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In defence of David Hume

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IN HIS PLAY, “The Crucible”, Arthur Miller has the protagonist John Proctor, say the following,

“We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!”

Of course, this was in the context of the Salem witch hunt, but there could hardly be a more apt metaphor for what is going on in our universities and other higher education institutions today.  The University of Edinburgh’s decision to remove the name of David Hume (1711-1776) from the campus tower of that name, is just the latest manifestation of today’s ‘woke’ movement in which self-appointed ‘Inquisitors’ investigate possible heretics and pronounce judgement on those convicted.  In this case, it was the university’s ‘Race Equality and Anti-Racist Sub-Committee’ which concluded that Hume’s racist utterances caused “distress” and that his name should no longer be associated with the building that bears it.  In 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, it was enough to point the finger; today it is enough to scream “racist” to ignite the wrath and self-righteous invective of social justice warriors.

The decision to remove Hume’s name, originates in an online petition, orchestrated by a single individual.  It attracted 1,700 signatures – 4 per cent of the total student population.  It is not known what proportion of the signatories are actually studying at Edinburgh – or are even students at all.   It is astonishing, that the university decided to take the action it did, on such a slender basis of legitimacy.

Most mature adults acknowledge Hume’s racist comments and reject them as being entirely repugnant to modern sensibilities.  They also recognise that such utterances were part of the zeitgeist in the 18th century.  Unfortunately, today’s student activists are so blinded by the radiance of their own moral virtue, they cannot see – or choose not to – that, had they been living in Hume’s epoch, they would very likely have espoused similar views.   Moreover, if they took the same time and trouble to discover their own genealogy as they do in investigating the transgressions of others, they may well have to confront some inconvenient truths about their own ancestry.  I am not alone in my opinions here.  In a recent interview, Barack Obama was sharply critical of the judgementalism evidenced by many groups on university campuses.  He said: “The world is messy; there are ambiguities.  People who do really good stuff have flaws”.  Well, David Hume did good stuff, but seemingly not enough for today’s campus activists for whom only moral sainthood will do.

Self-evidently the university Vice-Chancellor and his management team should have challenged and faced down this retrospective cultural censorship, as should senior academics.  Instead they capitulated without so much as a whimper.

Worse still, they sought to mitigate their actions, by announcing that they had appointed three new Hume “scholars” to the department of philosophy.  One of the academics there has even reassured me that they are hoping to organize a series of events so that they may “…take advantage of the situation to increase interest in Hume’s work…”  

There is more than a whiff of hypocrisy in this.  On the one hand the university has publicly traduced Hume’s reputation and character by labelling him a racist, whilst simultaneously helping itself to his intellectual legacy.  Thus, having carried out the assassination they proceed to rob the corpse.  Some academic philosophers apparently see no inconsistency in this, but others view it as self-serving arrogance.

David Hume is widely regarded as the greatest philosopher to write in the English language and, along with Thomas Hobbes, one of the two most important thinkers.  Hume placed great emphasis on the limits of human reason and the need for intellectual humility.   He was also a wonderful human being and, were he alive today, would be the first to acknowledge his imperfections.  Not for nothing, his many French admirers gave him the sobriquet Le Bon David and his great friend Adam Smith famously said that he approached “as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit”. There is an intellectual directness and honesty about Hume, to which most of us can only aspire.  He knew that we are flawed, vulnerable and mortal beings – which is what the current woke generation is incapable of confronting.  Instead they need to re-make the past by sanitising it, whilst offering no coherent vision of the future.  Humility is not a prominent word in their lexicon.

It is simply perverse for this generation of students – predominantly the privileged offspring of well-off parents – to characterise universities in this country as bastions of racism and inequality.  Edinburgh remains one of the jewels of Europe – a wonderfully open and cosmopolitan city in one of the most tolerant countries on earth.  The extraordinary flowering of philosophical and scientific genius that characterised the Scottish Enlightenment, changed the world and provided the foundation for modernity.  None of this, of course, is of any interest to the current activists whose only aim is destruction in the name of what the philosopher, Paul Russell, has aptly called “vain moralism”.   There is barely a sliver of gratitude for the civilisation or the heritage of which they are the fortunate heirs.  They are the perfect exemplars of Nietzsche’s ressentiment.

The truth is that for 250 years the University of Edinburgh has been happy to bask in the lustre and glory of Hume’s reputation, but the first time it was asked to defend him, it ran away – an act of the most egregious and unforgivable cowardice, for which all those who participated should be ashamed.

In his own obituary, Hume described his life and said that he would “leave it to posterity to add the rest”.  Posterity will most certainly record its judgement on the actions of the University of Edinburgh.  They may not like it.

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