2007 - 2020

To Hume It May Concern

So come on, who doesn’t enjoy a good conspiracy theory? The latest, seeded by an irate (but, surprise, surprise, cussedly anonymous) apostate member of the academic community is that Edinburgh University authorities under its principal Peter Mathieson leapt with alacrity at the chance to rename the David Hume Tower not so much because Hume added an atrocious racially prejudiced footnote to one of his essays but because the un-naming fits in perfectly with some imagined plan to ‘de-Scottify’ the institution and give it a more global appeal to a lucrative stream of full fee-paying overseas students. If this is, indeed, a matter of policy then some might argue that the university establishment is, itself, guilty of a modicum of anti-Scottish racism, and is simply using l’affaire d’footnote as cover.

So now we know – except that nothing is ever quite so simple in the Groves of Academe, and it sounds a bit glib as explanations go, Admittedly this fee income is vital if all these ambitious Citizen Kane like collegiate building projects are to be finished and Edinburgh is to become a ‘global super-University’a laHarvard and Oxbridge rather than the original ‘Tounis College’. Not to mention the equally vital need to maintain the £400,000 or so annual package which attracted the principal over from Hong Kong in 2018, a sum which may, or may not, have included the £26,000 agreed to relocate his pets – though, in fairness, he did agree to a 20% six-month Covid 19 cut which, given the current meltdown, may have to be extended.

Sadly, although our college panjandrums are stratospherically qualified, I’m not so sure they’re quite that clever. The logical fallacy with the name banning is, of course, that Le Bon David, the quintessential ‘man of the world’, was actually an abolitionist who strongly opposed slavery, which in a way makes his lapse of judgement even worse, and no-one seriously defends his gaffe, even if he was encouraged in such folly by a publisher who would later be an MP in Lord North’s Tory government. Anyway, as far as David Hume is concerned, Edinburgh University has form, beginning with its refusal to grant him a professorship because of its disapproval of his sceptical views – and so the greatest philosopher of his age became a librarian instead.

Even so, we have to talk about David. Yes, he made a shocking statement no-one would dream of making today. We should recognise that fact, and weigh it in the balance. I’m with Sir Geoff Palmer and his Dundas statue solution. Leave the evidence where it is, but explain and elucidate everything on a plaque. We should also accept that in an age of slavery Hume, who never owned slaves or profited from slavery, was at least in a better place than his 1771 house guest, Benjamin Franklin, who did.

For that matter, compared to George Washington, a man whose revolution he supported as ‘an American in my principle’ Hume was a non starter in the human trafficking stakes – the President and his wife owned literally hundred of enslaved plantation workers. Naturally this calls for another petition – the capital of the United States of America really must be renamed – and here it is.

The truly dispiriting thing about this endlessstushie over statues and names of buildings is that it polarises the debate and owes more to impulsive hysteria than any knowledge or understanding of history. It can also be counter productive – every statue of Washington or Jefferson which is toppled in America probably just delivers another 200,000 votes to Trump, allowing him to present himself as a ‘heritage guardian’ and clouding the argument over all those racist Confederate generals who really should have been knocked off their blocks years ago. Accuracy is another victim in this iconoclastic frenzy, as in the case of the poorly informed graffiti dauber who fluffed the lines, deleting the name of Dundas Street and substituting that of Joseph Knight, an enslaved man who was freed thanks to the passionate defence of a lawyer by the name of – err – Henry Dundas. Whoops.

With statues and buildings, in any case, different people see different things. Some are proud that Edinburgh raised Europe’s first statue to Lincoln; others are horrified by the supplicant slave kneeling at his feet. The Dugald Stewart building? Sorry, no. The man was a good friend of slave owner Thomas Jefferson. Appleton Tower? Brilliant physicist, Nobel prize winner, but also Permanent Secretary at the Scientific and Industrial research department under Churchill who actively promoted nuclear weapons. Let’s just say nobody’s perfect.

Perhaps its time we drew a close to this pointless factional indulgence and tried replacing the negative tropes of assigned victimhood and assumed guilt with something a bit more positive and cheering. How about, instead of toppling statues we tried raising a few to those who, at present, are shockingly under-represented in Edinburgh’s al fresco cultural realm. There are plenty of candidates, after all. At the top of this list could be Eliza Wigham, the tireless abolitionist and female suffragist born not far from the Meadows, where statues seem to be in remarkably short supply.

For George Square, preferably at the south east corner, right next to the David Hume Tower, I would strongly recommend Jamaican-born William Fergusson, who enrolled as a student in Edinburgh in 1809, and went on to become the only African-descended President of a British crown colony, Sierra Leone. The sooner an appeal is launched for that particular effigy, frankly, the better – not least because it might be something we can all agree about, for once.

Comments (59)

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  1. Brian McGrail says:

    Of course the University of Edinburgh finally named a building after a woman – hoorah! The School of Social and Political Science building on George Square is named in honour of Crystal MacMillan – suffragist, pioneer, etc. Except her will left a good chunk of her estate to the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene – you know, the lovely movement which, in line with the likes of Marie Stopes, advocated the forced sterilisation of the, erm, lower / lowest ranks of society, obviously for the latter’s own benefit. Very good at scoring own goals is the University.

    1. david black says:

      How about a brace? – Muriel Spark and Marie Stopes. The former took an immediate dislike to the latter and on being informed that her special subject was contraception is said to have uttered the immortal words ‘What a pity her mother hadn’t thought of it first.’

  2. Alison Lindsay says:

    Gosh, we will be demolishing all Christian Churches ( whatever their multivarious dominions) in the world because Jesus was Jewish and NOT a Christian.

    1. Axel P Kulit says:

      and Saul of Tarsus told salves to be obedient to their masters.

  3. Dougie Harrison says:

    David, many thanks for this carefully reasoned piece. As someone brocht up in Embra, who migrated a wee bit west for uni, and remains an adopted Glaswegian, your information is fascinating. It only omits what my auld grannie tellt me a long time ago: that St David’s Street, off Princes Street in the New Town, was so named because atheist Hume moved there when the new town was originally built. However, I suspect the deep irony of that escaped the then city faithers when they named the street. Atheism wisnae popular in c18 Scotland.

    Re statues, I’m appalled that very few women have been so recognised anywhere in Scotland. In my adopted city however, I’m rather proud that two of the only three women (other of course than queen Vicky) of whom statues exist are Dolores Ibarruri, ‘La Passionara’, leader of the democratic side in the Spanish Civil War, whose statue below Clyde Street commemorates the many Glaswegian volunteers who died defending Spanish democracy. Her statue was joined by that of Mary Barbour less than three years ago. Mary was is celebrated (NOW!) as leader of the WWI Rent Strike which forced the wartime government to legally constrain profiteering tenement-owners . She now reminds Govanites of their history right outside the subway station. And significantly, the sculptor has ensured that we realise that Mary was part of a much wider movement; it includes other women and bairns. Statues can last a long time, so it’s good that someone immortalised a movement, and not just the brave woman recorded in history as leading it.

    1. david black says:

      Thanks Dougie – If the BBC could be persuaded to broadcast ma play ‘Nancy’s Philosopher’ about David Hume’s relationship with Nancy Ord the whole St David Street story would be revealed, but they seem obstinately reluctant!

    2. Dougie Harrison says:

      Sorry, I’ve just checked my photies. The Mary Barbour statue also includes one man…

  4. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

    I’m not surprised that the David Hume Tower is to be renamed, pending a review of the University’s links to the past in the context of meaningful action and repair. An enthusiastic North Briton, who ruthlessly rooted out residual Scotticisms among his contemporary salonistas, I suspect his days were numbered anyway.

    The reason the University gives for erasing Hume’s name from its pantheon of modernist carbuncles is not that he was an anglofying Unionist, though; it says it’s 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.

    Happily, the David Hume Fellowship in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities runs out of funding this year and will just be allowed to quietly disappear, further sparing the University’s sensitivities around the issue. Ironically, it was Dr Felix Waldmann, the David Hume Fellow at Edinburgh University in 2016, who revealed evidence that Hume had been involved in the slave trade in his 2014 edition of Hume’s Letters.

    Nonetheless, the University has in the past year or so just as quietly recruited no fewer than three academics who specialise in Hume, on the assumption (no doubt – one lives in hope) that students should not be denied the opportunity to study and debate the European Enlightenment’s inherent racism and Hume’s contribution to it.

    Perhaps, like a lot of old movies do nowadays, historical texts (including buildings and monuments) should carry a moral advisory notice for the unwary; something along the lines of Sir Geoff Palmer’s plaque suggestion.

  5. DonDon says:

    Here is something I wrote about the famously unmarried Hume a few years ago:

    A Knock Back

    He’d been peyin coort til a leddy, but she wasnae muckle taen wi him. At lenth, she gied him the brush-aff, an Dauvit Hume tuik it unco sair.
    A wee while efter, the leddy fund oot that her umquile wooster was a scholar o great repute, aye, an mibbe the best-kennt philosopher in aa o Embro toun. Sae she sent him a letter, ane that was naethin if no short an til the peynt:
    “I’ve changed my mind.”
    Whan he read it, Hume was jist a wee bit set ajee. An wha wudnae be? He pou’d aff his periwig an scartit his pow. Syne he tirned owre the letter an screivit this repone:
    “So have I.”
    Gordon Donaldson

  6. SleepingDog says:

    Such statues and building names are supports for The Great Man (Occasionally Woman) of History, and I would rather see them all removed than put up new statues and names to ‘balance’ the ones we have. We already have too many cultural products that over-praise individuals and are poor at recognizing collective endeavours.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_man_theory
    Would you name a football team after an individual? And if not, why name any other institution that way? Idolizing individuals has only bad consequences, as far as I can see. You can still read Hume’s philosophy, although maybe philosophy students should pay less attention to stuff that has been superseded.

    1. Axel P Kulit says:

      It’s not clear that Hume’s Philosophy HAS been superseded, though it may have been explained better as time goes on. I suspect his insights are still largely valid. I am not sure how important understanding him is to understanding modern philosophy.

      Philosophy is not like Science where new facts generate theories and paradigms that supersede old ones. However here is where my knowledge ends and my interest and energy begin to fade as it is nearly midnight and I am about to become a pumpkin.

      As the article says, Nobody’s perfect ( so maybe we should erect a statue to him).

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Axel P Kulit, my recollection of reading Scottish Enlightenment philosophers was that I wished they’d invented the word processor first, as their prose tends to be ponderous, difficult to parse and in some cases turgid. However, that may have been partly intentional, since they were at risk of expressing radical thoughts too clearly (like atheism, perhaps). Perhaps translators of other philosophers’ works into English take the trouble to make it more readable, by comparison. Sure, scepticism and empiricism are fairly timeless. But what I meant is that formulations of philosophical questions have been honed and refined through the generations. Some of Hume’s work will remain worth reading, and on reflection he did produce some snappy quotes, but I guess most of his ideas will have found clearer exposition elsewhere.

        One major criticism of the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers I am familiar with is that (especially considering the conservative nature of that movement compared to the more radical continental flavours, as noted by historian Tom Devine) they seldom pushed their thought through to the logical conclusions which might have unsettled the status quo. While there are useful things that a history of philosophy can reveal, I suspect there is a patriotic sentiment behind keeping personages like Hume in the public eye. Although, fortunately, the cult of the philosopher is unlikely to become as obtrusive as the cults of poets, actors, pop idols and so forth.

        1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

          ‘…their prose tends to be ponderous, difficult to parse and in some cases turgid. However, that may have been partly intentional, since they were at risk of expressing radical thoughts too clearly (like atheism, perhaps).’

          Yet, in his own time, Hume’s celebrity rested mainly on his belles-lettres, his beautiful or fine writing, which gentlemen read for pleasure. His ruling passion, he tells us in his autobiography, was a love of literary fame, which he achieved in his lifetime by his exquisite occasional essays on a variety of subjects and his histories. It is said that he was sacked from his position in the firm of a Bristol slave-trader in the 1730s because of his insistence on criticising his employer’s literary style.

          Perhaps we find the literature of Hume’s time ‘difficult’ because we it is who have lost something as readers.

          1. Axel P Kulit says:

            which suggests Hume’s work needs a “translation” into modern English for students of Philosophy, who can then compare it with the original to check it, but the original can be read with pleasure by a student of literature.

          2. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            No, I’d disagree, Axel. Translations are always someone else’s reading of a text; to get the most out of it, students need to make their own readings. Not that other people’s readings can’t be useful, but they should always be supplementary rather than ‘instead of’. In any case, Hume’s prose isn’t that difficult; any student who is incapable of reading it for her/himself really shouldn’t be at university.

          3. Axel says:

            I know what you are saying, but anyone reading his work should be aware of changes in the meanings of some words since the 18th century.

          4. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            That’s part of what reading any historical text involves: avoiding anachronism. Again, it would be a gey puir student that failed to avoid it.

          5. SleepingDog says:

            @Anndrais mac Chaluim, well, if a person’s work has been widely influential, there is often more value in the works by others who draw on, and improve upon, it. Hume himself drew from the idea commons, and contributed back to it. Perhaps we might look at what stimulating environment helped him write his ideas down, and what aspects of his environment hindered his perspective. But I would not give such material to those starting to learn philosophy in, say, primary school. I suppose it depends on how you approach philosophy as a discipline; I would hope modern philosophy is not isolated from other disciplines, and to have general benefit, it should be something you are trained to do, rather than an exercise in familiarity with the so-called greats. And there is an irony in recommending the lengthy work of philosophers who recommend starting from first principles or their own senses. Would Hume have got where he ended up by studying Hume?

            @Axel P Kulit, your comments made me think again about gatekeepers, who could be editors, publishers, translators, lecturers and so forth. I suppose we all rely on these, and it is not like people usually first encounter Hume’s work by rummaging randomly through second-hand book jumbles. According to Robert M Pirsig, we may be losing out by curricula centred on Western philosophy:
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zen_and_the_Art_of_Motorcycle_Maintenance

            But returning to the issue of who has created the modern world and how we (over)celebrate individuals who fit a certain narrative, it was interesting who the BBC documentary The Secret History of Writing, episode 1 From Pictures to Words, attributes the creation of the first alphabet to.

          6. Axel P Kulit says:

            “@Axel P Kulit, your comments made me think again about gatekeepers, who could be editors, publishers, translators, lecturers and so forth. I suppose we all rely on these, and it is not like people usually first encounter Hume’s work by rummaging randomly through second-hand book jumbles. According to Robert M Pirsig, we may be losing out by curricula centred on Western philosophy:”

            I have been thinking along those lines for a while. I came across a book called How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy by Julian Baggini which is a survey of mainly non western philosophy. When the library reopens I will probably borrow it again – I talked to someone teaching Ancient Philosophy at the Unuversity of Edinburgh and was astounded they had nobody studying Indian, Chinese or other Asian Philosophy and nobody who knew anything about it.

            Not Invented Here Syndrome?

            Could it be that some or all the problems we are experiencing can be traced back to misinterpretations, by the powerful, of Plato and later Augustine and similar theologians

          7. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            Hume did get to where he ended up by studying Hume. He was an empiricist; he proceeded by introspection, examining to the exclusion of all received wisdom the content of his own experience, and drawing his conclusions from what he found there (or, more to the point, from what he didn’t find there).

          8. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            I believe you can still study Islamic Philosophy and Indian Philosophies of Mind and Language at Edinburgh. When I was there, albeit back in the 1980s, I remember an element of the latter that related to issues around: Buddhist analyses of the self, with comparisons to Hume; the mind/body problem in Sankhya-Yoga philosophy, with comparisons to Western dualism; and the philosophy of consciousness-without-an-object in Advaita Vedżnta, with comparisons to the European phenomenological tradition.

            Meanwhile, I wonder if, in India, a similar question is being asked: Could it be that some or all the problems we are experiencing can be traced back to misinterpretations, by the powerful, of the Nyżya and Mżmżmsż schools of Hinduism and the Yogżcżra-Sautrżntika school of Buddhism… and similar?

          9. Axel P Kulit says:

            Fair points. All I know is that when I asked the woman in charge of Ancient Philosophy she pointed me to other departments. Now I have to fit my philosophical reading in between “real life”.

          10. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            Well, that’s decidedly odd. I’ve just checked, and the MSc Ancient Philosophy course includes specialists in East Asian, Islamic, and Middle Eastern philosophy. Who was this wifie you spoke to?

          11. Axel P Kulit says:

            I was talking to them about the chance of doing a PhD as a mature student. This was maybe four years ago.

    2. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

      Hume’s thinking is where modern philosophy begins. After Hume, the whole enterprise was changed utterly. His historical importance can’t be overstated. Understanding Hume’s project (philosophical anthropology) is key to understanding everything that’s come after him.

      Philosophy is indeed unlike science; Pat Henderson at Dundee expressed it nicely when he said in his introductory lectures to first-year students that ‘philosophy bakes no bread’. Science produces knowledge; philosophy generates perplexity. Since Hume, it has generated perplexity around the conceptual structures that make science possible. Concerning these structures, we’re none the wiser since Hume’s day. In this respect, his philosophy has never been superseded.

      Philosophy works through continual engagement with its own past, which is why it’s vital that students still engage critically with writers like Hume. It does so in three main ways:

      The first can be described as ‘connoisseurship’. Just as poets or painters learn to be discriminating about their art and, hence, capable of meaningful innovation, by acquainting themselves with existing masterworks, so it is with aspiring philosophers. Indeed, the significance of a work of art or poetry or philosophy may remain hidden unless it is read in relation to its past, to which – explicitly or implicitly, positively or negatively – it refers. This is especially true of philosophy, which proceeds by exposing and diagnosing the plausible errors in the thinking of the illustrious dead rather than by advancing positive truths. Philosophy might bake no bread, but it does subject the bakers’ loaves to quality control.

      An even closer engagement between philosophy and its past can be identified under the rubric of ‘canonicity’. The canon is the set of acknowledged masterworks a practice acknowledges its ancestry and thereby forges its own identity. If a practice is uncertain or divided about its aims, object, and methods, which is chronically the case with philosophy, then its canon becomes especially vital to it. The unity of a field of philosophical issues (e.g. hermeneutics, phenomenology, logic, etc.) and the cohesion of communities or ‘schools’ of philosophers (e.g. existentialism, critical theory, logical positivism, etc.) will depend on agreement about the contents of the philosophical canon.

      The third and most intimate link between philosophy and its past is provided by ‘plot’. By means of a plot, the history of philosophy is divided into periods and partitioned between various schools of thought, in such a way that it exhibits to its reader a meaningful development over time that it may or may not have ‘in reality’.

      This ‘historicity’ of philosophy became the cardinal problem that induced the deconstruction of modern philosophy in the second half of the 20th century, which Nietzsche predicted in his picturesque metaphor of ‘the death of God’. Of course, many time-serving philosophers still try to avoid historicity by seeking to emulate the bread-baking progress of science; but unfortunately for them, this unhistorical concept of scientific progress has itself been discredited by philosophy. Karl Popper’s critique of science as a cycle of arbitrary conjectures and systematic refutations, followed by Thomas Kuhn’s critique of the same as an evolution of competing and incommensurable paradigms, suggests that science may itself be, like philosophy, a historical phenomenon rather than a transcendent one.

      Philosophy might attempt, like science, to escape its past, but it can’t step outside of its own history. Which is why it’s vital that its students still engage critically with writers like Hume – irrespective of his prejudices.

  7. James Robertson says:

    Thank you for this intelligent, entertaining, considered contribution to the current debate, David Black. It has generated a thread of similarly interesting and thoughtful responses. This is how we should try to discuss the complex issues of historical memory, memorialisation, naming and renaming of places, removal or relabelling of statues and other public art, and so on.

    I have some sympathy with Sleeping Dog’s point that putting individuals up on pedestals often has bad consequences. Inevitably the individuals will be discovered, at some future point, to have faults that their contemporaries either did not see or failed to challenge. Each of us will have our favourites and those we deplore among the statuary. Apart from the fact that he is yet another man when so few women are represented, my favourite Edinburgh statue is that of the poet Robert Fergusson, a contemporary of Hume, outside the Canongate Kirk. David Annand’s Fergusson commemorates an individual but also seems to have touched an empathetic public nerve. People – Edinburgh citizens and visitors alike – love that striding figure and treat him as a pal, even if most have never read a word of his poetry. If it didn’t carry Fergusson’s name, the statue would still be loved as a fine work of public art. Maybe there is a lesson there.

    In Hume’s case, contemporaries like James Beattie did contest the view, endorsed in that notorious footnote, that white people are superior to all others; but it’s not because of that footnote that the DHT was named after him. I remember being deeply shocked and disappointed when I first came across it – because it seemed so utterly out of character and far removed from the smart, open-minded and humane Hume I already knew. Are we to pretend that the footnote doesn’t exist? No. Is it a recent discovery? Of course not. Are we to discard the rest of Hume because of it? We cannot, even if we wanted to, for the reasons articulated by Anndrais Mac Chaluim: ‘Hume’s thinking is where modern philosophy begins.’

  8. Arboreal Agenda says:

    As I have said before on here and feel evermore so, why are we so obsessed with statues, full stop? We never used to be. They were a rarity prior to the 19th century. Images of 18th century London are almost free of them because they didn’t exist. So I disagree about the need for more statues of people we now approve of more, or feel are underrepresented as in time, some of them will probably become frowned on too. My radical solution is to slowly get rid of statues of the great and / or good and stop feeling the need to erect anything to replace them – what exactly is their point anyway? Can anyone really explain it?

    1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

      They represent what those who controlled our public spaces then considered important as statements about our society. We care because those statements may no longer be true.

      1. Dennis Smith says:

        Also, because they are physical markers of our history (whoever we are in this context), the complexity of that history and the non-linearity of that history. (Progressive Whig history is bunk.) They are a good way of provoking questions about the different things that mattered to different people at different times. If there is one thing we need to keep dialogue alive, it is a recognition that there are different perspectives to be taken into account, different traditions of meaning.

        1. Arboreal Agenda says:

          So why did this become a thing during the Victorian era and not before. What changed? Understanding and knowing history has nothing to do with statues. Surely they became popular with those who put them up as a means of wielding authority and hegemonic tropes, essentially, and that is still what they are for. We have to try and imagine a time (i.e. most of it) when they were not common at all and people in general did not feel the need for them. I still maintain they are useless, mostly ugly and oppressive: they literally look down on you – putting anyone on a pedestal is not a good idea.

          1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            Well, for one thing, the Victorian era represents a golden age of British sculpture; sculpture (and architecture) became like never before the prime medium through which celebrity and civic, national, and imperial pride came to be expressed. In the Victorian era too, we began to draw parallels between our empire and that of ancient Rome and to mimic the latter’s monumental trappings. Britain wasn’t alone in this; all of Europe’s colonial powers went in for this kind of cultural mimicry. Perhaps the whole public art form is peculiarly imperial, which is at least one reason why it flourished when and where it did.

        2. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

          Yes, we certainly shouldn’t forget that those markers are themselves historical artefacts, through which we can read the ‘minds’ of their makers. Whatever they meant to those who erected them, this is perhaps their great value for us: they can occasion dialogue between our past and our present. Perhaps the contemporary ‘culture wars’ over statues and buildings are a dialogue of this kind.

      2. Arboreal Agenda says:

        That doesn’t explain their point except in a negative sense though. If those who put them up had felt no need to make such permanent public statements we would not be arguing about it now. Things change, everyone knows that but statues seem an attempt to fix things, fix time even which is why hey cause so much trouble and always will. They are a bad idea, a legacy of a type of thinking that is outdated.

        Best statement about the stupid things from the Bonzos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s5_teUu9jMc&ab_channel=BritishPath%C3%A9

        1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

          I find this better: https://youtu.be/sPlSH6n37ts

        2. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

          On why statues became a thing in Victorian times, a buddy of mine recommends this book: https://www.amazon.co.uk/What-Victorians-Made-Romanticism-Artifacts-ebook/dp/B06Y6FLSRF

          1. Arboreal Agenda says:

            Thanks Anndrais and Dennis for the text suggestions and thoughts. The book on the Victorians is available in the library I use and also a sculpture book by McKenzie, but of Glasgow.

        3. Dennis Smith says:

          Why especially in Victorian times? There’s no single answer. Apart from the factors that Anndrais has mentioned, it has something to do with changing conceptions of public space and urbanity, and also with Protestant hostility to icons. Before the rise of the liberal secular bourgeoisie statues were more likely to be placed in and around aristocratic mansions or religious institutions. Countries like Italy and France developed noticeably different traditions to the UK. Even in icon-hostile Edinburgh the statue of Charles II in Parliament Square dates back to 1685.

          On the variety of sculpture in Edinburgh (not just statues of eminent males) it’s worth looking at Ray McKenzie’s splendid volumes on the ‘Public Sculpture of Edinburgh’.

  9. John S Warren says:

    Thank you for that valuable contribution, Mr Black. What a remarkable shift is taking place in the public mood since the original furore over the Colston statue in Bristol, earlier this year. On 14th June I wrote ‘A matter of Black and White’ in Bella Caledonia on the matter of public reputation in history, and it is interesting to see how the issue has subsequently unfolded, and the contrast between measured discussion of the issues (often online) and the reactive, uncomfortable nature of the response of large institutions to the whole matter. Do the critics expect that Hume should no longer be taught in Edinburgh (in philosophy, history, politics, economics, or even theology – all branches of knowledge in which Hume wrote something significant)?

    From a different perspective, I suspect that this matter reflects a wider, deep crisis of confidence in Britain in the 21st century (brought to a head by the crisis in neoliberalism since the 2007-8 Crash, by the crisis in Unionism, by Brexit, and by the final coup de grâce – COVID-19); that has suddenly an unexpectedly unseated the complacency of British culture and values that have been so deeply embedded, ingrained and certain since the end of WWII; but suddenly Britain is struggling to show that it can adapt or even cope with the rapidly changing world that is upon us. Long forgotten chickens are coming home to roost, or die.

    Curiously, the Enlightenment, now in receipt of such critical rebuke, was often prone to a Whiggish sense of ‘progress’; but at least a progress that acknowledged that it was ’emerging’ from something that was best left behind, that improvement was both possible and attainable. The literati, in particular were withering about Scotland’s past.

    We now seem to believe the Enlightenment should have been the ‘finished article’; implying perhaps that in 2020, we believe that we represent that wise and final state. Do we? What will history have to say – about us? Are we in tunr best, just buried hastily and hopefully forgotten? Is there something to be learned from us, whether postive, or much more likely – quite negative? Yet someting important posterity may understand, interpret as it may (a hostage to fortune of course) or learn from.

    1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

      No, the critics don’t expect that Hume should no longer be taught in Edinburgh; they have merely petitioned to have the David Hume Tower renamed in order to avoid possible distress to students who have been affected by racism.

      The University has undertaken to consider this petition as part of the more comprehensive review of its links to the past, which is already underway and which is considering many other issues beyond, but not excluding, the naming of buildings. This project is, itself, of considerable academic interest for historiography, and I for one will be following its progress with avidity.

      Meanwhile, the name has been suspended pending the outcome of the review.

      1. John S Warren says:

        My remark was intended only rhetorically, not literally. Indeed I assumed that was not the point of the exercise, which of course in turn I intended as part of the point I was trying (an apparently failed) to make …..

    2. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

      The crisis that the matter reflects extends beyond Britain. It’s a European crisis. What’s more, it’s less a crisis of Europe’s confidence in its moral superiority than a crisis of guilt over its former colonial past. Guilt is the reason why we’re falling over ourselves in our often absurd and ineffectual, breast-beating attempts to expiate that past by pulling down statues and renaming buildings.

      The University is right when it says that such gestures as the renaming the David Hume Tower need to take place within a context of ‘meaningful action and repair’; otherwise, they remain merely token.

      1. John S Warren says:

        It seems to me the 20th century left much of Europe requiring to acknowledge guilt, including guilt over colonialism in ways Britain was largely able to avoid, because of WWII. Indeed after 1945 the Conservative Party even managed to escape its dubious links to fascism in the 1930s, with smooth and urbane facility. The end of Empire for Britain was presented in the 1950s as a choice of Olympian British wisdom, rather than a plain exercise in geopolitical necessity, driven by realpolitik. Evasion ot the past, or burying or hiding it does not necessarily imply a sense of guilt; but rather simply a desire to avoid the effect of any consequences from past actions; especially those that fail standards that were claimed to be upheld, even at the time.

        It is perhaps worth noting that the history of what has been termed ‘informal empire’, by external powers in the wake of decolonisation in the 1950s in former colonies, has just begun. The sense of guilt is perhaps only accepted when ‘the game is up’, and those long in denial are obliged from necessity to re-calibrate their options, or re-write their history. The trick is always to lose the guilt somewhere else.

        1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

          Whatever its provenance, the trick is to sublimate it into ‘meaningful action and repair’. What meaningful action and reparation would you suggest the University could undertake?

          1. John S Warren says:

            Glasgow University has provided a lead; but the issue there was not restricted to an unfortunate footnote – it was a matter of benefiting substantially from the fruits of slavery, particularly in the Caribbean, over a long period. Edinburgh University should know its involvement in anything that requires similar action. Making a public issue over an ill-judged footnote that is well known, and the penalty of removal of a name on an ugly 1960s tower block seems to me a curious starting point in order to tackle such an issue.

          2. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            I suppose that making the David Hume Tower into an issue was just a consciousness-raising exercise to make us aware of our complicity, as beneficiaries, in a crime against humanity.

            How about, for example, sublimating that guilt into the waiving of tuition fees and/or providing subsistence grants for the descendants of former slaves, and/or using its resources to support tertiary education in the former slave colonies? That might be a meaningful start to the University acting to repair the harm that was done by our ancestors and from which it continues to benefit.

          3. John S Warren says:

            It would be more meaningful if Edinburgh University had begun by addressing the most culpable examples of Scotland’s involvement in slavery, drawn from some beneficial association from slavery accruing to the university. The David Hume case does not seem to me critical, at least in substantive context of benefit and harm from Scotland’s involvement in slavery, save that Hume is a major historical figure. Nor did he benefit substantially from slavery; his success was derived principally from his writing; indeed the University refused to award him a Chair. Are we saying that David Hume is the only miscreant, even among alumni; or that his footnote is the worst case from which Edinburgh University benefited: the benefit being his name on a building? If we subsequently discover that he was not the worst case, where does the University go from there? It has set a high bar for a footnote. The Caribbean plantations were a deathtrap for slaves, and Scottish owned or run plantations were everywhere.

          4. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            No, I’m saying none of that, John.

        2. Arboreal Agenda says:

          Guilt? Is that really a good idea? It doesn’t normally lead anywhere good and very often is just an excuse to reflect back on the self and do nothing (classic ‘middle class guilt’ syndrome). Can we ever be guilty for the acts of the past we had nothing to do with anyway? Regret maybe, and acknowledgement and recognition of past wrongs but I cannot see how one can be guilty of something you had no control or influence on in any way.

          1. John S Warren says:

            I am not sure there is ‘middle class guilt’, nor did I intentionally propose personal ‘guilt’; because it is true that individuals today are not responsible for 250 year old actions. Nevertheless I appreciate that Glasgow University is attempting to do something worthwhile in the Caribbean now to compensate for the benefits it received from the exploitation of slaves; through what it does best, education. I have no idea why that is found objectionable in that proposal, save through special pleading.

            It is not about guilt of people today, but understanding the history. This is uncomfortable, but so be it. It is also not a matter of reading into the past values that simply were not understood. Both Stair and Mackenzie (Scotland’s leading jurists), long before had established (quite erroneously) that there was no place for slavery in Scotland. There was no excuse for slavery, even by the atandards of the time: but it thrived, nd Scotland thrived on the results.

          2. Arboreal Agenda says:

            I guess it opens a can of worms John, that could get out of hand but I don’t have any objections to such an idea myself and working in the Caribbean seems much more appropriate than trying to work out who might be eligible beneficiaries in the UK, though I don’t know about what Glasgow are doing to which you refer.

            As for middle class guilt, I think it does exist – it is a kind of wallowing in guilt to avoid actually facing up to wrongs done and as a means to continue to think about one’s own feelings rather than those who have been wronged – ‘oh woe is me, I feel so bad’ etc.

          3. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            Guilt is neither good nor bad; it’s a feeling, and it just is what it is. It can be productive or destructive, depending on what we do with it.

            As I said, I suspect the whole DHT thing is a stunt to raise consciousness about the crimes our ancestors committed against humanity, crimes in which we are complicit insofar as the prosperity we enjoy (e.g. in the form of the University of Edinburgh itself) is founded historically on the proceeds of those crimes.

            So, yes; stunts like the DHT petition are intended to make us feel guilty about our complicity in past wrongs, and this particular stunt has prompted the University to announce that it’s reviewing its links to our colonial past in the context of meaningful action and repair.

            This is a productive response to the guilt we feel at being beneficiaries of the crimes committed by our ancestors, and we must remain vigilant to ensure that he University’s review does indeed issue in meaningful action and repair and not just in platitudinous and condescending expressions of ‘regret’.

          4. Arboreal Agenda says:

            Would not your definition make virtually everyone living in the UK ‘complicit’ (we all benefit from said wealth) and so should feel guilt about that?

          5. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            Yes, it would.

            But guilt isn’t something we ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ feel; it’s something we simply either do or don’t feel.

          6. Arboreal Agenda says:

            This makes me uneasy since being complicit is normally considered being involved with others in an activity that is unlawful or morally wrong. Yet here we would be complicit as soon as we are born and for our whole lives as we immediately and continually benefit from a country whose wealth is partly built on past acts of iniquity. It is like a version of original sin. It also remind me of arguments that because we pay our taxes we are complicit in the sins of the ‘evil’ regime we live under (and so are fair targets).

          7. SleepingDog says:

            @Arboreal Agenda, complicit as in “How many times can a man turn his head, and pretend that he just doesn’t see?” (Bob Dylan, Blowin’ in the Wind)? As a minimum, we can bear witness (and not bear false witness). And require that of our histories. A further step is holding people accountable for their actions. Neither of these should be controversial. Perhaps we should aim at ‘world histories’ beyond national silos, as natural histories are supposed to work. The British establishment is well aware of many of the secret parts of British history that they would rather remain unknown to the general public, even if some dissident as well as loyalist academics and specialists are well aware. Unable to completely stem the flow from the declassification/discovery pipelines, their preference is for a drip-drip-drip option whereby the glorious colours past heroes (occasionally heroines) are draped in become progressively faded and stained, only to be buffed again in popular costume dramas.

            In terms of social psychology, the comparison of a period past (interpreted as golden or dark age, or neither) with the present seems most significant. Emotional investment, identification and in British imperial terms viewing one’s nation as the inheritor of the greatness of past civilisations (Greece and Rome) may overwhelm any wish for an accurate rear view. Alternatively, for people looking forward to a brighter future, the darkness of the past, its connections to the present, must be explored, evaluated, improved upon. Were the Sex Pistols on to something when they sang “There ain’t no future in England’s dreaming”?

          8. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            @Arboreal Agenda.

            Precisely. We’re involved in our colonial past because we continue to reap the benefits of the great damage it did and which still stands in need of repair. It’s nothing to do with ancestral sin; the crime is ongoing.

          9. Arboreal Agenda says:

            @Anndrais all I can say is that I do not regard myself as committing any crimes by simply being alive and living in the UK which is what you are saying, and would also include those who are actually part of modern society now because of colonialism. This seems a pretty extremist viewpoint to me and not one that really stands up to serious scrutiny.

            European (or any) colonialism is a crime, no doubt: rampant, cruel exploitation to accrue wealth, and for those enlightened, was regarded as such at the time too, and who also predicted that one day, payback would ensue, and they were right; finally enough voices are being raised to say, enough! I fully embrace that – we must ‘own’ our past and who knows, make amends somehow, or at least try. But I commit no crime for being born where I was born.

            @SleepingDog – John Lydon was dead right. One of his best lyrics.

          10. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            You’re in denial, Arboreal. If we’re not guilty, why should we make amends?

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