Edinburgh's most well-known philosopher
David Hume was born in Edinburgh in 1711, attended the University of Edinburgh from 1723, and died in Edinburgh in 1776, having meanwhile achieved worldwide fame as an historian and philosopher. Indeed he was the most influential thinker of the Scottish Enlightenment and is now recognised as one of the greatest philosophers of all time.
Hume's philosophy is remarkable not only for its revolutionary insights, but also for its continuing vitality and ability to provoke and inspire others. In his own day, it prompted Thomas Reid to develop a rival theory of the human mind – thus giving birth to the Scottish "common sense" school – while his pioneering essays on economics, politics and society inspired his younger friends Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson. A generation later, Immanuel Kant was famously "woken from his dogmatic slumbers" by reading Hume, and responded with an idealist system that went on to dominate 19th century thought.
In the 20th century it was Hume again who inspired first Bertrand Russell's influential reaction against Kantian idealism (leading to the development of modern analytical philosophy) and then the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle and associates such as A. J. Ayer and Karl Popper. Now in the 21st century Hume remains the most fertile and provocative of all the great thinkers, his theories regularly cited by contemporary philosophers, and his name appropriated for enduring fundamental ideas in epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, philosophy of action, language, religion, and even mathematics.
David Hume's primary project was to develop a science of human nature, a science stripped of dogma and based on observable fact and careful argument. He thus paved the way for cognitive science, a vibrant interdisciplinary enterprise combining philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence. But Hume's "science of man" extends well beyond the individual mind, into fundamental questions about morals, society, political and economic behaviour, and religious belief. In particular his moral theory, grounded on empathy and the emotions rather than theology or logic, continues to exert a profound influence.
Hume's philosophy is uniquely relevant to the fostering of cross-collaborative and interdisciplinary approaches to current global challenges. With the world in disarray, facing economic, religious and environmental crises, more than at any time since the 18th century, we need enlightened visionary thought to facilitate measured responses to these threats to human cultural, social, economic and political well-being. How much can we know, and how far can we trust our natural cognitive faculties? What are the roots of human behaviour, including moral and economic behaviour? Are we – and should we be – governed by reason, or by emotion? How best to organise society, given our limitations of understanding and rationality? Can a suitably modest and enlightened freedom be harnessed to undermine ideological and religious dogmatism, while fostering cooperative values to face the challenges that threaten our world? These are among some of the questions for discussion during the year of events hosted by the University of Edinburgh to mark the Tercentenary of the birth of David Hume.