Who is David Hume?

The 18th century philosopher David Hume, born in 1711, was born in Edinburgh and became an important figure in the Scottish Enlightenment over the course of his life.

Concerned with the tenets of philosophy, economics and history, Hume was known for his ideas on philosophical empiricism and skepticism and has long been celebrated as one of the finest Scottish philosophers of all time. 

His most famous works included A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–40), An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1758) and his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779).

Hume died in his Edinburgh home after a long illness, and was laid to rest on Calton Hill in 1776.

Was David Hume racist?

The University of Edinburgh recently announced that the building that bears his name - David Hume Tower - will henceforth be known simply as 40 George Square - in a move to recognise the "distress" caused by "racist" comments made by Hume in 1753.

A petition launched by students citing Hume's links to the slave trade and claiming he “wrote racist epithets” attracted more than 1,700 signatures.

But what exactly did he write to cause offence? 


In a footnote written in 1753, Hume said: "I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites.

"There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences.

"On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient GERMANS, the present TARTARS, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular.

"Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men.

"Not to mention our colonies, there are NEGROE slaves dispersed all over EUROPE, of which none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; tho' low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession.

"In JAMAICA, indeed, they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but 'tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly."

He later went back to revise the first two lines before his death.

The 1776 revised version read: "I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation."

What has the University of Edinburgh said on the matter?

The University said the decision was taken to remove his name from the campus building because of "sensitivities" around asking students to use a building named after an 18th century philosopher whose comments "rightly cause distress today."

The statement read: “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.

“For this reason the university has taken the decision to rename – initially temporarily until a full review is completed – one of the buildings in the central area campus.”

It added: “The interim decision has been taken 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.”

The university said the decision was taken ahead of a “more detailed review of the university’s links to the past” and work is “considering many other issues beyond the naming of buildings”.

What are people saying online?

Not everyone is happy with the decision, with some taking to social media to claim it is unfair to hold Hume up to present day standards of morality.

However, others have highlighted that although his name will be removed from the front of the building, his work will continue to be read and studied within its walls.

Another social media user asked how the University's actions would help "improve the lives of black people today."