It is a decision that has horrified some of Scotland's leading academics and several of its own staff members.
But the University of Edinburgh, facing a growing backlash for renaming a major building dedicated to the influential philosopher David Hume over racist statements from more than two-and-a-half centuries ago, has found an unlikely ally.
The Hume Society, dedicated to debating and spreading the writings of one of the 438-year-old university’s most brilliant students, has come out in support of the embattled institution.
Breaking four days of silence, the Hume Society issued a statement in which it said it “acknowledges and abhors Hume’s racism” and the “contributions he made to pro-slavery movements and the oppression of Black people in Europe and the Americas.”
It backed the right of the university to “determine whom to honor in the naming of its buildings” and said it was supportive of “increasing awareness” of the “harmful aspects” of Hume’s legacy.
The remarks were described as “bizarre” by Professor Sir Tom Devine, Scotland’s leading historian.
While Hume did not write extensively on issues of race and argued against slavery, a footnote in a 1758 essay stated: “I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites”. A letter has also been uncovered in which he wrote a letter to a patron encouraging him to invest in a slave plantation.
The university said it was renaming the tower due to “sensitivities” about asking students to use a building named after a man whose views on race, though “not uncommon at the time, rightly cause distress today.”
Sir Tom has led the backlash, saying the university’s vice-chancellor, Peter Mathieson, should “hang his head in absolute shame” over the move. He has said it is an “intellectual sin” to judge historic figures or works by today’s moral standards.
AC Grayling, the philosopher, said that while he strongly opposed racism, he was opposed to the move to “cease to recognise one of the great figures in the history of philosophy.”
Founded in 1974, the Hume Society holds annual conferences and publishes a bi-annual journal, in an attempt to “stimulate scholarship on all aspects of the thought and writings” of Hume.
As a former Rector of Edinburgh University I’m appalled that this supposed seat of learning has cancelled one of the greatest philosophers of the Enlightenment, David Hume. A figure without whom the very notions of humanism and equality would almost literally be unthinkable. pic.twitter.com/hlWp0mSMoF— Iain Macwhirter (@iainmacwhirter) September 16, 2020
The group’s statement issued by Margaret Watkins, a senior academic at Saint Vincent College in Pennsylvania and the current President of the Hume Society, added: “As we continue to explore Hume’s legacy in various areas of thought, we are committed to increasing awareness of the harmful aspects of that legacy and encouraging an ongoing conversation about these issues.
“The Hume Society affirms that Black Lives Matter and is committed to fighting white supremacy. Efforts to institutionalise inclusivity and decenter whiteness need not be at odds with efforts to critically examine the intellectual contributions of historical figures.”
The statement was issued after leading academics at Edinburgh wrote their own scathing letter to its principal, warning that renaming the tower undermined the institution’s global standing and the reputations of staff.
They said the move to rename the building 40 George Square was “simplistic”, “tokenistic rather than principled” and “not appropriate for a serious university”.
Wait a minute. Did Edinburgh University rename David Hume Tower "40 George Square"? Isn't that square named after George III? Don't they know that the king was pro-slavery - unlike David Hume, who called slavery "barbarism".— Johan Norberg (@johanknorberg) September 15, 2020
Sir Tom, one of the letter’s signatories, said he had been baffled by the statement from the Hume Society.
He added: “The President of the society is obviously correct in condemning any statement Hume made in his writings which can nowadays be regarded as arrant racism.
"But the curiosity of this is no attempt is made to mention that the vast nature of Hume’s oeuvre was dedicated to understanding, on the basis of philosophical rigour, the human condition. Hardly anybody ever on this planet has done that better.
“The perspective of the society, therefore, is extraordinarily skewed. As far as the university’s decision is concerned, the Hume Society shows extraordinary naivety. The university undeniably has a right to rename any of its buildings, but only, and especially in a controversial case like this, after due process. This was not carried out in this particular case.
“That fact that the silence from university senior management on this issue remains deafening, perhaps indicates that they cannot really respond in a rational or effective way to charges laid against them in recent press coverage.”