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Is there room for Hume?

Do we journalists do enough to celebrate great thinkers?

The 300th anniversary of the birth of David Hume is being celebrated with a new exhibition at the Writers’ Museum along with a series of lectures from the University of Edinburgh.

However, some scholars question if Edinburgh at large, and the media in particular, is doing enough to celebrate the man who is considered to be among the most important figures in the history of Western philosphy.

David Hume - picture by David Selby

The exhibition at the Writers’ Museum features material which until now has never been on public display. Included among the artefacts are rare books and original manuscripts by Hume as well as exquisite images of Hume and other Enlightenment figures.

At the opening last week, the Culture and Leisure Convener, SNP Councillor Deidre Brock, was delighted with what she saw:

“This terrific new exhibition at our Writers’ Museum will give a fascinating insight into the life and works of David Hume, one of Scotland’s most revered writers and thinkers and a key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment.

“The exhibition has been made possible thanks to the generosity of Dr William Zachs, who owns these wonderful artefacts. We are very grateful to Dr Zachs for allowing the Writers’ Museum to become the first place to display this material publicly.”

Some have argued that the small collection, while welcome, is not as significant a recognition as the philosopher deserves. Mr Zachs himself described his collection as a “kind of scrap, a small slice” when compared to what exists in national archives.

Kevin Williamson, poet and editor of Bella Caledonia, was somewhat critical and slightly surprised by a perceived lack of media attention for Hume’s 300th anniversary, explaining that:

“It would seem that Hume, despite his international reputation, is still regarded in some quarters as a beyond-the-pale heretic and intellectual outlaw.

“It does come as a surprise that journalists haven’t stopped to honour the great man. After all, perhaps more than any other thinker, Hume promoted the best possible modus operandi for their trade: a healthy dose of scepticism.”

The University of Edinburgh is running a series of lectures in recognition of Hume’s contribution to a wide range of disciplines, including Dr Peter Millican on the legacy of the Enlightenment on 23 May. More talks will follow over the summer with  the final lecture in the series delivered on 14 December in Edinburgh’s George Square.

The display of Hume’s work at the Writer’s Museum will run until 17 September.

This article appeared in its original form in The Journal Issue 47 on Wednesday 4th May 2011.

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