to protect student “sensitivities”. There is no evidence, though, that students were outraged by the Hume tower or traumatised by it. The renaming adds nothing to our understanding of the philosopher, nor takes away anything of the racism that black people face today.
Hume was a complex figure, an opponent of slavery who helped his patron Lord Hertford buy a slave plantation; one of the most important philosophers of the past half millennium, whose ideas about scepticism and naturalism have shaped the modern world, but with odious views on racial differences. A figure worthy both of celebration and condemnation.
If individuals are complex, so is history. The controversy over Hume takes place against the background of a broader debate about the Enlightenment, of which he was a key figure.
For years, the Enlightenment was seen by the left as a source of radical ideals. “All progressive, rationalist and humanist ideologies are implicit in it and indeed come out of it,” the late Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm observed. But, increasingly, as the reactionary views of some Enlightenment thinkers have become more apparent, it has come to be seen as tainted, irrevocably stained by its “Eurocentrism”. In response to such criticism, many others have come to defend “the Enlightenment” in a reflexive, un-nuanced way, regarding it as a kind of Rorschach test over “wokeness”.
Yet, as the history of the debate over Hume’s views shows, the question of what it is to be “enlightened” was contested within the Enlightenment itself. In a series of monumental books, the historian Jonathan Israel has usefully drawn the distinction between “mainstream” and “radical” Enlightenments. The mainstream, comprising well-known figures such as Locke, Hume and Kant, is often taken to be the Enlightenment, but was constrained in its critique of old social forms and beliefs, leading to abhorrent views about slavery and race, democracy and equality. The Radical Enlightenment, shaped by lesser-known figures such as Spinoza and Diderot, was by contrast, Israel shows, uncompromising in its defence of equality and in its condemnation of racism and colonialism.
The Enlightenment was critical in the development of progressive social ideals. At the same time, European nations, through slavery and colonialism, denied these ideals to the majority of peoples across the globe. Many figures, Hume among them, stood on both sides of this equation, furnishing the intellectual tools with which to challenge injustice, but also often defending injustices.
Neither history nor biography cleaves easily into “good” and “bad”. Fewer cheap gestures, more real questioning, both of the past and the present, would be useful.