Joseph Farrell

How David Hume would have savoured the ironies implicit in the decision of the University of Edinburgh to remove his name from one of their buildings. It is not the first time he has suffered a similar fate at the hands of uncomprehending power, since in 1755 he was threatened with excommunication by the General Assembly on the grounds of infidelity.

By its choice to set itself up as the modern equivalent of an intolerant Kirk, the university has made itself the object of international derision. Hume wrote scathingly about the 'contagion of fashion,' condemning the ease with which opinions were formed not by individuality of thought but by the power of fashion, a force of mind as much as of wardrobe. It is then ironic that he should now fall victim to the modern vogue of conformist, woke thought. Who would have thought that dogmatic certainty, mere ignorance, lack of historical persepctive, new puritanism and righteous fanaticism could command centres of intellectual authority?

Several contemporary thinkers have warned against threats to toleration and freedom of thought, but one would have hoped that a university, especially one in a city which once boasted of being one of Europe's great centres of Enlightenment, could never have made itself a beacon of modern intellectual conformism. The contemporary threat comes from those convinced of their own purity of intention. The admiration accorded David Hume in European philosophy should be one of Scotland's glories, but let us first speak truth, as he strove to do in his lifetime. He was guilty of the charges laid before him by the General Assembly in the 18th century of being heretical. Subsequent generations viewed his independence as being to his credit, but times change.

Equally, there can be no doubt that he wrote the letter advising a friend to purchase an estate in Grenada. It is also true that in a footnote to another work he said that all progress was due to men of white skin. On the second point, he should have known better, for he must have been aware of Chinese civilisation, of Arabic medieval philosophy and mathematics, of architecture in Asian countries. Montaigne, who lived in a preceding century, had wondered about the achievements of North American Indians, as had Voltaire, his contemporary. So David Hume fell from his own high standards.

But is that all David Hume did, all he wrote about, all that his lasting, international fame is based on? Are not these few lines for which his name is to be erased from public view merely scattered thoughts, a restatement of ideas current at the time (the 'contagion of fashion') and not subjected by Hume himself to the rigorous examination to which he subjected miracles in the Bible, the foundations of human knowledge, the nature of ethics, the organisation of society, the plague of dogmatism, the dangers of factionalism in politics etc? This was his contribution to humanity.

Every human being requires to be seen in the context of his own time, and his flaws understood, not denied, in terms of his overall life and work, which in Hume's case were meritorious. Immanuel Kant credited him with awakening him from his own 'dogmatic slumber,' and so re-directing Western thought onto a wholly new trajectory. Will this ridiculous edict of the university waken us to dangers threatening our grasp of history and our hard-won freedom from crabbed, single-focus dogmatism? The new activists have found that Hume was not perfect. What a revelation.

Joseph Farrell, Professor Emeritus of the University of Strathclyde