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The In Our Time Newsletter: David Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment

Saturday 8 October 2011, 07:00

Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg

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Editor's note: This week Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed the work of the philosopher David Hume, a key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. As always the programme is available, as is the In Our Time archive, to listen to online or to download and listen to on holiday - PM

Hume

Far and away the oddest present I got yesterday was a beer mat.

This was given to me after the programme by the Professor of Philosophy at Oxford. It is a David Hume beer mat with a bust of the philosopher, his name, his dates and underneath the bust the motto "Drink and Think"...

On the back there are a selection of sentences under the heading Hume Thought - for instance, "A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence", and "Morality is more properly felt than judged", and "Beauty exists merely in the mind", and "Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous".

Underneath these and other thoughts is the question "What do you think?"

Presumably, in Oxford and, I hope, in Edinburgh, there are philosophers' pubs where they take their pint and turn over the beer mat and continue their work in circumstances which intellectuals seem to favour. You'll remember that when Crick and Watson thought they had discovered the meaning of life when they completed their work on DNA, they rushed off to The Eagle in Cambridge and sank pints to celebrate.

One thing that we did not talk about in the programme was Hume's History of England, for which he was most famous in his day and which he came to regard as his best work and which was a tremendous commercial success.

By the time we got to that in the structure, I thought that there was still quite a lot more to say about philosophy on which we'd only begun to touch, so I skipped the whole thing. There'll be time, I hope, later on in the decade, to do a programme on The History of England. Perhaps contrasting histories of England from different periods. What did we think we were then, what do we think we are now? Might work.

It seems that the Scottish Enlightenment is not in great favour with the current Scottish government. It's not nationalistic enough and it's too English, or at least too anglicised.

No, the Scottish Enlightenment thrives in Canada where many professors specialise in Hume. I think our guests said there were very few Hume specialists of philosophy in this country. Hume was thought easy and therefore he didn't need to be a specialist subject. Any philosopher could teach Hume.

If that seems a slight on Hume to philosophers, it's one thing that could make a great number of people think it's a compliment to Hume. A fair number have commented of the programme that they could understand philosophy - something that had been hidden from them before. And there is certainly one layer of Hume which invites understanding in a way that many philosophers simply don't. But, as usual, being accessible means being undervalued. I think it was all three who agreed on that. It's quite an interesting observation and seems to hold true across the board.

It's curious, though. In 2009, at the bicentenary celebration of the birth of Burns, Edinburgh was crowded with kilted folk from all over the Scottish diaspora, singing, I'm sure, My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose as they marched in the rain to the castle, and Walter Scott can still excite nationalism both in his house and around his monument.

But Hume, considered by some the greatest philosopher in the English language, has a 300th anniversary this year which is passing away without organisation, without comment, and even our own programme just happened to be an accidental coincidence. (Can a coincidence be anything other than accidental?)

After Hume, off to the office and then to Leeds to give the lecture to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the great Brotherton Library at Leeds University, with some of the descendents of Lord Brotherton present to hear about times of enormous philanthropy. Michael Arthur, the Vice-Chancellor of Leeds, said (at dinner) that philanthropy had decreased after the Second World War because of a much heavier reliance on state support and state subsidy.

Okay, one other unusual present. A friend of mine at Leeds University had made a birthday cake (now that's something I haven't had for many years), but... it was an open Bible, with a reproduction of the frontispiece somehow on the white icing and the icing itself moulded to represent leaves. Quite extraordinary.

Of course, I dare not take a knife to it.

Melvyn Bragg presents In Our Time

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    Comment number 1.

    This was a fascinating edition of the programme. It came across quite clearly how at the time Hume was writing almost all 'thinkers' were constricted in their thinking by a belief in a Christian god.

    I agree with the point about the 300th anniversary of his birth being largely ignored. In January a whole day of the Radio 4 schedule was taken up with readings from the King James Bible. This neglect of Hume, such an important historical figure in the fields of history and philosophy, is a mighty slap in the face to licence-fee payers. I suspect that the powers that be at the BBC would much prefer your cake than your beer mat!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 2.

    CLEARLY DAVID HUME

    AND RULE OF LAW

    MADE BY

    DESIRE, PASSION, GREED

    OF COMMONER LAW MAKERS...

    IS THAT WHAT DAVID HUME

    TEACHES

    THAT WOULD BE OFFENSIVE

    TO GOOD DEVOTED LEADERS

    EVERYWHERE?

    DAVID HUME DID "NOT

    EXPEREINCE SOUL"

    YET DID HE NOT

    EXPRESS "SOUL"

    EVEN YAWH

    QUITE THE DESIRE OF RELIGIOUS

    TEACHERS FOR THEIR FLOCK...

  • rate this
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    Comment number 3.

    This was a great show, very carefully and clearly explained and argued. I was particularly interested in the equal weighting Hume gave to desire and reason; desire as the motivation to act, balanced by reason as the means to act on one's desires. Hopes and desires shape the networks of our interactions with others. For more about the way that this takes place, and how it is that hopes, desires and ambition drive globalisation, read this new book: [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

  • rate this
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    Comment number 4.

    “ A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence”.Hume.Hume had no time for
    miracles,hence for belief in God.Locke and Descartes philosophy was based on reason,and derived from God.There is no soul.The self is a ‘bundle of different
    perceptions’.There is no essential or substantial self.
    Morality is action-centred sentiment circumscribed by reason.
    Empiricist:how do we know what we know?All our knowledge comes from experience,the passions are in the driving seat,reason is subservient.We can never have certain knowledge,only beliefs come from experience.Those beliefs might be
    probable or justified.We can give no reason for our inferences.In order to predict or know what happens we need to experience:this is the guide to what we haven’t experienced.We take for granted the unobserved will resemble the observed.

    As the mind is not analogous to nature,science is derived from a mental construct (logic) imposed upon experience and is not something which has evolved from it.So,
    the laws of science,formerly thought to be based upon empiricism(i.e. experience) are not,but instead are based upon a principle(induction) derived from logic.So the laws of science depend upon an inference(of causality),which may not be true, rather than particular observations.The principle can only justify the inference but cannot be inferred from observed uniformities.Scientific laws therefore rest upon an unprovable assumption.Science is not based upon an observed truth but numerical probability which is sufficient for practical purposes.Science is not synonymous with certainty,just as the practical world of action is not the real world.
    Keep these serious talks going Melvyn,do all the major philosophers.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 5.

    After listening to your programme, I went back and re-read Peirce's essay "The Laws of Nature and Hume's Argument Against Miracles". Peirce was the most brilliant American who ever lived - a mind on a par with Descartes, Leibnitz, and Kant - and certainly an order of magnitude greater than Hume. Peirce notes that Hume relied on a definition of miracles quite different to Church Fathers - violation of the "Laws of Nature", rather than operation of a super-human agency. More importantly, Peirce dissects "a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence" to show that Hume is not really talking about miracles at all, but how to deal with reports of them. Instead of dealing with the miracle that "stones fall from the sky", Hume is trying to find a way to deal with the testimony of individuals who purport to have witnessed stones falling from the sky. Peirce also presents a not entirely flattering view of the British mind being dominated by Ockhamism (nominalism), and proves that Hume's argument must presuppose Ockhamism. Ultimately, Peirce says that on Ockhamistic principles the only logical support for any belief is positive experience, and to argue from what you do not know is simple nonsense. So, stones do not fall from the sky.

    Peirce takes a dim view of the legacy of Hume's proposition that "a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence", saying "This method has never been put into practice without yielding fruit either ridiculous or horrible...it has been applied ... by modern [19th Century] German critics of ancient history, with whom it is a constant practice to deny the testimony of all witnesses and set down what seems likely in a German university town in the place of history...The same principle has been applied on the continent of Europe to judicial evidence; and if anybody is shocked by the hideous wrongs perpetrated by our own courts and district attorneys' offices, he can find some balm for his wounded Americanism in studying the results of the method in question in continental 'justice'."

 
 

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