Architecture, Black Lives Matter, David Hume, David Hume Tower, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University, Elizabeth Lund, History, History of Edinburgh, Humor, Nicholas Phillipson (historian), Philosophy, Race, Racism, Scepticism, Scottish Enlightenment
This website is going to continue to call the David Hume Tower the David Hume Tower. The words “David Hume Tower” generate “about 5,210,000 results” on Google and I am not sure that Edinburgh’s population will be trained in using the silly new name any time soon. Imagine the entanglements that must be currently snarling up Freshers Week:
“Hi son, you look a little lost.”
“I’m looking for 40 George Square.”
“Never heard of it. Are you sure you’re in the right city? This is Edinburgh, not Glasgow.”
“Er… it’s meant to be a tower… filled with Edinburgh University study space.”
“Well, Edinburgh University only has two towers that I can think of. Appleton Tower, the ugly one, and the David Hume Tower, the slightly less ugly one.”
“The one I’m looking for is a tower and it also isn’t a tower. It’s called 40 George Square.”
“How remarkable! This tower of yours must be the only tower in architectural history without the word ‘tower’ in its title.”
“I’ll keep looking. Maybe it’s somewhere in that new, gloomy underground section of George Square. By the way, who is this David Hume that you mentioned?”
“You’ve never heard of David Hume? Quick! – start running! – you have to get educated at once!”
I have always felt that the David Hume Tower looks rather stumpy. It is probably the puniest size that a tower can ever come in these days before the world ceases to recognise it as being a tower. Incidentally, I love the sheer atmosphere of all of that dank, fungoid brutalism that had sprouted around George Square during the nineteen sixties. My face begins to harden a little whenever people say things like, “Hume is altogether better off without that eyesore” or “give the man a proper tower.”
In “Equality, Diversity and Inclusion – an update,” a communiqué from last week, Edinburgh University had announced that the tower would be unnamed. According to the update, “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.”
Careerist academia has lately embarked upon an endless, feverish hunt for stains amongst the dirty laundry of history. Hume has certainly provided enough evidence for these professional pants-sniffers to pounce upon. In 1753, he had written in a footnote to his essay “Of National Characters” that, “I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites.”
It is clear from this that Hume was a racist, lock, stock, and barrel. He would not allow that black people share fully in the communion of humanity. For him, human equality was not indivisible and it was instead disrupted by an apparently innate racial hierarchy.
Yet Hume’s critics quickly run into difficulty whenever they attempt to revile him based on these comments. Let us put aside the awkward fact, which has been widely omitted from the media coverage about the tower’s renaming, that Hume was opposed to slavery (albeit because he was more concerned about its brutalising influence upon the slaveholders than about its denial of the slaves’ humanity). Where Hume is wrong on race is precisely where he falls foul of what he himself had contributed to our civilisation: Humean scepticism.
It is obvious from the abstract tone of Hume’s remarks that he had either never met a black person or else that he had never troubled himself to speak with one. In the most cardinal error for everybody who is wearing a David Hume t-shirt, the ideas that Hume has formed about black people cannot be traced back to a reliable impression. No doubt a couple of minutes of conversation with Ignatius Sancho or Olaudah Equiano would have demolished Hume’s bumptious belief that a black intellectual was merely “like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.” So Hume’s views on race are not just poor philosophy; they are shoddy journalism.
I place such emphasis upon the idea of Hume meeting a black person because sociability, clubbability, dialogues and discourse were so central to how he had observed the Enlightenment. Perhaps Hume had ultimately needed to picture a black reader. With this, it might have finally struck him that he was not potentially writing for white people alone and that readers of other races could access his insights. Still, Edinburgh University has named so many tons of concrete after Hume because of how he had applied philosophy to ordinary life, in a way that proves indispensable when it comes to rumbling racists such as Hume himself. One of the reasons why I am an anti-racist is because I have absorbed Hume’s philosophy.
My anti-racism has not originated from mere sentimentality or from fashionable political mantras and its taproot instead reaches all the way down into philosophy itself. If somebody tells me that I have a separate and more superior kind of consciousness to a black person, purely because I have pale skin, my reply is, “I don’t believe you, show me the evidence.” And so far, nobody has ever persuasively shown me such evidence. (Of course, Humean scepticism does not discount the possibility that all other people apart from ourselves are philosophical zombies, but here there remains no empirical distinction between the black zombies and the white ones).
There has been considerable opposition to the renaming of the tower since Edinburgh University had issued its communiqué, but worryingly little of it has come from its own academic departments. I should say that I was once fortunate enough to be a student of Edinburgh University’s Nicholas Phillipson, a biographer of Hume. The only sunny side to Phillipson’s untimely death in 2018 is that he had never lived to see the tower’s renaming, something that would have seriously depressed him. Alternatively, the tower’s renaming might have never occurred if Phillipson’s eloquence was still available today.
The historian Professor Tom Devine, formerly an Edinburgh man, has waged that, “there is no evidence that any groups in Scotland opposed chattel slavery in the colonies… By the criterion of this stupid decision, the whole of Scotland in that period deserved moral condemnation.” Another line of defence is that equally-famous historical figures were more actively bigoted than Hume was. Twitter’s Edwin Moore highlights the inconsistency that, “many buildings, roads, estates etc named after Keir Hardie, an old racist who was proud that Scots didnt like immigrants, who himself didn’t like Jews, Lithuanians, Irish Catholics, Blacks.”
Rather than trying to smooth down Hume’s racism into its historical context, I would like to contend that the most important aspect of his philosophy is not offensive at all. The danger is of categorising Hume as being fundamentally alien to the cultures of many of the students who have lately arrived at Edinburgh University, as if he somehow represents the values of imperialist, white-supremacist overlords. If Hume is an expression of white triumphalism, however, then why is William Shakespeare or Charlotte Bronte not just as compromised? In truth, Hume’s eminence was never simply imposed along with the British Empire. He is qualitatively superior to many other thinkers (at least from Edinburgh’s history), in ways that can be understood and explored by anybody, regardless of who they are or where they are from.
Hume is a veteran of being cancelled by Edinburgh University. In 1744, he had been a candidate for the Chair of Moral Philosophy but the city’s clergy had objected to his reputed atheism. Ever since, Edinburgh University has been shamefaced at having missed out on bagging such a prestigious philosopher, so much so that the tower was named after him as a belated, symbolic act of atonement. But in a recurrence so palpable that it virtually aches, the people who had in 1744 controlled the university administration were clearly the same stock narrow-minded characters, playing the same ignominious role in history, as the people who are in charge now.
In 1744, as in 2020, there was the same problem of humiliating whoever was put up to follow or replace Hume. In 1744, Hume had lost the Chair of Moral Philosophy to William Cleghorn, who was deemed to be safer, more politically acceptable, and happily inoffensive to all of the most significant people. Unfortunately, he was also a supreme nonentity and his fluffiness was mercilessly exposed by weighing him alongside Hume.
If Edinburgh University had any sense of humour, they would rename Hume’s vacated seat as the William Cleghorn Tower. This would be certainly a far more fitting name than many of the others in the running. Hilariously, Elizabeth Lund, the instigator of the petition “Rename David Hume Tower at UoE,” had alighted upon the perfect individual to replace Hume. Julius Nyerere, an Edinburgh alumnus and a president of Tanzania. Nyerere was a head of state, so even if he could hardly hope to ever measure up to Hume as a thinker, his official role would at least add a few helpful inches to his heels. But then disaster had struck:
A previous iteration of this petition campaigned for the name to be changed to Julius Nyerere Tower. It has been brought to my attention by multiple students that Nyerere was harmful in his own ways, both through his ties to dictatorship and through his homophobia. This petition now only campaigns for the renaming of David Hume Tower. Thank you so much to the students who contacted me to educate me. I sincerely apologize for any harm I have caused.
In a speeding up of the inevitably cyclical process, poor President Nyerere was being reviled even before they had managed to name the tower after him. Still, I feel tremendously sorry for Lund. She sounds like a do-gooding colonial administrator who is bewildered that her suggestion for a suitable native to glorify has met with such a scornful response. But you can see that she has been educated and she has apologised sincerely and she has nimbly thrown Nyerere to the mob in time, so please don’t turn on her as well!
Hopelessly, the university staggered on to rename the David Hume Tower after its own address, which was surely so neutral and empty-sounding that it couldn’t generate any further offense. Alas, the George in 40 George Square is widely believed (i.e. on social media) to refer to King George III, an insane, warmongering monarch with countless slaveholders numbering amongst his most loyal subjects. In other words, the renaming appears to have substituted one of the most progressive personalities from the Scottish Enlightenment for one of its most marginal and unrepresentative ones.
We should nonetheless trace all ideas back to their impressions. The correct George, or so Edinburgh University claims, is the elder brother of the square’s architect, James Brown. This George was an army officer, the laird of Elliston and Lindsaylands, and also a tax collector. If Hume is wrong, and human consciousness really does survive bodily annihilation, then George Brown must be thoroughly puzzled at the moment. Imagine the scene up in the clouds:
Angel: You! Brown! There’s a telegram for you.
George Brown: I’m kind of busy right now, tuning this harp. Can you read it out for me?
Angel: It says that they’ve named a tower after you.
George: Me? Now? Why?
Angel: It used to be the tower of David Hume, who’s singing in that choir over there.
George: But Hume’s a genius…. though maybe not so brilliant as a falsetto. What did I do to get a tower named after me?
Angel: I guess you did a good job collecting those taxes. Listen, why are you complaining? It’s not every schmuck who has a tower named after them.
God [from the eternal throne]: I’m still bloody calling it the David Hume Tower!