David Hume: Canceled

Last week, the University of Edinburgh’s announced that the name of its building for the humanities, The David Hume Tower, would be changed to 40 George Square, “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.”

David Hume himself towers as one of the great geniuses in the history of philosophy and is certainly Edinburgh’s most eminent graduate.

To get it out on the table, Hume was a hardheaded philosophical naturalist who believed on the basis, he thought, of historical and empirical data, that the human race consisted of species, and that among these only the white species was capable of developing a civilization. He expresses this view of race in six sentences, among the many volumes of his collected works, which run to 21,800 pages.

For all we know, the name change was mandated by administrators in a backroom panicked by the possible effects of an online petition on recruitment, and hence on the university’s revenues and ranking.  But the decision will be judged on the basis of principle.

Ironies abound in the decision.  George Square was named after King George III, who stalled William Pitt’s efforts to abolish the slave trade.  Here was someone in a position to promote a big change, who blocked it.  So “George Square” is no better a name.

In 1745, David Hume applied for a professorship in philosophy at the university and was rejected.  The university’s naming of a building after him, more than two centuries later, was interpreted as the university’s belated public confession of a serious mistake.  But now, in the cancellation of that name, it’s as if Hume and Scottish philosophy have been sinned against twice.

The biggest irony, however, is that Hume has claim to being regarded as the first “canceller,” and, if so, then the original canceller has himself been canceled, by the culture which he did so much to create.  I will get to this in a moment.

Before that, let’s see how a Christian culture dealt with Hume – its sense of humor, proportion, and magnanimity.

Once when Hume was crossing the Nor’ Loch (current Princes Street Garden) in Edinburgh on a plank, he fell into the mire. A simple fishwife was walking by, whom he asked for help in getting up.  She recognized him as “Hume the atheist” and joked that she would help only if he first recited the Lord’s Prayer.  Hume did so and later declared she “was the most acute theologian” he had ever met.

When Hume’s home in the “New Town” of Edinburgh was being constructed, a friend wrote on the side of the house in chalk, “St David’s Street.”   Yes, everyone regarded Hume as a skeptic and probably an atheist, but they also recognized Hume’s many good human qualities.  To this day everyone knows the street is a jest aimed at Hume, while still honoring the patron saint of Wales.


Hume in a moment of pride and pomposity left money in his will for the construction of a tower over his grave in Edinburgh, “with an Inscription containing only my Name with the Year of my Birth and Death, leaving it to Posterity to add the Rest.”  No doubt he expected encomia to his achievements to be added.

But a few years later his family needed money and sold a grave in the tower to the family of a deceased man who was a Christian.  This family added a Christian inscription to the top above Hume’s name: “Thanks be to GOD which giveth us the victory, through our LORD JESUS CHRIST,” a good joke, and a fair one too, since posterity after all had “added the rest.”

But Hume was the first canceller, I said, and here’s what I meant.  To cancel, I hold, is to oppose what one regards as an irrational bias with a stronger, opposite bias.  Hume thought that what Christians called “faith” was an irrational bias, and that the correct way to deal with it was by rejecting Christianity, immediately and forcibly, through the adoption of an opposite bias.

His famous “argument against miracles” is better described as an argument against Christians and Christian speech.  Strictly, it’s an argument against anyone’s even saying that a miracle has taken place. (You can look it up here. Hume says: the probability of a miracle by definition is 0; while the probability that a person who testifies to a miracle is lying or mistaken is >0; and therefore, it never makes sense to give credence to such a person.)

A culture that is sentimentalist, that sees no foundations for morality except human attitudes, has no recourse but to cancel what it deeply opposes.  What is the basis for our conviction that all human beings are equal?  That, having rational souls, they are made in the image of God?  That they are all beloved as children of God?  But these foundations are not available to Hume, or to any hardheaded naturalist.  The more precarious one’s ethical conviction appears, lacking foundations as it does, the more it must be insisted upon by force, not persuasion or appeal to rational insight.

“When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles,” Hume notoriously wrote about his own philosophy, “what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

In Hume’s world of positivist universities, and endless “STEM” programs, the books on the metaphysical basis of human equality were burnt a long time ago.

(Michael Pakaluk, a sometime member of The Hume Society, studied Hume’s naturalism at the University of Edinburgh as a Marshall Scholar.)


*Image: Hume’s Tomb by Robert Adam, 1777 [Old Calton Burial Ground, Edinburgh, Scotland]. Next to Hume’s tomb is the American Civil War Memorial, also known as the Scottish-American Soldiers Monument, dedicated in 1893 to Scots who fought and died in our Civil War. Yes, that’s Abraham Lincoln, with a freed slave giving thanks at his feet.

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His most recent book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. His new book, Be Good Bankers: The Divine Economy in the Gospel of Matthew, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in the spring. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI.