The library formerly known as...
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Trinity College Dublin has just announced that it is “denaming” the Berkeley Library, one of its main libraries, because George Berkeley was a slave-owner and endorsed views that are recognisably racist. In a statement, Trinity’s provost, Linda Doyle, said it was clear that Berkeley “was both an owner of enslaved people and a theorist of slavery and racial discrimination, which is in clear conflict with Trinity’s core values”.
This decision has, unsurprisingly, led to some backlash, not least in the “Letters” pages of The Irish Times. If such responses are indicative of a wider point of view, it may be that Berkeley (at least in Ireland) is emerging as something of a figurehead for a particular stance in the so-called “culture wars”. I imagine that is a status that even the most ardently conservative scholar is unlikely to want for Berkeley.
It may be that Berkeley is emerging as something of a figurehead for a particular stance in the so-called “culture wars”.
Some reactions have picked up on the description of Berkeley as a “theorist of slavery”, noting that while he undoubtedly was a slave owner, he was not a staunch defender of the slave trade or an explicit racist, in the way that Hume or Kant might be accused of having been. On that point, it is worth noting (as Clare Moriarty has in a recent op-ed piece on this issue in the Irish Times) that Berkeley’s views on the Catholic Irish were quite explicitly bigoted. Recent scholarship on Berkeley’s role in the solicitation of the “Yorke-Talbot opinion” (which made it much harder for baptised slaves to become free people) also suggests that the connection between Berkeley, slavery, and racism is worthy of close attention and scrutiny.
I was a PhD student at Trinity College and my thesis focused on Berkeley. I went to Dublin for my PhD because of the city and the College’s connection to Berkeley, and I enjoyed the fact that the work I was doing there felt like it was of some significance both to the city and the institution where I was doing it. When I handed in my PhD, I took an obligatory photo next to the Berkeley Library. (My friends even made me a Berkeley-themed cake.) All of which means that this issue is somewhat close to my heart. I nonetheless think that reactionary or defensive responses to the decision to rename the library are misguided.
I think it is worth explicitly stating: Berkeley has not been “cancelled” – at least on any plausible definition of what “cancellation” means. The fact that Berkeley was a slave owner is not new information, nor are his views on the Catholic Irish (which are quite explicit in his own writing, which is nearly 300 years old). Admittedly, the scholarly community around Berkeley has not always been as forthcoming as it could be with these details – had I known as much as I know now, I may have thought twice about dedicating five years of my life to his work. But the point is that once these details “came to light”, it is not as if a clamp came down putting an immediate stop to Berkeley scholarship. Papers continue to be published, books continue to be written, and Berkeley scholarship remains highly active. If one still wishes to maintain that Berkeley has been “cancelled”, then, I admit I don’t know what cancellation is or why we should be worried about it.
Papers continue to be published, books continue to be written, and Berkeley scholarship remains highly active. If one still wishes to maintain that Berkeley has been “cancelled”, then, I admit I don’t know what cancellation is or why we should be worried about it.
In fact, Berkeley scholarship has demonstrated the capacity to incorporate a renewed emphasis on his connection to slavery and racism within its remit. And there has been an encouraging move towards scholarship that highlights and contextualises the less savoury aspects of Berkeley’s life and values (including Tom Jones’ recent biography of Berkeley and a panel on “The Problematic Berkeley” at the British Society for the History of Philosophy annual conference). There is little reason to believe that this will change now that the student library at Trinity College has a different name. In fact, one need only look as far as Edinburgh where, in 2020, David Hume Tower was also denamed (it is now known as 40 George Square) in light of comments in Hume’s writing that are recognisably racist. Despite this, Edinburgh University remains a focal point for Hume scholarship. The same will likely be true of Trinity and Berkeley. In fact, one might argue, the College is currently talking about Berkeley more than ever.
One important distinction that often gets blurred in public debates around this kind of issue is that there is a difference between commemoration and education. According to some responses (which echo similar concerns about the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol or the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oriel College, Oxford), the denaming of the Berkeley Library will be to the detriment of people’s knowledge or education about Berkeley. This claim is suspect. I’m not sure that I ever learnt anything about Berkeley or his philosophy via the library that was named after him (of course, I did learn things from books in the library). And, one might argue, a library’s name (much like a statue) only means something to an audience who are already familiar with the individual it is named after or represents. In which case, it is doubtful that the library’s name plays any role in educating people about Berkeley at all.
One important distinction that often gets blurred in public debates around this kind of issue is that there is a difference between commemoration and education.
In one of his best-known works, Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (published in 1713), Berkeley himself makes a similar point. Using the example of a statue of Julius Caesar, Berkeley notes that it is impossible to recognise the statue as a statue of Caesar unless one already knows something about Caesar in the first place (for example, what he looked like). In other words, a statue of Caesar only represents Caesar, and only means something to an audience already in the know about him. The same might be said about the Berkeley Library (or Hume Tower, and so on). The “Berkeley” in the “Berkeley Library” only means something to those who already know something about Berkeley and his work. It doesn’t play any role in imbuing people with that knowledge.
And isn’t that precisely the motivation for Trinity’s decision, made in consultation with staff and students? What we know now about Berkeley is that he was a slave-owner; that he proposed, in order to secure enrolments for a college in Bermuda, that Native American children be captured if they did not come voluntarily; that he suggested Irish Catholics might better contribute to the national economy as slaves. Knowing these things as we do now, it is hard not to see them as the kinds of views and values that something named “the Berkeley Library” stands for.
When it comes to the commemoration of individuals (through statues, library names, and so on), it is the person as a whole that will be seen to have been commemorated. As a case in point, ask a Trinity student what they know about William Lecky, commemorated by a statue in the front square (I suspect they will be far better acquainted with his thoughts on women than his work as a historian). While scholarship can carefully examine the work of a figure like Berkeley and perhaps "silo" off the aspects of his work worth studying, a commemorative item (like a statue or library name) is a blunt tool. While the intention may have been to commemorate Berkeley the immaterialist philosopher, the “Berkeley Library” is just as likely to be seen as commemorating Berkeley the slave-owner. In this light, it seems sensible to continue to focus on "education" (broadly construed to include teaching and research) with regards to Berkeley, but not the kind of commemoration that naming a library after him involves.
I continue to engage in Berkeley scholarship, while keeping an open (and critical) mind about why I am doing so and what it means to promote Berkeley’s philosophy. I think this is perfectly consistent with agreeing that Trinity made the right call. I think it is also perfectly possible because Berkeley has not been cancelled.
Peter West is an Assistant Professor in Philosophy at Northeastern University London. His research focuses on Early Modern and Early Analytic Philosophy. You can follow him @PeterWest23
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