â€œLearn, Mr Hume, to prize the blessings of Liberty and Education, forâ€¦ had you been born and bred a slave, your Genius, whatever you may think of it, would never have been heard of.â€
So wrote the members of the 18th-century Aberdeen Philosophical Society, one of the leading debating salons in Scotland, in response to an essay by the presiding genius of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume. In â€œOf National Charactersâ€, first published in 1748, Hume had explored the reasons for national differences.
Five years after publishing the essay, Hume appended a footnote: â€œI am apt to suspect the negroes, and in general all the other species of menâ€¦ to be naturally inferior to the whites.â€ This footnote incensed not just the Aberdeen Philosophical Society but many other thinkers of the time.
Now, 250 years later, Edinburgh University has decided to join the fray. Last week it announced that its David Hume Tower is to be renamed because the philosopherâ€™s â€œcomments on matters of raceâ€¦ rightly cause distressâ€.
Itâ€™s the latest in a series of controversies about how, in challenging the inequities of today, we should relate to the inequities of the past. From the toppling of the statue of the Bristol slaver Edward Colston to the furore over Rule, Britannia!, from the arguments over Winston Churchillâ€™s legacy to the campaigns to â€œdecoloniseâ€ the education curriculum, recent debates about racism have interrogated not just the present but the past, too, and our relationship to it.
Much of this questioning of how the past is portrayed is necessary, particularly as traditional accounts have often whitewashed the historical record of racism and empire. There is a danger, though, that we end up with a cartoonish view of history and, guided by contemporary needs, ignore its complexities. There is a danger, too, that we fight not the struggles of the present but those of the past; and that symbolic gestures come to replace material change.
Edinburgh University claims it had to act to protect student â€œsensitivitiesâ€. There is no evidence, though, that students were outraged by the Hume tower or traumatised by it. The renaming adds nothing to our understanding of the philosopher, nor takes away anything of the racism that black people face today.
Hume was a complex figure, an opponent of slavery who helped his patron Lord Hertford buy a slave plantation; one of the most important philosophers of the past half millennium, whose ideas about scepticism and naturalism have shaped the modern world, but with odious views on racial differences. A figure worthy both of celebration and condemnation.
If individuals are complex, so is history. The controversy over Hume takes place against the background of a broader debate about the Enlightenment, of which he was a key figure.
For years, the Enlightenment was seen by the left as a source of radical ideals. â€œAll progressive, rationalist and humanist ideologies are implicit in it and indeed come out of it,â€ the late Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm observed. But, increasingly, as the reactionary views of some Enlightenment thinkers have become more apparent, it has come to be seen as tainted, irrevocably stained by its â€œEurocentrismâ€. In response to such criticism, many others have come to defend â€œthe Enlightenmentâ€ in a reflexive, un-nuanced way, regarding it as a kind of Rorschach test over â€œwokenessâ€.
Yet, as the history of the debate over Humeâ€™s views shows, the question of what it is to be â€œenlightenedâ€ was contested within the Enlightenment itself. In a series of monumental books, the historian Jonathan Israel has usefully drawn the distinction between â€œmainstreamâ€ and â€œradicalâ€ Enlightenments. The mainstream, comprising well-known figures such as Locke, Hume and Kant, is often taken to be the Enlightenment, but was constrained in its critique of old social forms and beliefs, leading to abhorrent views about slavery and race, democracy and equality. The Radical Enlightenment, shaped by lesser-known figures such as Spinoza and Diderot, was by contrast, Israel shows, uncompromising in its defence of equality and in its condemnation of racism and colonialism.
The Enlightenment was critical in the development of progressive social ideals. At the same time, European nations, through slavery and colonialism, denied these ideals to the majority of peoples across the globe. Many figures, Hume among them, stood on both sides of this equation, furnishing the intellectual tools with which to challenge injustice, but also often defending injustices.
Neither history nor biography cleaves easily into â€œgoodâ€ and â€œbadâ€. Fewer cheap gestures, more real questioning, both of the past and the present, would be useful.
â€¢ Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist