An intellectually challenging conundrum has emerged in Edinburgh in light of the university's decision to remove the name of 18th-century philosopher, David Hume, from the largest building on its city centre campus. It came as a result of a relatively small (1,700 signature) petition which was launched by a student from North Carolina who objected to his alleged 'racist epithets'.
Although the petitioner does not cite any specific 'racist epithet', the one she presumably has in mind is the 'notorious footnote' added to the 1753 London publication of an essay, Of National Characters,
which he had written in the 1740s. It is possible that this was added at the behest of his publishers, Andrew Millar and William Strahan, who were, it should be noted, both Scots working in London at a time when anti-Scottish invective there was at its height. The footnote was extended in a posthumous edition, and may have been largely the work of Hume's editor, William Preston.
The fact remains, however, that a statement in which 'negroes' are alleged to be inferior to whites – while it was qualified by the phrase 'I am apt to suspect' – is not one which would be acceptable in our own time. Moreover, it sits uneasily with Hume's known opposition to slavery, which he regarded as 'more cruel and oppressive than any other civil subjugation whatsoever'.
Unlike us, Hume never had an opportunity to be impressed by Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King, or read the books of James Baldwin or Toni Morrison, or listen to the music of Miles Davis or Jessie Norman. It's just possible he would have known something of the poetry of African-American Phillis Wheatley, though 'I am apt to suspect' he would have abhorred its sentimental piety.
The question is, given the scrupulously well-reasoned and consistently humane sentiments to be found in the extensive writings he gave to the modern world, does it make sense to judge and condemn the man on a single solecism? True, he lived at a time when slavery and colonialism were enriching the British national economy to an extent we can only consider reprehensible today, and was friendly with individuals like Lord Hertford, who had investments in the plantations, but this was a feature of the upper classes in 18th-century London, and arguably every bootmaker, house carpenter, seamstress and fishmonger would, to some degree, be benefiting from some of the residual revenues of the overseas trade economy.
Philosophers were not exempt from this. One of Hume's major detractors was the 'Common Sense' philosopher James Oswald, whose brother, Richard, was one of the most successful slave traders of the age (notwithstanding which he has been described as a 'liberal' by at least two Pullitzer prize-winning American historians). Hume, however, neither supported the slave trade, nor profited directly from it, unlike Oswald, who was subsidised by his brother.
Two counter petitions have been launched in opposition to the one in question. One suggests
cogently that if Hume is to be arraigned on such charges, should we not be considering eliminating the names of some of his contemporaries, such as George Washington, a man who, with his wife, owned no fewer than 317 slaves at the time of his death? It would thus seem that, in the interests of consistency, the petitioner who urged the removal of Hume's name should also be supporting a name change for Washington DC. The suggestion is that it should be renamed after George Walker, who first suggested the site for the new Federal capital's location, though 'Walkertown DC' may not have quite the same ring to it. (Besides, there is already a Walkertown in North Carolina – but the point is well made).
Once the trend becomes established, however, all sorts of chaos might ensue, and it needn't simply involve black-white racial tensions. Bishop Berkeley, for example, had some truly atrocious opinions concerning the Irish. Should we therefore be removing his name from a well-known Californian university?