Friday, May 25, 2012

Philosophy Seminar on David Hume as an Historian

This week, I attended a seminar organised by the ‘Forum for Scottish Philosophy’ at St Andrews University, Fife, Scotland, which has sponsored several seminars over the past three or four years.  They attract a broad attendance from faculty from most of the Scottish Universities, plus a sprinkling of final year, and recently graduated, PhD students.  If I am in Scotland, I endeavour to attend because the subjects covered and the contributions are of excellent quality.
This week’s seminar was of the very highest quality.  The seminar title was “Hume’s History of England at 250” (David Hume’s multi-volume history of England and Great Britain’ – the distinction was evident in the years before and after the Act of Union in 1707).
Moritz Baumstark (Heidelberg) opened with “Impartial and interesting? A reconsideration of Hume’s virtues as a historian’.
I found this account fascinating, in that, like I am sure most economists and non-philosophers, often wondered why a philosopher of Hume’s standing bothered to write so many volumes on the history of England.  The answer became quite clear from Moritz’s paper. 
Not only was the history of England/Great Britain from the Stuart monarch’s to the 'Glorious' Revolution marked by the dismantling of feudalism and the development towards liberty, both precursors of the conditions conducive to the expansion of a commercial society, they also showed the need for historians to do more than merely write of the dynastic successions and wasteful battles of European Kings.
Hume’s proclaimed distinction for ‘impartiality’ between this or that Monarch’s, crudely known among the historians as the clash between ‘Tory’ and ‘Whig’ biases in history and politics.   That Historians should also be ‘interesting’ was also interesting, at least to me.
Moritz considered Hume as responding to the need for “impartiality” by being accused of partiality in his first volume, and then being (blatantly?) partial towards Tory interpretations of Cromwell’s rebellion, epitomised in Hume’s lyrical appreciation of the character of Charles 1 during the events leading to his execution.
This was followed by James Harris (St. Andrews) on “Hume’s History as Court Whig history”, casting further light on the depths in the distinctions between these concepts (a distinction I confess not to being too aware of prior to the seminar).
After lunch, Mikko Tolonen (Helsinki and St Andrews) read his paper, “The relevance of the Tudor volumes of the History to Hume’s political thought”.  All of this was completely new to me and I listened with wrapt attention. As I did in the discussion period after Mikko’s paper.  
I should say that the discussion after each paper from several of the senior professors present was informative and not divisive (there were occasional nuanced comments) all offered in the best traditions of the Republic of Letters.
For pressing domestic reasons, I had to leave the Forum quietly after Mikko’s paper, thus missing Tim Stuart-Buttle’s (Oxford) “The Flux and Re-flux of Enthusiasm and Superstition in Hume’s History ofEngland” and Nick Phillipson’s (Edinburgh) “What sort of historian was Hume?”  I know Nick Phillipson’s work on Adam Smiths philosophy and regard him as among the best lecturers, and writers, I have ever heard and read on Adam Smith.   His views on Hume would surely have been a tour de force.  I cursed my circumstances of having to leave early, but needs must on this occasion.
It made me cast my mind back during my car journey back to Edinburgh to some incidents in the early 1980s, while I was at the University of Strathclyde, following controversy among faculty over the proposed closing down of its Philosophy department and the transfer of its faculty and students to the nearby Glasgow University.  I had voted for closure on two grounds, a) it was a small department with a very few faculty and a few dozen students, and b) the faculty concerned were going to a much better academic environment for what I (wrongly) perceived as a subject of minor interest to a Business School.  I was in my early 40s and knew next to nothing of philosophy.  Looking back now, I see this was a major error on my part and I also see now what the complaining philosophy faculty were complaining about.  Philosophy of the quality I have witnessed at the Forum for Scottish Philosophy is an ornament to the relevance of philosophy in any institution claiming academic credibility in the 21st century.  Accusations of ‘philistinism’ at the time of myself and those other faculty, who expressed indifference to the demise of philosophy at Strathclyde, were among the milder words I would use now to describe such attitudes today.  So apologies all round.


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