University of Edinburgh Re-Names Building Over Namesake’s 260-Year-Old Comments on Race

September 14, 2020 Updated: September 14, 2020

The University of Edinburgh has renamed a building that was dedicated to an 18th-century philosopher due to his “comments on matters of race” that “rightly cause distress today.”

Campuses should reflect “contemporary and historical diversity” and there are “sensitivities” around asking students to use a building named after David Hume, one of Scotland’s most lauded philosophers, the university said in a statement on Thursday.

The David Hume Tower will be temporarily known as 40 George Square until a full review has been carried out.

The building renaming is part of the university’s diversity and race-related committees’ ongoing evaluation, which has been “energized” by the death in May of George Floyd in the United States, the university said.

University of Edinburgh,
Old College at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, which was founded in 1852, making it the sixth oldest university in the English-speaking world. (Kim Traynor/Public Domain)

The committees’ work was also influenced by the “ongoing campaigning by the Black Lives Matter movement,” and the committees’ Equality and Anti-Racist Action Plan was “accelerating and amplifying” their efforts.

Pressure on the university to rename the building also came in the form of an online petition started 3 months ago and signed by over 1,800 people.

“Nobody is demanding we erase David Hume from history. However, we should not be promoting a man who championed white supremacy,” wrote Elizabeth Lund, the petition’s author. “That is mutually exclusive with the goal of reducing the harm caused by racism at Edinburgh University to students of color.”

Criticism

University of Edinburgh staff as well as politicians have criticized the decision to rename the David Hume Tower.

Asanga Welikala, a lecturer in public law at Edinburgh Law School and the director of the Edinburgh Center for Constitutional Law, said that he has been inspired by Hume and doesn’t agree with the re-naming decision.

“David Hume’s thought has inspired me throughout a 20-year career working to further constitutional democracy in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa,” he wrote on Twitter on Sunday.

“As an employee of Edinburgh University I was not consulted in this,” added Welikala, who is also a research fellow at the Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA) in Sri Lanka.

David Hume was an empirical philosopher born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1711, and was a leading voice, along with his friend Adam Smith, in the Scottish Enlightenment—a period that led to the development of modern economics, sociology, and linguistics.

His most famous works include “A Treatise of Human Nature” (1739–1740), “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding” (1748), and “An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals “(1751), as well as the posthumously published “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” (1779).

Jonathan Hearn, a professor of political and historical sociology at the university, wrote on his blog Uneasy Essays, that Hume’s comments in a footnote to an essay he wrote in 1753 were “racist, offensive, and worthy of condemnation.” But he still admired him.

“Hume deserves to be criticized for this belief, and if that were all there were to him, to be largely forgotten,” Hearn said.

“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. …

“By all means, criticize his errors, debate his ideas, and if necessary, remove his name from buildings.  But he deserves to be remembered,” Hearn said.

The University of Edinburgh said, despite the renaming and the coincidental discontinuation of the David Hume Fellowship, they were committed to “scholarship, teaching and learning around David Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment.”

Wrong to be Ashamed

Maurice Golden, the Scottish Conservative culture spokesman, told The Telegraph that “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,” he said.

Golden also called for “a more reasonable, mature, debate about the rights and wrongs of the past.”

“We can proudly respect our history and recognize when people got it very wrong at the same time,” he said.

“This decision does not do that.”

In a tweet, Conservative Member of Parliament Neil O’Brien also spoke out strongly against The University of Edinburgh’s decision, calling it a “cowardly, stupid, craven, pathetic, spineless, dumb thing to do.”

The University of Edinburgh is a member of the Russell Group, a group of 24 top UK universities.

A spokesperson for the group told The Epoch Times in an email that “Our members are autonomous institutions and take their own decisions on these matters.”

The University of Edinburgh had not responded to a request for comment by the time of publication.

Renaming Streets

The renaming follows widespread unrest in both the UK and the United States that has seen the tearing down and defacing of statues of historical figures.

The university said it was looking at “many other issues beyond the naming of buildings,” and highlighted that The City of Edinburgh Council was undertaking a similar review.

The council’s review is to include its own employment policy and procedures, as well as diversity in all council-run school settings across Scotland’s capital city as part of a “council-wide response to Black Lives Matter.”

“The council is reviewing a number of features in the Capital which commemorate those with close links to slavery and colonialism including public statues and monuments, street and building names,” a spokesperson told The Epoch Times in an email.

Council Leader Adam McVey of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) said in a statement that the council wanted to “consign racism and prejudice to history.”

He wanted the council to look at “all options” for “rectifying the glorification of slavery and colonialism in our streets,” he said.

Talking about Edinburgh’s links to slavery, Cammy Day, the council’s deputy leader and Edinburgh Labour Group leader, said the council was looking at how they “can highlight this side of Edinburgh’s history to our young people, parents and teaching staff so that they have the support and tools they need to make black history a core part of school life.”

Day also said the council was “already committed to review our museum and gallery collections through the lens of BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] history.”

“We’ve also put a temporary plaque in place to more accurately tell the history of the statue of Henry Dundas, a man who had links to the slave trade,” Day said in a statement.