Thinking about philosophy’s place in the Borders…

Statue of David Hume on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.  ''Photograph Robert Perry Scotland on Sunday'27th April 2006

Statue of David Hume on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. ''Photograph Robert Perry Scotland on Sunday'27th April 2006

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“David Hume is the greatest British philosopher,” asserts Simon Blackburn, Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University, “and perhaps, along with Socrates, the most loved of philosophers anywhere.”

If, however you still need to be impressed by this great man and thinker, consider his line in Monty Python’s Philosopher’s Song: “David Hume could out-consume Schopenhauer and Hegel.”

Why should we care here about this genial genius, described by the economist Adam Smith as “approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man as perhaps the nature of human frailty will admit”?

Why must we honour this lion of the Scottish Enlightenment, that so-called Age of Reason and great flowering of ideas in the 18th century, when the minds of Scots helped create the world we live in today?

Well, because David Hume was a Borderer: he grew up on Ninewells Farm in Chirnside, not far from his friend, the Berwickshire farmer and “father of geology”, James Hutton.

What’s more April 26 is the 300th anniversary of his birth.

David Hume isn’t Berwickshire’s only great philosopher of course: Duns Scotus, “the subtle doctor”, and unjustly the origin of the word “dunce”, was born in Duns almost 450 years earlier.

Hume’s statue may guard the doors of the High Court in Scotland’s capital, in high honour opposite the Heart of Midlothian and St Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile, but there’s no mark to him in the land or village where he came from. Locals can be rightly proud of their world famous son, yet few in Berwickshire, the Borders, or even in Scotland know who Hume was, or what made him great. Why? Because Hume and philosophy are subjects too rarely made accessible to the public. And there’s no good reason for this.

Philosophy occupies a hundred or so professionals in Scottish universities at any one time, yet what they do all day is rarely explained to the people outside. And Hume is the perfect teacher. Described by Oxford professor Sir Isaiah Berlin as “the clearest and most revolutionary of British philosophers”, Hume wrote in an elegant, everyday language that everyone could understand, about ideas and arguments that still provoke today.

Therefore the inspiration behind the Borders’ philosophy festival, organised by Chirnside Common Good Association, is to open up the subjects of David Hume and philosophy to people of all ages. The group is also seizing the once-a-century opportunity of the tercentenary to set up a plaque and information panel in Chirnside to mark the village’s connection with the great man.

In the philosophy festival’s programme of events, Roderick Graham, author of Hume’s biography The Great Infidel, will reveal to audiences Hume the man, life and legacy, while an exhibition in Chirnside Community Hall will explore Hume’s story in the Borders, as well as village life in Georgian Chirnside. Philosophers from Scotland’s universities will be on hand to explain and debate Hume’s famous sayings.

A series of thinking walks called Border Brains, including a new David Hume Walk in Chirnside, will also be launched at the festival, to guide locals and visitors through the ideas and lives of Berwickshire’s geniuses, and the quiet, beautiful landscape that gave them birth.

They say children are natural philosophers, always questioning adults’ assumptions. So pupils at Borders secondary schools will this year compete for a new David Hume Essay Prize, championing the Enlightenment virtues of free thought and argument.

The winner will be named at the festival on April 30, when Chirnside Primary School will also be performing a play about the life and philosophy of Hume.

The philosophy festival in Chirnside, which takes place during the day of April 30 (the day after the royal wedding), will be followed by an Enlightenment evening at nearby Paxton House, featuring talks on Scotland’s Enlightenment and the Borderers who helped shape the modern world, such as James Hutton.

In the splendour of this Palladian mansion which was built for the Hume family, guests will be able to dine at a Georgian banquet, which will be prepared to recipes from Mrs Cleland’s Scottish Cookery, a cookbook written in 1755 during Hume’s lifetime, and republished by Paxton House for use in its Georgian kitchen.

Festival organisers are calling for the public’s help, to involve as many interested and enthusiastic people as possible.

While library shelves creak under the weight of studies on Hume’s philosophy, there are big gaps in our knowledge about Hume’s life in the Borders. If anyone has any research or anecdotes to contribute or ideas about how to engage more people in his tercentenary celebrations, all are welcome at a public meeting at 7pm on Wednesday in the Red Lion in Chirnside. Volunteers are also needed to help organise parts of the festival.

The organisers hope local businesses, such as pubs and cafes, will come to share ideas about how they can best attract extra custom on the day. If anyone is keen to help but can’t make the public meeting, email sandy.neil@scotborders.gov.uk.

The full programme of events at the festival and enlightenment evening will be published on www.chirnside.org.uk by March 1 and all events will be free, except the Georgian banquet which will cost about £20. Tickets will be available via www.paxtonhouse.co.uk by March 1.

Beyond Chirnside’s festival, you can see Edinburgh University’s year of David Hume tercentenary events at www.iash.ed.ac.uk/hume.tercentenary.

Let’s all think about David Hume this year, and in tribute make the Borders a land of philosophers.