Why Edinburgh University should not cravenly disown David Hume –Duncan Macmillan

Scottish Englightenment philosopher David hume helped forge the values which self-righteous critics now deploy against him, writes Professor Duncan Macmillan.

Thursday, 24th September 2020, 4:45 pm
A statue of David Hume on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh (Picture: Robert Perry)
A statue of David Hume on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh (Picture: Robert Perry)

With his luminous intelligence and profound humanity, both in person and in his published philosophy, David Hume was central to the Scottish Enlightenment. As such, he did much to shape the modern world and, so far as it ever has been civilised, to civilise it.

In his lifetime, the University of Edinburgh did not treat its distinguished alumnus very well, but nearly sixty years ago by calling its new arts building after him, it did make a gesture of contrition and posthumous recognition. His name at least became familiar to generations of students, even if they never enquired who he was.

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When Hume began to write his philosophy, Scotland had only recently emerged from generations of religious upheaval, the inevitable conflict of beliefs whose only validation was the force for each of its own conviction and its intolerance of all others. It was this history that made the Scottish Enlightenment unique.

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To establish the true nature of knowledge, its origins and its limits, and thus distinguish between what is knowable and true and what is merely unfounded belief would drive a stake through the heart of this monster. That is what Hume set out to do. Tolerance, it was hoped, would then become the norm.

Tragically, unfounded belief with its terrifying potential for death and destruction is now on the rise again. If any institution should stand against the resurrection of this hideous source of strife, it should be the University of Edinburgh, identified as it is by its history so closely with the Enlightenment.

Now however, rather than defend Hume against the suggestion that one racially prejudiced remark should invalidate all he stood for, the University, succumbing to ill-informed pressure, has removed his name from the building that commemorated him, the David Hume Tower.

That the institution should abandon its only public identification with this great and profoundly humane thinker is pusillanimous. Worse, it betrays the university’s own mission, inherited as it is from Hume and the thinkers of the Enlightenment, to teach how to distinguish between fact and opinion, and, by research to seek to enlarge our knowledge and understanding of what is true and what is false, indeed between what is knowledge and what is merely belief.

It is impossible that two-and-a-half centuries ago, Hume should have thought as we do on every issue. Nevertheless he helped forge the values which his self-righteous critics now deploy against him.

The University of Edinburgh should strive to clarify, maintain and celebrate his legacy, not cravenly disown its uniquely distinguished alumnus on the strength of one remark. This single remark, plainly inconsistent with his uncompromising view that slavery is abhorrent, cannot conceivably invalidate all the rest of his shining achievement.

No one is perfect, and so, while acknowledging that Hume like all of us was fallible, we should honour him for what he did do for us, not judge him, remote in his century, with the shallow rectitude and narrow intolerance of our own.

Duncan Macmillan is professor emeritus of the history of Scottish art at the University of Edinburgh and The Scotsman’s art critic

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