A building dedicated to the celebrated philosopher David Hume is to be renamed by a leading UK university because views he expressed on race more than 250 years ago “cause distress”.
The University of Edinburgh said it would rechristen the David Hume Tower, a major hub for exhibitions, lectures and Edinburgh Festival shows, as part of an ongoing review into the 438-year-old institution’s “links with the past” including slavery and racism.
Some students at the university had been campaigning for the building to be renamed, largely due to a footnote in Hume’s 1758 essay Of National Character.
Hume, widely seen as the father of the Scottish enlightenment, wrote “I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites”. He added: “There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation.”
While in separate essays he argued against the institution of slavery, calls to rename the building intensified earlier this year after letters were uncovered in which Hume urged a patron to purchase a slave plantation in Granada.
A statement issued by the university, confirming the building will be renamed ‘40 George Square’ from the start of the new term this month, said: “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.
“The interim decision has been taken because of 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.”
The university said its work around equality, diversity and anti-racism had been “further energised” by the killing of George Floyd in the United States in May, and “ongoing campaigning by the Black Lives Matter movement”.
While a petition calling for the building to be renamed was signed by around 1,800 people, and the move was backed by Edinburgh University’s students union, the decision was criticised by other figures, including staff members and politicians.
Maurice Golden, the Scottish Conservative culture spokesman, said: “David Hume is one of the greatest and most influential Scots in history.
“It’s wrong to suddenly be ashamed of someone who is clearly not known across the world for his links to the abhorrent slave trade. He is globally renowned as a philosopher and thinker.
“We need to have a more reasonable, mature debate about the rights and wrongs of the past.
“We can proudly respect our history and recognise when people got it very wrong at the same time. This decision does not do that.”
Meanwhile, it was also pointed out that the building’s new name, 40 George Square, is an address named after George III, who, unlike Hume, opposed the abolitionist movement.
Neil O’Brien, the Tory MP, said the move to “cancel” Hume was a “cowardly, stupid, craven, pathetic, spineless, dumb thing to do”.
Jonathan Hearn, Professor of Political and Historical Sociology at the university, said that while the views Hume expressed in the footnote were “racist, offensive, and worthy of condemnation”, he remained an admirer of the philosopher.
He wrote: “Hume deserves to be criticised for this belief, and if that were all there were to him, to be largely forgotten. But his copious writings on philosophy, history and political economy are full of profound and lasting insights into human nature and history, that do not absolve, but do outweigh this error.
“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."