As you read this, there will be hundreds of philosophers working away in Scotland, but what exactly are they doing all day? And what’s it got to do with the rest of us?
Philosophy, literally the “love of wisdom”, is the study of truth, meaning, knowledge, reason, existence and value. Socrates, known as the Father of Philosophy, began this search two-and-a-half millennia ago in Greece, by questioning his fellow Athenians’ beliefs and assumptions, and declaring: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
The questions we face in human life today – the kind that philosophy seeks to answer – haven’t changed since then. How should we live? How should we treat others? What is truly valuable? What is the nature of the good? How should we understand freedom, justice, truth, beauty, love, death, hope – and how should we live according to that understanding? We all ask ourselves these questions at some point in our lives, but how do we answer them?
Intriguingly, or frustratingly, certainty is difficult to find: hence the title of Chirnside Primary School’s play Unanswerable Questions, written by drama teacher Eloner Crawford and her pupils for a performance at Chirnside’s Philosophy Festival. But however much philosophers’ theories may conflict, they all agree we have to think things through ourselves.
“Central to philosophy is to think for oneself,” writes philosopher A.C. Grayling. “There is a world of difference between reaching a conclusion on your own, after considering the best that has been said on the matter, and simply accepting the say-so of someone else. The pursuit of truth and understanding must be free, open-minded and autonomous.”
So, in a line, philosophy deploys argument and reason to examine our every assumption, to discover which beliefs are worth keeping, and which are doubtful. In essence, philosophy is thinking about thinking.
For two-and-a-half thousand years great thinkers have dedicated their lives to enquiring into what matters most in human existence. One of those great thinkers was David Hume from Ninewells Farm in Chirnside in Berwickshire, who is praised by philosophy professor Simon Blackburn of Cambridge University as “Britain’s greatest philosopher, and, since Socrates, the most loved anywhere”.
This great Borderer’s story will be told locally at an exhibition The Life and Times of David Hume 1711-1776 in Chirnside Community Centre from Tuesday, April 26 (Hume’s 300th birthday), until the village’s Philosophy Festival on Saturday, April 30, when Roderick Graham, author of The Great Infidel, a biography of Hume, will be enlightening visitors about the man and his life.
So what did Hume think? Philosophers Dr Alasdair Richmond of Edinburgh University and Dr Peter Millican of Oxford University will be on hand at the festival to open up Hume’s philosophy in the wood-panelled salon of Chirnside’s Red Lion pub, where the audience can also drink and think with a pint of Enlightenment, the new David Hume beer brewed by Hadrian & Border to celebrate the philosopher’s tercentenary.
Hume was a famed historian in his life, and a lion of Scotland’s Enlightenment: an age of flourishing ideas and progress in the 18th century when Scots helped create our modern world.
In Edinburgh it was said you could “in a few minutes take 50 men of genius by the hand”.
Berwickshire alone produced the revolutionary minds of Hume, the Father of Geology James Hutton and the polymath Lord Kames – not because of something in the water, but because Scots were for the first time in centuries free from religious authority to think and debate for themselves.
If the Enlightenment had a motto, it would be the words of David Hume’s philosophical opponent Immanuel Kant: “Dare to know!”
An Enlightenment Evening at Paxton House exploring Scotland’s Age of Reason will follow Chirnside’s Philosophy Festival – after a three-course Georgian banquet in the Palladian mansion’s magnificent picture gallery, serving Eyemouth fish soup, mutton pie and ashets of trifle. The recipes are taken from Elizabeth Cleland’s Scottish Cookery, a cookbook written in 1755, during Hume’s lifetime, and republished by Paxton House Trust.
The evening’s free talks will explain how the Borders shaped David Hume’s philosophy, and how James Hutton made his ground-breaking discovery at Siccar Point that the Earth was billions of years old – not thousands as the Bible claimed.
France’s Consul-General to Scotland, Pierre-Alain Coffinier, will illuminate audiences about Hume’s life in Paris, where he was celebrated as le Bon David, ‘the Good David’, in honour of his virtue and character.
As a future legacy for locals and visitors to Berwickshire, Awards For All and Community Grants Scheme funding has made possible a new plaque and information panel in Chirnside to mark the village’s connection to David Hume, and a series of Border Brains Walks to guide walkers through the lives and ideas of Berwickshire’s geniuses, such as James Small, Duns Scotus and Alexander Dow, as well as the landscape that gave them birth. All will be launched at Chirnside’s Philosophy Festival.
You can see and download the Philosophy Festival and Enlightenment Evening’s programme of free events at www.chirnside.org.uk.
Georgian banquet tickets (£22) can be booked at www.paxtonhouse.co.uk or by contacting 01289 386291.