Monday, June 15, 2009

For Hume the bell tolls


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Its people may not have saved civilization like their fellow Celts across the Irish Sea, but Scotland has given the world some big-name thinkers from John Duns Scotus (probably) through R.D. (not k.d.) Laing.

I've always had a soft spot for David Hume (right, in Edinburgh) because he was a leading light of the great age when philosophers could write. Indeed, he was something of a publicist, considering himself

"as a kind of resident or ambassador from the dominions of learning to those of conversation, and shall think it my constant duty to promote a good correspondence between these two states, which have so great a dependence on each other." (Emphasis mine.)
In addition to his essays, Hume wrote a History of England that remains readable to this day (though I seem to recall his having thought history more appropriate to women and philosophy to men). Still, in his essays and in his history, he wrote for an intelligent lay public, and what philosophers do that today outside France?

Hume was not the only big name in 18th-century thought who hung out in Edinburgh. He was not even the only hot shot in his courtyard. If you can read the plaque at left, you'll see that another famous Scot and his even more famous English friend spent time there, too.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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33 Comments:

Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Edinburgh! Yay! I've stood at that statue. I watched an Asian bagpiper right across the street from there play the most amazing melody. I also went to John Knox's church, where I got summarily kicked out.

June 15, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Why would you have got kicked out of John Knox's church? Were you having too much fun?

June 15, 2009  
Blogger Sucharita Sarkar said...

I remember reading some of Hume's 'philosophy' in our Western Philosophy classes at college. I had Philosophy as one of my subsidiary subjects, and it included Indian Philosophy and Logic as well. But I have completely forgotten what I read.

BTW, I have written on the 4x4 meme which you had tagged me with. It is posted at
http://pastcontinues.blogspot.com/2009/06/four-point-someone.html

June 15, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And I have posted a link to your 4x4 response. Thanks.

I am generally a poor reader of poetry and philosophy -- of anything that requires sustained attention, in other words -- so I latch with special enthusiasm onto anything in those areas that is engaging and readable. The eighteenth was probably the first century in which thinkers wrote for the public on a large scale. That is probably one reason I can read writers like Voltaire and Montesquieu in French. They wrote for the public, so they had to be clear, concise, logical and amusing.

I suspect I shall receive an introduction to Indian philosophy and logic once I've read a bit further in one of my current books. But its author dwells more on politics and history, I think -- understandable, since he occupied a rather prominent position in Indian public affairs.

June 15, 2009  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Oddly enough, I was simply sitting in there while the choir practiced. An employee (I don't think he was a deacon or anything) told me it was A Very Bad Thing to do and told me in No Uncertain Terms that I needed to go. The irony still impresses me today.

June 15, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know if Knox's followers believe as Calvin did. Maybe you were just obviously not one of the elect.

June 15, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

You're kidding me with Duns Scotus of course. Scotti meant Irish back then. Hume too nicked some of his ideas from Ulsterman Francis Hutcheson.

Hume was a cheerful chap and is generally right about everything. Kant tried but failed to refute him and poor old Boswell pestered him to recant his atheism on his deathbed, however I think you'll find that his views on the "darker races" left much to be desired.

June 16, 2009  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

I think the only thing Knox and Calvin disagreed on was lawn bowling on the Sabbath. Maybe I should have fended off the employee with a copy of Calvin's Institutes. Of course, that would've required lifting the thing ...

June 16, 2009  
Blogger Philip said...

I love that story, Loren.

But, Adrian, Scotti or Scoti was a generic term given by the occupying Romans to Irish invaders, a term that soon came to be applied to all speakers of Gaelic, be they Irish, Scottish or other. In the mediaeval age, it was used thus and also for peoples of Northern England. Those who would lay claim to Duns Scotus for Ireland sometimes glom onto the 'Duns' as well, 'dun' being Gaelic for 'fort', but this is a bit desperate. There are plenty of duns in Scotland -- Dundee, Dun Eideann is now Edinburgh, Dun on St Kilda, Dunbar, et al. -- and John Mair, the Scottish philosopher of the next century born in Gleghornie, Berwick, and sometimes called Haddingtonus Scotus, after Haddington in East Lothian where he received his early schooling, gives Duns, Berwickshire, as the birthplace of Duns Scotus. Though I do not subscribe to the view that the Irish saved civilization, enough wonderful things have come from that land that they don't really need Duns Scotus, surely.

June 16, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, me old China, I believe "Scotti" had lost its ancient meaning of "Irish" by the time John came around in the thirteenth century. The disagreement over his birth suggests he may even have been born in northern England.

Quoth one source: "The other name, Duns, to which the Irish attach so much importance, settles nothing; there was a Duns also in Scotland (Berwick). Moreover, it is impossible to determine whether Duns was a family name or the name of a place. Appeal to supposedly ancient local traditions in behalf of Ireland's claim is of no avail, since we cannot ascertain just how old they are; and their age is the pivotal point."

June 16, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oops. Forgot this: "The surname Scotus by no means decides the question, for it was given to Scotchmen, Irishmen, and even to natives of northern England. The other name, Duns, to which the Irish attach so much importance, settles nothing; there was a Duns also in Scotland (Berwick)."

June 16, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Calvin was the anti-bowler, I presume. Maybe you looked suspiciously like a non-bowler.

I once remarked to a Luteran pastor acquaintance, an aimiable, liberal sort who played bass in a jazz band, that the Reformation must have been an interesting time. He nodded in agreement.

"With waves of reformers," I continued, "each more radical than the last: Luther, Calvin and Zwingli."

He stiffened and said, "Luther was right."

June 16, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, I had not seen your erudite reply when I posted my answer to Adrian.

Do you suppose Loren's sitting and listening to music, and perhaps appearing to enjoy doing so, may have given offense?

June 16, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian: I'm an indifferent reader of philosophy, but Hume's undogmatic uncertainty is immensely attractive. In re his views of the darker races, I think he would have been leaving the scene right around the time the idea of abolition was taking hold.

If he expresses his ideas about the dark races in his History of England, I probably have not got to them. I've read about the first two-and-a-half of six volumes.

June 16, 2009  
Blogger Philip said...

Loren's unhappy experience is a bit of a puzzle, Peter. I'm assuming he was in the St. Giles Cathedral, where Knox was minister, which is Church of Scotland and, though presbyterian, now has in its services music of all types. I'm at a loss to know why there'd be an objection to anyone listening to the choir practice in there. If it had been the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland -- the Wee Wee Frees -- or, heaven help us, the Free Church of Scotland -- the Wee Frees (free to do hardly anything at all) -- it would not have arisen. They allow only metrical psalms sung unaccompanied. I might surmise that this character may have been some relic who had the idea that sacred music should be heard only in the context of a service.

June 16, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or maybe the employee who ejected Loren had lost his bearings and wandered into the wrong church.

I happened to be in Edinburgh during the recent major assembly of the Church of Scotland (I'm unsure which term the church uses for its general meetings), which may explain the long line of people I saw waiting outside a church door -- St. Giles', perhaps. It may well have been on the Royal Mile -- guarded by a gentleman in traditional Scottish garb.

June 16, 2009  
Blogger Philip said...

This sounds very likely, Peter. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland is held in the Assembly Hall on the Mound, and St. Giles is in the High Street, both part of the Royal Mile. Bit of an overspill in May into Rainy Hall -- like the Assembly Hall, part of New College, home of the Divinity School at U of E -- owing to a bit of kerfuffle when the Church suddenly found itself with an openly homosexual minister in its midst. Thomas Rainy was the Moderator of the first Assembly in 1900, and probably wouldn't have liked all this, especially as the Commissioners voted to let said minister keep his church, setting aside the greater issue for further study. As in the Anglican Church, others were sounding the First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment, as it were, so more fun and games to come.

Verification: dergar, which sounds like a dialectical pronunciation of the weapon used in a crime novel about what happens when a Scottish church suddenly goes into schism after...

June 16, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dergar sounds like an anagram for something, no doubt of significance to the mystery at hand.

I read either after or before I'd seen the lineup outside the church that the assembly was indeed scheduled to discuss the kerfuffle you mentioned. Desmond Tutu spoke in favor of the gay minister, and one account said the quarrel could split the church.

June 16, 2009  
Blogger Philip said...

Given the 'Scotus' discussion, I do so wish it had one more letter -- 'duergar' are a mythical race of dwarf-like creatures, much given to leading people astray, coming probably from the Old Norse for dwarf: 'dvergar'. They're associated with the Simonside Hills just outside Rothbury, the lovely little town in Northumberland where my brother lives, and part of the lands from which Scoti once came.

June 16, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Well as long as everyone will admit that Scotland is an Irish invention I'll be happy.

June 16, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Duergar" sounds like an obvious cognate for "dwarves," and it indeed would have been an apt v-word.

My v-word is "lutbab," which, given "lutefisk," that odd Nordic dish of fish treated with lye, could mean something. Perhaps it's what gave the duergar great strength despite their small stature.

June 16, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Good, Adrian. For a while there I thought you were a new St. Patrick, brining the gospel of Clive James to the Irish.

OK, now that that's out of the way, what about this St. Brendan guy and his discoveries?

June 16, 2009  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Yup, it was St. Giles. Apparently they liked to close to tourists in order to practice for evening worship. I was unaware of this and, sitting in a darker corner, got missed by the employee the first time he went around telling everyone. Perhaps that explains his snippishness when he found me. Sorry, sir, if you're out there.

Peter, from what I understand it was actually Knox who nearly became apoplectic when he saw Calvin lawn bowling on the Sabbath. He was a pretty strict sabbatarian, while Calvin was a bit looser. Go figure, eh?

June 16, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Your contrition just may save you from hellfire, you godless lawn bowler.

I haven't read all the pertinent translations, but I don't remember lawn bowling being banned in the Bible. Perhaps Calvin picked up that particular pursuit in the fleshpots of Paris.

Could the Scottish church really have split, with one group saying lawn bowling was a mortal sin and another saying it was only venial?

June 16, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Feeling very business like today:

1. Brendan probably existed and probably made it to Iceland but no further. Tim Severin's book where he attempts to follow Brendan to North America in a leather boat is a bloody hoot (though of no probitive value if you ask me).

2. That book How The Irish Saved Civilization is one of the worst piles of crap I've ever had the misfortune to read. A total embarrassment from start to finish. Very much a witches brew cooked up in a publishing house in time for Christmas.

3. Speaking of Dr Johnson. You know he had very enlightened views on race. He said something like "Why are [American]drivers of the negroes continually speaking of liberty?"

4. Hume's view on race were given a nuanced look by my, er, brother in law in Hume Studies 26#1

June 16, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I couldn't dismiss the Brendan hypothesis out of hand, but a leather boat? That left me skeptical when I read about it earlier today. But if Brendan made it to Iceland, the Vikings who went on to found Dublin were really Irish in the first place. OK, that's settled.

I had thought Dr Johnson might have been more an enlightened skeptic, even a conservative. The form of the quotation I came across when doing a bit of reading for this post was more like "How come the ones shouting largest are the ones who drive Negroes?" In any case, I read it -- out of context, of course -- more as a dismissal of the American movement for independence than as a call to liberate slaves.

"Very much a witches brew cooked up in a publishing house in time for Christmas."

Nice blurb. Cahill's title sounds as if it could be a whimsical meditation on a tendency toward exaggerated claims and romantic fantasies by and on behalf of the Irish. But I gather this is not what the book does.

OK, so Hume and Lamed Shapiro are both on my reading list. Thanks for the link.

June 16, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

BTW if Duns Scotus was Irish (and I think the jury is going to be out on that one forever) he would merely be 1 of a long line of Irish scholars who swam east to help their barbarous British bretheren. That of course doesnt let Cahill off the hook; he should be made to do community service in the NYPL for his crimes against Clio, muse of history and Calliope, muse of epics. Of course there's no justice: I hear his next book is going to be called How The Swiss Navy Discovered America Before The Chinese, Columbus and the Vikings.

June 16, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know what Cahill had to say about the Irish, but there's no doubt that the early monks of Scotland were Irish. Heck, the Book of Kells may have been created at Iona, but I don't suppose that gets talked about much.

June 16, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, make that: "How come the ones shouting loudest for liberty are the drivers of negroes?" See? Copy editing is important.

June 17, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Lovely place Iona. One of my favourite places in all the world. Romantic too. Burial place for the kings of Norway, Iceland, Dalriada, Ireland and Scotland. If the Scots ever want independence the 'Stone of Scone' should be taken to Iona.

(I've got the quotes because of course we kept the real Stone of Destiny at Tara. You can see it there to this present day.)

June 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And would that be the stone in question, peeking over the horizon on the right of the photograph that I've just added at the top of this post? (I took the photo last year.)

June 17, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Exactly. I think it must have been an early case of selling the Brooklyn Bridge.

June 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Did you know that one can buy scones made from the original Stone of Scone? They're hard and dry, but with a bit of jam and butter and washed down with a good cup of tea, eminently digestible.

June 17, 2009  

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