A Philosopher and a Slaver, but No Longer a Name on a Library
"No one disputes that George Berkeley was among Ireland’s greatest thinkers, but he was also an unapologetic slaver. Now, Trinity College Dublin is taking his name off one of its buildings.
Trinity College Dublin has decided to seek a new name for its central library, the Berkeley, after concluding that the alumnus it honors, the 18th-century philosopher George Berkeley, owned slaves in colonial Rhode Island and wrote pamphlets supportive of slavery.
A fellow of Trinity and the former librarian there, Berkeley is regarded by academics as one of the most influential thinkers of the early modern period. Some view his philosophical and scientific ideas on perception and reality as foreshadowing the work of Albert Einstein.
But last month, the governing board of Trinity, Ireland’s oldest university, announced that it had voted to “dename” the library after months of research and consultation by a group established to review problematic legacies. The group based its recommendations on an analysis of historical records, already in the public domain, showing that Berkeley had purchased several enslaved people for a plantation that he operated while living in Rhode Island from 1729 to 1732.
Already a noted scholar, Berkeley went to America with plans to use wealth from the plantation, as well as public donations, to open a school in Bermuda that would take Native American children — by force if need be — and convert them to Christianity.
His plans never materialized, however, and Berkeley donated his farm, along with its enslaved people, to Yale University before returning to Britain and then Ireland, where he eventually became the Anglican Church’s Lord Bishop of Cloyne.
Trinity College’s provost, Linda Doyle, said that though Berkeley’s name was being removed from the library, his intellectual legacy remained intact. Berkeley, she noted, remains recognized globally as one of the most brilliant thinkers to emerge from Ireland, and she said his philosophical and scientific theories would continue to be taught at the college.
“George Berkeley’s enormous contribution to philosophical thought is not in question,” Dr. Doyle said in a statement. “However, it is also clear that he 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.”
The library is not Berkeley’s only namesake.
The University of California, Berkeley, was also named for the philosopher. According to the Berkeley Historical Society, trustees of the then-private college settled on naming it after him in 1866, inspired in part by his missionary zeal and a poem he wrote:
Westward the course of empire takes its way;
The four first acts already past,
A fifth shall close the drama with the day:
Time’s noblest offspring is the last.
Several years ago, Berkeley renamed two buildings dedicated to former faculty members tarnished by racism, but there has been no serious discussion at the university of changing its own name.
“We acknowledge that the university’s founders chose to name their new town and campus after an individual whose views warrant no honor or commemoration,” said a spokesman for the school, Dan Mogulof. But a century and a half later, he said, “‘Berkeley’ has come to embody and represent very different values and perspectives.”
In Ireland, Trinity’s formal re-examination of Berkeley’s legacy began last year after students at the college started a campaign of lobbying and protests.
The president of the student union, Gabi Fullam, said the university’s increasingly diverse students and staff could no longer accept the main library being named after a slave owner. “It’s a library for all of the college community, and it’s a big physical presence,” she said. “It looms over the center of the campus.”
But, Ms. Fullam said, “no one is saying we should take Berkeley off the syllabus.”
And students will still encounter Berkeley in the form of a 19th-century stained-glass window commemorating his life in the college chapel. The school decided to keep the window in place but add information about the controversy — adopting a so-called retain and explain approach.
Its historical name notwithstanding, the library is a modernist concrete structure that opened in 1967 and is one of Dublin’s prime examples of Brutalist architecture. For its first 11 years, it was known as the New Library, to distinguish it from Trinity’s more famous Old Library. That elegant 18th-century building houses the famous Long Room, one of Ireland’s leading tourist attractions, and is home to the medieval Book of Kells.
With the decision to dename the Berkeley, the school will once again need to figure out what to call it. One choice is off the table: It cannot revert to the New Library, since two even newer ones have been built in the interim.
Phil Mullen, who in 2020 was appointed the university’s first associate professor of Black studies, is among those welcoming the name change. Berkeley, she said, should not be excused as merely reflecting the views of his time.
“A lot of other individuals openly opposed slavery then,” Dr. Mullen said. “Berkeley was not an innocent in this way. There were other people who visited him — Quakers, Moravians, Jews — who felt differently about slavery, and who would have argued with Berkeley about his position.”
Instead, Dr. Mullen said, it was clear that he had been a willing practitioner of slavery who baptized his slaves not only for the sake of their souls but, as he wrote in 1725, because he believed it would make them more obedient to their masters.
The college’s legacy group said that it had received 93 submissions from students, staff members and the public about the library name. A slim majority, 47, supported changing it, 16 called for retaining it, and the others staked a middle ground.
Most of those who supported keeping the name argued that Berkeley’s views reflected his time, or that it would be wrong to remove the name of one of Ireland’s greatest thinkers.
David McConnell, a former vice provost of the college, argued for the retain and explain approach.
“Berkeley draws attention to him because he was a very great scholar, and it’s important that people know about him and, in the case of the students today, maybe be inspired by him,” Professor McConnell said. “If the name isn’t up there on the library, he will fade away and be known only to people who study philosophy.”
The chairman of the group that recommended renaming the library, Prof. Eoin O’Sullivan, said its work had been influenced by other universities facing similar issues.
Harvard Medical School, for example, voted in 2020 to rename an academic society named for Oliver Wendell Holmes. The 19th-century physician and writer was an early promoter of racial eugenics and successfully pushed for the removal of the first Black students admitted to the school. In 2016, Harvard Law School voted to stop using the heraldic shield of the Royall family because Isaac Royall Jr., a major 18th-century donor to the college, had derived his wealth from slavery.
Last year, the physics department of Trinity College Dublin decided to remove the name of the renowned Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger from one of its lecture halls. Schrödinger worked and taught at the college in the 1940s, but was recently revealed to have been a serial abuser of teenage girls."