Saturday, 19 July 2014

The Appreciation Of A Great Scot: David Hume

That's me about ten years ago standing next to
the David Hume statue on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.
Throughout my postgrad time at Edinburgh, I frequently ignored my ostensible subject (within-a-subject-within-a-subject) and just read whatever I wanted and attended whatever lectures I wanted. This habit became particularly strong in my second year; I remember frequently buying books online and finishing them off within a week or two of their arrival such that I almost completely neglected my actual studies for weeks on end. I read widely; archaeology, tax-reform, Islamic democracy, and I think there may have been a history of prostitution in there somewhere too. But mainly I read philosophy; in addition to a lot of little books (e.g. Matt Cavanagh's "Against Equality Of Opportunity") I bought a second-hand copy of David Hume's "Treatise On Human Nature" (1738) from a law student down south somewhere. The thing that immediately impressed me was the prose; it is immense. Although I read and re-read again and again the passage in the introduction wherein Hume lays out his famous "is-ought gap", I have to admit I did not finish reading the entire treatise before I boxed away all my books at my parents house before leaving for Taiwan. Having said that, the "is-ought gap" is not something to be ignorant of, and there is a not-inconsiderable aesthetic value in reading Hume's prose; it is a universe away from the 140-character limit of a Twitter account.

There is a brief but good discussion of Hume's significance here; I think I was wrong in agreeing with Paul Marks about Hume last year. The significance of Hume's law is institutional in that it provides probably the single most robust reason against coercion (the application is to institutional design rather than personal encounters - obviously one does not reason with those who are about to coerce you). I recall Karl Popper in one of his books remarking that it is impossible to write in such a way that you could never be misunderstood, misinterpreted, or misrepresented.

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