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Cancelling David Hume

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Cancelling David Hume

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Daniel Johnson writes on our sister website, Law and Liberty, on David Hume and cancel culture. The University of Edinburgh “decided to rename the David Hume Tower, one of the best-known landmarks on its campus; it will henceforth be known as ‘40 George Square’.” The decision was taken because what Johnson calls “the fatal footnote – a brief sentence that to modern eyes seems unambiguously racist. His main argument is directed against Montesquieu’s claim that climate and other physical causes determine what we would call culture.”

The key argument by Johnson is at the end of his piece:

Was Hume more prejudiced than other thinkers of his day? Hardly: Voltaire and Kant, for example, were vicious anti-Semites. Or was he more complicit in the slave trade? No: Isaac Newton had been a large shareholder in the South Sea Company, which supplied slaves to Latin America. Hume’s compatriot, Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns, accepted a post as a slave overseer in Jamaica, though he was unable to take it up. These and many other luminaries of the Enlightenment turned a blind eye to slavery and made no secret of their ethnic or religious antipathies. Yet none of them has been ‘cancelled’—at least, not yet.

Hume was unusual in only one respect: he confined his most odious prejudice to a single footnote.

This is a point what makes Edinburgh’s decision so astonishing. Hume was a highly original thinker, whose originality has little to do with his argument over persons of color. In a sense, this was actually nothing original: for once, the great philosopher somewhat echoed the prejudices of his time. Plus, nobody is reading Hume for *that* message: you cannot picture a thinker who is less likely to become popular among white suprematists or fascists of any sort.

Perhaps even more ironic is the fact that the new name of the building is strictly “geographical”: 40 George Square. But, as a Facebook friend of mine (alas I cannot remember whom!) pointed out, George Square is named after George III, whose reputation is not really that of a committed anti-racist.

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