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David Hume’s Tercentenary: So When Do The Celebrations Start?


Yesterday* was the tercentenary of the birth of the 18thC Scottish philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776), a man widely regarded as one of the greatest thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment, and often spoken of in the same breath as Aristotle, Plato and Kant.

It was fitting that Scotland celebrated his 300th birthday with a national holiday, street parties, live televised debates on the relevance of his ideas, and innumerable press articles on his legacy today.  People chanted his name on the streets and mothers lifted their children’s heads up to the sky to see clouds and stars and darkness.  Because that’s all that is there.

Except we didn’t. There was barely a murmur of recognition, hardly a ripple of appreciative applause. The media ducked while the churches and state sang praise of lesser men.  David Hume?  Move along.  Nothing to see here.

There is an honourable exception. Hume was a distinguished academic at Edinburgh University so it is no surprise, but appreciated nonetheless, that Edinburgh University have organised a series of events and lectures to mark his tercentenary.

In one of the few articles in the national press a reporter for The Scotsman stopped passers-by at Hume’s statue in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and inquired whether they knew who the guy with the manbreasts was.  Not many did, and even fewer knew anything of his ideas.

Further down the Royal Mile a Parliament building lay empty of the usual politicos, awaiting a new influx of visionaries, chancers and careerists after 5th May.  Politicians out on the campaign trail have more important things to do this week than halt their electoral bandwagons to sing the praises of a long dead philosopher.

Yet Hume, even from the grave, can still threaten to puncture their bubbles of conceit and deception:

“When men are most sure and arrogant they are commonly most mistaken, giving views to passion without that proper deliberation which alone can secure them from the grossest absurdities.”

Be wary of the zealot, the man of firm convictions, the rigid ideologue, the belligerent know-all, and the impassioned orator.  Yet so many of us who like to expound on politics, life and ideas – and I include myself in the number – often shoot from the hip first rather than weigh things up carefully from every possible sceptical angle.  More fool us.

It does come as a surprise that journalists haven’t stopped to honour the great man.  After all, perhaps more than any other thinker, Hume promoted the best possible modus operandi for their trade: a healthy dose of scepticism.

Hume often challenged religious and moral authority and cultivated a new method of inquiry in order to do so.  He ruffled a few feathers and continues to do so.  As he approached death he commented drily:  “I have no enemies; except indeed all the Whigs, all the Tories, and all the Christians.”  In 18thC Scotland that would have covered just about everybody!

And perhaps (“perhaps” being my favourite Humeian word) therein lies the true reason for Hume’s 300th anniversary getting widely ignored.  The same faiths whose spiritual leader taught the philosophical merits of forgiveness refuse to forgive or forget a man they considered a dangerous atheist.  It would seem that Hume, despite his international reputation, is still regarded in some quarters as a beyond-the-pale heretic and intellectual outlaw.

I won’t pretend to be an expert on Hume.   Some of his ideas are complex and difficult to understand.  The Wikipedia page on Hume is a useful starting point but even there it’s not plain sailing.  Nor should it be. Trying to understand Hume is akin to trying to understand ourselves, our motivations, our hopes and fears, and our unavoidable mortality.  It takes time and a little effort but the rewards are plenty.

Roderick Graham’s recent biography The Great Infidel (Birlinn, £9.99), described by The Herald as “a tremendous, sometimes mischievous piece of work” is a good starting point.  There is brand new interview (audio and transcript) of Roderick Graham on The Life of Hume which was posted on The Philosopher’s Zone on 23d April.

We take what we need from most philosophers.  In this respect Hume is no different.  But sometimes it’s useful to listen to what we don’t want to hear and get inside the heads of those with diametrically opposite points of view. This is one of the foundations of sceptical thinking. Reading writers and thinkers you broadly agree with is a one-way ticket to intellectual stagnation.

Hume enjoyed life to the full and understood too that there is more to life than the purely functional, the practical and the workaday.  He once wrote that:

“Reading and sauntering and lownging and dozing, which I call thinking, is my supreme Happiness.”

I like that quote not least because it flies straight in the face of the godawful Protestant work ethic that has been a plague on our country for so many centuries. It should be engraved in large letters above every school in the land.

(*26th April was Hume’s birthday according to the old calendar.  The new calendar has it as 7th May. Which gives the Scottish establishment and media one more crack of the whip at organising some appropriate celebrations.)

Comments (21)

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  1. John Ferguson says:

    Thank you for this enlightenment I will try to find his writings and will surely enjoy and learn. Such a pity we in this great country have been denied so much important history. Hopefully this will change as we progress to independence.

  2. GrahamH says:

    Oooh, modus operandi – la de daa!

    Cheers, enjoyed the article, esp the quote at the end 🙂

  3. Jason says:

    It may not have quite the national scope you’re looking for, but Chirnside seems to be having a 300th party for Hume on Saturday.

  4. Tocasaid says:

    Good reading list. Strange that American punk bands such as Bad Religion can quote and praise our philosophers such as Hume and James Hutton but our media do little or nothing.

  5. Enzyme says:

    Hi –
    According to the Hume Society, you’ve got the dates the wrong way around: his birthday was the 26th April OS, and the 7th May in the New Style.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Well spotted. Have changed them round. Thanks.


  6. A says:

    Nothing in the press? That’s because most journos don’t know who he is.

  7. Lynn says:

    Looks like you missed out on all the fun: 200 people attending the “March to Enlightenment” last Saturday ( http://www.meetup.com/edinburghhumanists/events/17395121/ ), the George Square Lecture Theatre bursting at its seams at yesterday’s Hume Birthday Party, and an editorial, published by The Scotsman, which honoured Hume as “not just certainly Scotland’s greatest philosopher, but also equally certainly in the world’s pantheon of great thinkers”. And while you catch up on all the fun you’ve missed, why not pay a visit to the (hugely successful) exhibition — widely reported in the newspapers and on STV — at the Writer’s Museum? See http://local.stv.tv/edinburgh/news/16249-writers-museum-marks-300th-birthday-of-scottish-figure/

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Thanks for the info, Lynn. I knew about the march down the Royal Mile but didnt get an invite to the party. I’m, eh, sceptical that a party in a lecture theatre was bouncing. Except perhaps with ideas. Fair do’s.

      Hume had a penchant – apologies for going all ‘bon David’ about this – for cooking up big meals for his friends. Maybe an annual Hume Supper has as much merit as a Burns one. Might need to think about that one.

      Edinburgh University aside there still doesnt seem to be much attempt to engage with Hume’s ideas in the media or in general schooling or academia. Scepticism has been replaced by gullibility.

      Its as if philosophy as a prized subject in our education system is surplus to requirements in the Age of Neoliberal Fastbuckery. This, IMO, is detrimental to the general well-being of our society.

      Kevin W

      1. GordonWright says:

        I’d second the Hume night dinner.

        Reading his works is refreshing even today. Should be a compulsory part of RME in Scottish schools.

        For our next generation to take on board some of his core themes would help enormously in Scotland’s development to a mature, progressive democracy.

  8. Alex Buchan says:

    The amnesia about Hume in Scotland is matched by a similar amnesia in Germany about the curcial role of Scottish philosophy to the development of German philosophy.
    Manfred Kuehn in his book “Scottish Common Sense in Germany 1768-1800” shows that the development of German philosophy was crucially affected by the arguments of Reid and the other Scottish philosophers of the Scottish school of Common Sense who reacted against the extreme’s of Hume’s conclusions as they saw it.
    What was incredible for me when I recently stumbled on Kuehn’s book was the picture it painted of a Scotland that was seen as being at the cutting edge of developments in thought in the late 18th cent and whoes debates were eagerly followed and discussed all over Europe.
    He argues that Kant’s breakthough has to be seen as having been percipitated by the reaction in German thought to this Scottish debate.
    His book was published in 1987 and up to that point no one else had taken the decisive role of Scottish philosophers to the development of German philosophy seriously. Although he points out that the lack of a distinct “Scottish” School of German philosophy may have contributed the Scottish contribution being overlooked by subsequent historians, he himself is not entirely sure why no one has previously mentioned it. Being Scottish, it was no mystery to me.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      That last sentence of yours is the starting point for so much aggravated thought. The marginalisation of Scottish culture has been systemic and all-pervasive for the last three hundred years.

      Yet, as you indicate, in 18thC Europe the influence of the philosophical ideas of Hume, Smith, Hutton and Reid was extensive and helped shape the ideas of everyone from Kant and Hegel to Darwin and Marx. Yet how many school kids in Scotland, by the time they’re 16, are familiar with any of those four influential Scottish thinkers?

      Kevin W

  9. GrahamH says:

    Reid was also influential in the emergence of American pragmatism, particularly that of its founder Charles Pierce. Less of an industry-in-itself than German metaphysics and it avoids all that tedious mucking around in hyperspace.

  10. drew grozier says:

    Radio National Australia are broacasting lectures on oor Davie – Saturday arvo 1.30 pm.

  11. Paul Russell says:

    Dear Mr. Williamson,

    I appreciate your article about David Hume and I well understand your concern about the lack of appreciation for Hume’s achievements in his native country. I also understand that you are not an expert on Hume’s life and work. There is, however, a (minor) correction that needs to be made to your comments above. You say:

    “… There is an honourable exception. Hume was a distinguished academic at Edinburgh University so it is no surprise, but appreciated nonetheless, that Edinburgh University have organised a series of events and lectures to mark his tercentenary.”

    Hume was not a “distinguished academic at Edinburgh University. He was an undergraduate student at the University in the 1720’s (when he was still very young). Famously, he applied for a Chair in Philosophy at Edinburgh University in 1745 and was turned down for it. The same thing happened a few years later at Glasgow University. Later in life (1764), Hume wrote to his old friend Gilbert Elliot of Minto that he had met with “nothing but Insults & Indignities” from his native country (although he was probably including all of Britain in this unhappy assessment). Sadly, the record of Edinburgh University with regard to Hume’s treatment is nothing to be particularly proud of …. Despite all this, it is clear that Hume remained deeply attached to “his native country” and his friends and family there.

    Clearly Hume’s legacy and achievements should be properly remembered and appreciated in his native country. It is also a good occasion to remember the way in which provincial and reactionary attitudes, along with and petty politics, denied a truly great Scottish thinker the recognition he deserved – and that the Scottish Universities were by no means innocent parties in this situation.

  12. Can I make the point – out of personal observation – that ‘gifted’ people can be prompted by some sort of concentrated intuition: common sense in overdrive, if you like. Gifts of ordering memory, grasping complex technical formulae, can proceed from something more than memory. This is akin to Thomas Reid’s ‘common sense’ conscience, which he upheld against Hume as metaphysical rather than driven by the senses. The French social anthropologist Emmanuel Todd in his THE CAUSES OF PROGRESS (1989) has argued that the Scottish extended family ‘cradled’ such individuals and thus contributed to the advance of the enlightenment. This tradition would in due course extend to the ‘pragmatism’ of Charles Sanders Peirce in the USA

  13. the Knee says:

    There’s good stuff about Hume and his contemporaries in Arthur Herman’s book “The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World”. From there I picked up one of those fantastic wee Penguin Great Ideas books on Hume which has a good collection of essays and the like. Kevin I think I still have an old copy of the one and only printed copy of Bella Caledonia I ever saw, picked up in Wordpower many moons ago. You introduced me to James D Young in that issue and I’m very grateful for that. There’s an intriguing work by him in Edinburgh libraries’ collection called “David Hume the unknown racist” which I haven’t yet checked out but would like to!

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  15. GrahamH says:

    Who was Thomas Reid?

    What, the plaque on table four? Yeah, he was a regular. Before you started here. He used to play on that table with a guy called David Hume. Every Tuesday and Friday. For years.

    I remember the first time I got chatting to him. He had a mischievous smile. Always threw in some Doric when he was messing with you.

    So yeah, I was collecting their empties. We used to do table service back then. I was collecting their empties and he was grinning at his friend David, listening to him talk about the snooker balls. He still comes in here occasionally, that David Hume. Bit of a space cadet if you ask me. Always puts trancey stuff on the juke box.

    But that time the music had stopped and he was standing at the foot of the table, just, like, rolling the white ball into the red. And then putting them back and doing it again. Time and time again. And he was saying to your man Reid something like, you know, I can do this a hundred times, a thousand times, but I don’t know for sure that the next time I roll the white into the red the red will move. There’s no way of knowing for sure. And Thomas was like so what’s your point. And David said I don’t know and kept doing it. I looked at Thomas and he smiled at me and rolled his eyes. And then David stood up and said it’s habit isn’t it, it’s a habit of expectation. I have an idea of the red ball and each time it moves after the white hits it I get more used to the idea that it’ll always happen. Then Thomas gave him a strange look and said an idea of the red ball and David looked back at him and said yeah, an idea, my idea of the red ball. Then he said something I didn’t understand. Something like he only has an idea of the snooker balls from his impressions of them, and that he has no way of knowing for sure that there are actually snooker balls on the table.

    Thomas laughed at it. That raucous laugh. And then he picked up the blue ball and said you don’t know if this is a blue snooker ball? David paused for a second then replied no, I can’t be sure, but I do know that I have the idea of a blue snooker ball in my mind. Then I laughed and blurted out something like well what’s the point in thinking that? And Thomas asked him so what about the bus you came here in, do you doubt its existence? And what about your shoes? Do you doubt they are on your feet? David just looked at him. So then Thomas poked a bit of fun at him and said slowly, like some therapist might, he said well it’s all well and good you coming here twice a week and telling me about all these angles and fancy spins and everything, but if you doubt the existence of the bus that gets you here, well what’s that all about.

    And I laughed so much at that. I laughed all the way back here and was still laughing when I poured their lager tops. Oh it was a good one. That was funny. Good times.

    Mind you I got David to tell me his theories about spin and angles and stuff. That came in handy. That’s when I started to get good. Getting better at position. I started knocking in half century breaks after that.

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