Remembering Hume

My university has recently announced its intention to ‘temporarily’ rename David Hume Tower by the more harmless ‘40 George Square’,[1] in light of a recent petition calling for its renaming on the basis of objection to a notorious racist footnote in his essay ‘Of National Character’ (1753).  One can read extensive comment on the footnote and its history[2], so I will not go into it again here.  Suffice it to say that the views Hume expresses there are racist, offensive, and worthy of condemnation. 

Let me start by saying I don’t have any deep commitment to the naming of buildings.  This will always reflect the times in which a building is named, or renamed, and there is not much at stake in the names of buildings (unless one is a rich benefactor wanting a building named after yourself).  But I suspect that if we did an exhaustive review of the histories of all persons with buildings names after them, we would end up working largely in numbered addresses.  Indeed, the petition in question originally proposed renaming the David Hume Tower after Edinburgh graduate Julius Nyerere until it was pointed out that he held homophobic views.

My concern here is as someone who is a great admirer of Hume, who has read Hume’s work extensively for many years, sometimes referring to his ideas in my own writing.  I have been aware of the racist footnote for a long time.  So, given his racist views, how do I defend my admiration for him? 

The simple answer is that we judge people, including intellectuals like Hume, in the round, on their general contributions and accomplishments, not by seeking out any failing we can find and focussing all our attention on that.  Few of us can survive this kind of scrutiny.  If Hume had been an early theorist of ‘scientific racism’, like the 19th century American figures Louis Agassi or Samuel George Morton, it would be a different case, because these men built whole bodies of work on now discredited racist ideas[3].  Hume’s footnote is pretty much the extent of his commentary on race.  As many have noted, he condemned slavery in another essay, and the thrust of the essay on national character was sceptical about the environmental or ‘material’ determination of what we would now call ‘culture’ and ‘personality’.  The point of the footnote was that he was conceding what he (wrongly) thought might be an exception to the main direction of his argument, namely, that sub-Saharan Africans (‘negroes’) might be naturally inferior to other ‘races’.

Hume deserves to be criticised for this belief, and if that were all there were to him, to be largely forgotten.  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.  I will sketch just two that are important to me, to suggest the case in his favour.

First, anyone who disagrees with the tradition of thought associated with Europe that reduces human behaviour and morality to the rational calculation of self-interest, owes a debt to Hume.  He argued that human morality was not grounded in self-interest, nor in divine prescription, but rather in our natural propensity to care about the judgements of others, or our peers, and to seek their approval and avoid their disapproval.  As feeling creatures sensitive to others, our moral relations are built up out of this fabric of sentiment, not rational calculation in the first instance.  Hume is often quoted and used in epigraphs in recent writings seeking the deeper evolutionary roots of human morality, precisely because his insight into the natural basis of morality was way ahead of its time.  We are fundamentally social creatures who have survived and thrived as a species because we are distinctively capable of complex cooperative behaviour, made possible by our emotional sensitivity to the demands of the wider social groups we are a part of[4].

Second, we live in an age in which the relationship between science and morality, between objective empirical knowledge and our moral intuitions, is deeply problematic.  The influential sociologist Max Weber argued that we must commit ourselves to the pursuit of objective knowledge, while having the courage to take, and take responsibility for, actions that can never be simply justified by such knowledge.  The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche more dramatically proclaimed the unravelling of moral authority altogether, nonetheless praising the courageous individual able to create value out of themselves (Weber read Nietzsche).  The fraught insights of these German thinkers have come down to us as more anodyne and endless debates about the ‘fact/value’ distinction in the social sciences, which remain alive.  Hume stands near the beginning of this great rupture between scientific and moral authority.  In what has come to be called ‘Hume’s fork’ he argued compellingly that it is not possible to logically derive moral statements about how the world ought to be, from factual statements about how the world is.  While many have resisted this argument to this day, it is difficult to refute, and might be taken as a succinct diagnosis of the modern age, in which the grounds of morality, and whether there even is such a thing, are chronically contested.  Hume would have consoled himself that the ground of our morality in is our natural dispositions toward those around us, not our rational arguments based on fundamental principles.

Among other things, Hume’s work provides enduring insight into the dilemmas of modern moral order, and the natural roots of human morality.  Those who read him carefully will be rewarded.  By all means, criticise his errors, debate his ideas, and if necessary, remove his name from buildings.  But he deserves to be remembered.


[1] https://www.ed.ac.uk/news/students/2020/equality-diversity-and-inclusion-an-update

[2] See: John Immerwahr (1992) ‘Hume’s Revised Racism’, Journal of the History of Ideas 53(3): 482-486; Aaron Garrett (2000) ‘Hume’s Revised Racism Revisited’ Hume Studies 26(1): 171-177; see also Julian Baggini’s ‘Why Sexist and Racist Philosophers Might still be Admirable’ here: https://aeon.co/ideas/why-sexist-and-racist-philosophers-might-still-be-admirable.

[3] See: Stephen Jay Gould (1981) The Mismeasure of Man, New York: W. W. Norton, pp. 42-69.

[4] For example: Samuel Bowles (2016) The Moral Economy: Why good incentives are no substitute for good citizens, New Haven: Yale University Press; Michael Tomasello (2016) A Natural History of Human Morality, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Published by jshearn

Professor of Political and Historical Sociology, University of Edinburgh.

19 thoughts on “Remembering Hume

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