LEADING academics at Edinburgh University have criticised a decision to rename the institution’s David Hume Tower due to the 18th century philosopher’s “comments on matters of race”. 

Figures including top historian Professor Sir Tom Devine have signed an open letter to the university’s principal expressing their “strong objection” to the move.

They argued it damages the university’s reputation by sending a message that it “lacks an ability to deal with these issues with any nuance”.

It also suggests the university regards the work of those who specialise in Hume, and have a deep intellectual commitment to his work, as “dubious or disreputable”, they said.

The letter from nine of the university’s own academics will pile pressure on Professor Peter Mathieson, its principal and vice-chancellor, amid ongoing controversy over the decision.

In a post on its website referencing the Black Lives Matter movement, the university said David Hume Tower will now be known as 40 George Square “until a full review is completed”. 

It said: “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.”

It did not highlight Hume’s racist comments. In a footnote to his essay Of National Characters, the philosopher wrote that he suspected “negroes” to be “naturally inferior to the whites”.

As well as Prof Devine, the nine academics are professor of classics Douglas Cairns, professor of political and historical sociology Jonathan Hearn, professor of education policy Lindsay Paterson, Professor Grant Jarvie, Dr Nathan Coombs, Dr Gale Macleod, Dr Michael Rosie and Dr Neil Thin. 

They said the move sends out “a message to the wider public that the university wishes to distance itself from the history and legacy of David Hume, an Edinburgh University student, Edinburgh resident, and leading figure in the Scottish Enlightenment and the history of ideas”.

The academics argued there was already a plan, led by Professor James Smith, to “undertake a university-wide review of issues of building naming, and foster dialogue about it”. 

“This decision has dismissively circumvented that process, and it is not clear who within the university has actually taken the decision,” they added. 

“Given other buildings are named after individuals whose attitudes and writings towards race are more programmatic, and more recent, than David Hume’s, then the focus on this particular building appears tokenistic rather than principled.”

The group argued that for Hume to be “commemorated through the naming of a building after him is entirely appropriate given his great and locally relevant achievements”.  

They said: “No one is above criticism, and critical engagement with his ideas is entirely appropriate, but we should engage with figures like this in the round, not by focussing narrowly on the flaws.

“Hume’s views on race, which as many have said were common in his day, were nonetheless marginal to his body of ideas.

“No one would object to a public statement, such as signage on the building in question, recognising and criticising Hume’s racist views.”  

They added: “But the point is, those views are not the reason the building is named after him.

“It is in recognition of his enduring influence in philosophy, history, and political economy.

“His work is widely respected and admired, even while criticised. To address this issue solely on the basis of the matter of one racist footnote is simplistic, and not appropriate for a serious university.”

Their letter concluded: “History contains many offensive things that cannot now be undone. What matters is how those living in the present conduct themselves towards one another.”