In the summer of 2020, after the horrific death of George Floyd at the hands of police in the USA and the unprecedented rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the University of Edinburgh was presented with a petition signed by 1,700 people. They accused David Hume, the great 18th-century philosopher and historian, of racism in a footnote to his essay, Of National Characters
In the 1753 version of that note, Hume had written: 'I am apt to suspect the negroes… to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilised nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or in speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences'. The remainder of the passage then developed the argument along similar lines.
The target for the protestors was the David Hume Tower, the tallest building on the main university campus, and, in the opinion of many, also by far the ugliest. When constructed in the 1960s, it was named to honour the great man who was also an alumnus of Edinburgh.
In September 2020, the EU authorities finally responded to the petitioners by agreeing to rename the tower on an interim basis until a full review was completed. From the beginning of the new academic session, the building was therefore to be known by the more prosaic title of '40 George Square'. The university revealed it had acted because of the philosopher's comments 'on matters of race which though not uncommon at the time, rightly cause distress today' and 'the sensitivities around asking students to use a building named after him'.
When the decision became public, it triggered a passionate controversy both in the mainstream press and social media, not only throughout the UK, but also across the world. The Principal and his senior colleagues were denounced in vitriolic terms from many quarters for 'surrendering' to the protestors without due process being followed.
In January this year, the Department of Philosophy organised an online debate and Q&A session into the David Hume Tower controversy. The invited contributors were two historians and two philosophers from Edinburgh. I was one of the historians involved. Each speaker was asked to consider a particular aspect of the affair. I chose to reflect on the response of the university's senior management to the original petition and how they reacted to it thereafter. This is the text which I presented at that debate:
In the 1990s, I was Deputy Principal of another Scottish university so am personally intrigued how senior management at Edinburgh responded to the student petition on the renaming of the David Hume Tower (DHT). That will therefore be the focus of my remarks today.
In 2004, I was appointed to the Sir William Fraser Chair of Scottish History and Palaeography at Edinburgh, the world's oldest and most venerable professorship in the field. I was proud to become a member of staff of such a world-class institution and have developed a deep affection for the place ever since.
What I am about to say on the Hume affair, therefore, gives me no pleasure. But I believe in all conscience that it has to be said.
David Hume has been branded a 'racist' on the basis of his comments in the now notorious footnote appended to the essay Of National Characters
. But how could such an accusation be taken seriously? Hume was born in 1711 and died in 1776. The very pejorative terms which formed the basis of the protest were not recorded in any authoritative English dictionary until 1902 and only three decades after that they come into more common usage. Hence to condemn Hume for being a 'racist', a term which did not exist until nearly 150 years after his death, is not only manifestly unjust but patently absurd.
It beggars belief that the accusations have been accepted, not only by a university, but the one which has long taken enormous pride in hailing David Hume as its greatest ever alumnus.
The absence then of terms used now to describe words and actions deemed unacceptable is crucial to this debate. Language and its development reflects the values and attitudes of a society. The fact that 'racism' and 'racist' did not exist in 18th-century Scotland confirms that Hume's statement would not have been found unacceptable at that time. He was a leading figure in the Scottish Enlightenment enquiry on the 'science of man', in this case on the diverse and different stages of human development over time. His statement was not a polemic but a considered contribution to a broader scholarly agenda at the time. The debate has long moved on since Hume's time and as a result his comments on black people have been shown to be entirely and profoundly wrong.
However, for the historian, the values of the European world in which Hume lived need to be understood. In the mid-18th century there was no abolitionist movement against black slavery. That came some decades later. Instead, virtually every nook and cranny of Hume's Scotland of that time benefited from the plantation slave-based economies across the Atlantic. Scots were content to reap the rewards of that wicked system which ultimately depended on the widespread assumption that the black man was different and inferior to the white man and could be treated accordingly.
In my career as a university teacher, I have from time to time come across in undergraduate essays examples of the serious error of anachronism, that is the folly of judging societies of centuries ago by the standards and values of today. Now we realise that the leadership of Edinburgh University is no less guilty of committing such howlers.
It pains me to say it, but the scandalous errors they have committed in their delusional responses to the petitioners have left their examiners with little choice but to hand down a grade of 'very bad fail'. The examination board, while generously giving permission to resit, insists however, before doing so, the failed will be obliged to attend a short course on the philosophy of history, specially designed to provide a possible cure for their myopia. After that first grievous mistake then followed the crazy decision to authorise an interim
name change for the David Hume Tower before careful enquiry had been carried out and specialist advice sought. And this despite the fact that no academic specialist in history or philosophy is currently a member of the senior management group. This bizarre action not only placed the proverbial cart before the horse but the rush to judgement gave the impression to outside observers that the university had abandoned impartiality and already taken the side of the petitioners.
Due process there was none. The authorities blundered on with no attempt to consult the Senatus, the supreme academic body of the institution, the academic staff or the 95% of the student body who had not signed the original petition.
Other crass errors followed in quick succession:
Denaming Edinburgh's most illustrious alumnus and a legendary global colossus of philosophy and history required at the very least a formal public announcement and explanation presented by the Principal. Of that there was none. Instead, the news filtered out to an astonished world via the web pages of an obscure university sub-committee.
Some suspected that casual and eccentric approach to news management implied the authorities had little or no awareness of the potent symbolism of the Hume Tower change of name. The suspicion was soon confirmed. When the national and international media storm broke, the powers that be had no response strategy in place to try to counter the vilification of the university which followed.
A public relations disaster without compare in the recent history of Scottish higher education then inexorably unfolded. Not having a clue how to react, the leaders of the university retreated into obdurate and blinkered silence, a posture which left them rightly exposed to accusations of arrogance and hubris. They hunkered down in their bunkers and fervently hoped the agony would soon pass away. Instead, the press blitz not only continued unabated but intensified.
Magnum Silentium soon infected other parts of the university while all the time Edinburgh's famous reputation was being shredded across international media. The normally hyperactive press office was eerily quiet and soon began to resemble a modern day Marie Celeste. Even the University Court fell victim to the contagious infection. The DHT controversy was on the agenda for their meeting of November 2020. As yet, no minute has been published of the proceedings but reports have it that neither the Principal or any other member of that august body, charged inter alia with protection of the university's reputation, uttered a word. It was as if the whole lot of them had taken a collective vow of omertà in the classic mafia tradition.
Open, robust but civilised debate and the clash of ideas are the very lifeblood of a great university. That did not happen at Edinburgh University over the last few months. Nor, very sadly, did it take place publicly among the scholarly community in Scotland in general. With the exception of a tiny number of voices, the academy was as silent as their counterparts at EU. Where was the Royal Society of Edinburgh, itself founded during the lifetime of David Hume in the 18th century? What will history make of its unwillingness to defend one of the nation's greatest sons? My own answer to that question is simple and unambiguous: trahison des clercs!
The tragedy of this dismal affair is that there could have been another way. Before Christmas, I was contacted out of the blue by a senior official of Toronto City Council inviting me to become historical adviser in their response to their own denaming petition which had been received earlier in the year.
The petitioners wanted the name of Toronto's most famous, longest and historic thoroughfare changed because it was called after the Scottish 18th-century politician, Henry Dundas, then being condemned for allegedly helping to postpone the abolition of the slave trade in the British empire.
The Council responded by establishing a task force which developed a coherent plan of action, sought advice from scholars both in Canada and abroad, declined to consult social activists and interest groups with axes to grind, set up organised online public information and Q&A sessions, and established an academic seminar which will then become an international conference. All of this will culminate later this year with the publication of a short list of options for public debate, followed by a decision on how to respond to the renaming petition.
That approach is an example of cool and effective professionalism. Edinburgh's, by contrast, ended up as an utter shambles. Even if the authorities there did not wish to go down the ambitious route taken by Toronto, they could easily have postponed the naming decision, informed all students and staff by email that the petition was being taken seriously, carried out a full review and published the results when completed. If that had happened, Edinburgh would have been spared the current acrimonious divisions within the university community on the Hume affair and the public damage which has been done to its international reputation.
Sir Tom Devine is Sir William Fraser Professor Emeritus of Scottish History and Palaeography at the University of Edinburgh. He has the unique distinction of being elected to all the learned academies in the British Isles for which he is eligible: Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (FRSE), Honorary Member of the Royal Irish Academy (HonMRIA), and Fellow of the British Academy (FBA)