Edinburgh University takes yet another step to distance itself from its most important intellectual legacy – the Scottish Enlightenment – as it has decided to rename its David Hume Tower after some students claim that the 18th-century philosopher’s views on race cause them distress.
There is little that is exceptional about Hume’s views on race. Like the vast majority of people living in the 18th century, he interpreted human and social differences through the prism of race. But the fact that Hume had racist views is one of the least interesting and least important things about him. He was an energetic foe of the dogmas and conventions of his era. His philosophical scepticism and atheism were frequently denounced by those who upheld the prevailing moral order.
It is unlikely that those who claim to be ‘distressed’ by Hume have actually bothered to study his work. If they had, they would realise that the writings of this remarkably sceptical philosopher are an important intellectual resource that those opposed to prejudice can draw upon. He may have been a prejudiced man, but his writings were animated by a critical spirit that challenged prevailing dogmas. That is why those of us who are committed to free thinking continue to regard him as an intellectual giant.