Edinburgh Uni 'cancels' David Hume by renaming tower due to philosopher’s views on race

13 September 2020, 10:04 | Updated: 13 September 2020, 10:42

The David Hume Tower at Edinburgh University has been renamed
The David Hume Tower at Edinburgh University has been renamed. Picture: Google

By Ewan Somerville

Edinburgh University has decided to rename its David Hume Tower because the 18th century philosopher’s comments on race “cause distress”.

The institution, a member of the Russell Group of 24 leading UK universities, said the prominent capmus building “will be known as 40 George Square” from the start of the academic year. 

It follows a campaign by students to strip the Scottish Enlightenment figure's name, citing his apparent links to the slave trade. 

Several British universities have submitted to Black Lives Matter activists' demands in recent months to rename buildings and reconsider crests with links to the British Empire, amid a wave of global protests since the death of African American George Floyd in US police custody. 

Edinburgh University said in a letter to students: “It is important that campuses, curricula and communities reflect both the University’s contemporary and historical diversity and engage with its institutional legacy across the world. 

“For this reason the university has taken the decision to re-name – initially temporarily until a full review is completed – one of the buildings in the Central Area campus.

“From the start of the new academic year the David Hume Tower will be known as 40 George Square.

“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.”

A petition to remove David Hume’s name had amassed almost 1,800 signatures and the support of Edinburgh University Students’ Association. It claimed that naming the building after him “sends a very clear message” to black students “that we are willing to overlook this racism for the sake of alumni glory”.

Felix Waldmann, a former David Hume fellow at the university who teaches history at Christ’s College, Cambridge, also joined the calls after uncovering a letter from 1766 in which Hume urged his patron, Lord Hertford, to buy a plantation in Grenada.

The decision to change the name prompted anger on social media. Christina Sommers, a former philosophy professor, tweeted: “My God. David Hume is cancelled. Shame on U of Edinburgh.”

Kathleen Stock, a philosophy professor at Sussex University, wrote: “So much easier to symbolically flagellate dead 18th century geniuses than meaningfully work on structural issues now… Not sure they've really thought this through.”

Lecturer Damon Linker added: “What? You don’t love David Hume? No worries. He thinks you’re idiots. And he’s right.”

In June Liverpool University said it would rename its Gladstone Halls, which honoured former liberal British Prime Minister William Gladstone, because of his family’s links to the slave trade. 

Imperial College London dropped a 112-year-old Latin motto from its logo that vowed to “safeguard the empire”, while Bristol University is reviewing the name of its iconic Wills Memorial Building and its crest for links to the Empire.