The crusade against the Enlightenment

Edinburgh University’s shameful cancelling of David Hume shows how backward identity politics has become.

Frank Furedi

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Topics Politics UK

Edinburgh University has decided to take yet another step to distance itself from its most important intellectual legacy – the Scottish Enlightenment.

It has decided to rename its David Hume Tower because some students claim that the 18th-century philosopher’s views on race cause them distress. In a letter to students, the university authorities said: ‘It is important that campuses, curricula and communities reflect both the university’s contemporary and historical diversity and engage with its institutional legacy across the world.’ It seems that one ‘institutional legacy’ the university is prepared to discard is the one that gave it its international reputation. For without the contribution of the Scottish Enlightenment, Edinburgh University would be just another provincial institution of learning.

The repudiation of Hume is more than just a blow against the man himself and his reputation. It represents an important symbolic victory for identity politics and its crusade against the intellectual legacy of human civilisation in general, and of the Enlightenment in particular.

Virtually every great philosopher who contributed to the development of the ideals of tolerance and freedom has become a target of the crusade to ‘decolonise’ British culture and force contemporary society to detach itself from its cultural and intellectual foundations. From this standpoint, John Locke, whose philosophy developed the idea of tolerance, is just a 17th-century racist. Adam Smith, another towering figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, is also a racist, apparently. According to one 21st-century critic of Smith, his sin was to make a distinction between ‘savage’ and ‘civilised’ nations.

Immanuel Kant – arguably the most influential thinker of the Enlightenment – and John Stuart Mill – the most important philosophical advocate of liberalism – are no doubt seen as racists, too. The Natural History Museum in London has said it is thinking of conducting an inquisition into its Charles Darwin collection to see if any of it might be deemed ‘offensive’ by the same kind of people who are distressed by the sight of David Hume Tower. A curator warns that some people might find the exhibition of things collected by or related to Darwin ‘problematic’. Why? Because apparently Darwin’s voyage to the Galápagos Islands on the HMS Beagle was just another one of Britain’s colonialist scientific expeditions.

In response to the Black Lives Matter movement, universities and museums have held up their hands and more or less said they will get rid of anything that is potentially offensive. So even Darwin, who challenged Victorian dogma and revolutionised society’s understanding of the natural world, is casually cast aside in order to appease the crusaders against Britain’s past.

There is little doubt that David Hume held views that were racist. In line with the racial thinking that prevailed in 18th-century Europe, he believed that ‘negroes’ were ‘naturally inferior to whites’. And he didn’t simply express the racial prejudices that were dominant in his time – according to some accounts he was indirectly involved in the slave trade. So Hume, who denounced the practice of slavery in Ancient Rome, can also be accused of hypocrisy.

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. His powerful critique of religious miracles made a profoundly significant contribution to the development of secular and modern scientific thought. Contemporary cognitive science owes a huge debt to Hume.

Hume exercised great influence over philosophers such as Smith, Kant, Darwin and Jeremy Bentham. That is why he is regarded by many as the most important philosopher who wrote in the English language. Even his detractors recognise that his Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40) is arguably the most significant work of philosophy published in English before the 20th century.

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.

Whatever the faults of Hume the man, they pale into insignificance in comparison to the faults of his 21st-century detractors. There is nothing critical or questioning about the ‘decolonisation’ movement. Unlike Hume, who questioned the conventions of his time and oriented his thought towards the future, his detractors are devoted to the dogma of reading history backwards. They want to fix the problems of the past through denouncing and ‘cancelling’ 18th-century philosophers. And since these philosophers cannot answer back and account for their thoughts and behaviour, it is easy to win a one-sided argument against them. Under the guise of radical campaigning, there is moral cowardice and intellectual sloth at work here.

This targeting of Hume and other figures from the past is a key part of today’s cause of diminishing the Enlightenment. Identity politics is deeply hostile to the Enlightenment ideals of universalism, tolerance and freedom. The dogma of ‘decolonisation’ is really about challenging people’s pride in the civilisational achievements of the past that helped humanity to face an uncertain world.

Edinburgh University should be ashamed of itself. Once upon a time it was the principal intellectual centre of the Scottish Enlightenment; it was referred to as the ‘Athens of the North’. Following its disgraceful cancelling of David Hume, perhaps it would be more appropriate to call it the ‘Sparta of the North’.

Frank Furedi’s Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn The Art Of Drawing Boundaries is published by Routledge.

Picture by: Richard Webb, published under a creative-commons license.

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