THE ENLIGHTENED ONE; Why the Philosopher David Hume Deserves His Accolade as Scot of the Millennium and How His Sceptical Yet Incisive Brand of Thinking Can Inspire Us All in the 21st Century

Daily Mail (London), December 6, 1999 | Go to article overview

THE ENLIGHTENED ONE; Why the Philosopher David Hume Deserves His Accolade as Scot of the Millennium and How His Sceptical Yet Incisive Brand of Thinking Can Inspire Us All in the 21st Century


Byline: ALLAN MASSIE

HE would not be the popular choice for the Scot of the Millennium; that might, at best, be Burns. He is not even, quite, my choice, for my vote would go to Walter Scott.

Yet the 'academics and opinion formers', who responded to a Sunday Times survey, and gave the title of Scot of the Millennium to David Hume, philosopher, economist, and historian, have chosen well.

The reason is simple. Hume was the greatest figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, with his friend Adam Smith running him a close second. It is difficult to determine which of the two had more influence. But Hume's range was wider and he outlined many of the economic ideas which Smith subsequently developed.

Who then was this extraordinary man, and how did he influence the way men thought?

He was born in 1711 and thus belonged to the first generation reared to accept the Union with England as something to be taken for granted. He belonged to an old Borders family, lairds in a small way, but was born (and died) in Edinburgh.

He studied law, briefly, at the university, with little pleasure - not surprisingly, since he was only 12 when he went to his college. As a young man, he lived for some years in France, and read much philosophy.

He was only 28 when he published his 'Treatise of Human Nature', a revolutionary work.

How revolutionary? Well, the American man of letters Logan Pearsall Smith once wrote, with only slight exaggeration, of his 'envy for the young David Hume who, in 1739, by sweeping away all the props of human understanding, destroyed for ever and ever all possibility of understanding.

'Some exaggeration, as I say, but undoubtedly Hume called into question the basis for man's understanding of the world and his place in it.

Yet he showed how to make sense of experience and how to construct for ourselves a rational model of the world without relying for understanding of it on any theory of divine intervention. He banished theology from the discussion of moral and social conduct, and what he had to say about the sympathetic mechanisms which order our relations with other men and women made it possible for philosophers to consider men living in a society which was held together by cultural, and not simply political bonds.

His influence as a historian was equally great. He argued that society developed, unconsciously, through distinct stages each characterised by a different economic structure.

IT is not too much to say that, without Hume, there could have been no Karl Marx. Hume's view of history was not, however, facilely optimistic. He saw that a relapse to barbarism was as possible as an advance to a higher state of civilisation.

As an economist he developed the theory that the value of money is determined by international trade. If an economy was closed and self-sufficient, then the quantity of money in circulation would be no matter, for prices and wages would rise and fall accordingly. …

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