Saturday, 7 May 2011

David Hume - 300 today

7 May 2011 is the 300th birthday of David Hume, generally considered to be top of the averages when it comes to writing philosophy in the English language.   Happy Birthday, Humey-boy.

Hume's family home was in Chirnside, Berwickshire and he lived most of his life in Edinburgh at the time when Scotland was the global hotbed of new thinking and ideas. Ideas that came together as the Enlightenment ultimately giving rise to the American and French Revolution as well as being the foundation of modern science and critical thought. So much was Scotland in the intellectual vanguard at that time, that American historian Arthur Herman several years ago published a book called The Scots Invention of the Modern World. Wha’s like us?

As a loyal Scottish person, Fantasy Bob is happy to bask in the reflected glory of David Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment. However he accepts that cricket is the one boon to civilisation that was not invented in Scotland and cannot be considered a product of the Scottish Enlightenment.

While Hume’s writings remain of central importance to moral and political philosophy, his influence on cricket is no less significant, although shamefully unacknowledged. As a batsman Hume took a determinedly empiricist approach. He thought it necessary to play every ball on its merits. He rejected the concept of innate ideas ie that the next one is going over midwicket whatever. To Hume a batter might as well play with a blindfold.

Hume also teaches us to guard against misplaced reliance on rational induction. Hume wrote ‘That the sun will not rise tomorrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction, than the affirmation, that it will rise.’  In other words, just because the bowler hasn’t slipped in the short one in the last 3 overs, there is no reason to believe that the next delivery is going to be pitched up.  Or just because the last ball hasn’t got you out LBW you cannot suppose that the next one won’t. Week after week batsmen fail to ignore these truths – and FB more than most.

Hume’s moral philosophy, distinguishing as it did between natural and artificial (or socially constructed) virtues as the motivators for action, could well have had a lot to say on the IPL, had the competition existed in the mid to late 1700s. But some of his more brilliant writing examines the LBW - he teaches that the absolute form of the LBW does not exist nor can it be reasoned.  He says ‘Beauty is no quality in things themselves. It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.’  That is to say that even with Hawkeye the LBW is a subjective judgement.  Hume seems likely to have been triggered himself after the umpires had been at the claret which may explain the basis of his thinking here.

So, all in all, Hume’s insights remain important to cricketers and have influenced the coaching manuals ever since their publication. Duncan Fletcher is known to have based his approach on the Treatise of Human Nature and Hume’s later work the Essay Concerning the Trigger Movement.  He will be consulting them carefully as he takes up his new appointment in India.

Scots have long worn a chip on their shoulder at not having invented cricket. The game seems a genuine expression of Enlightenment values.  However many other important products came from the Enlightenment, the work of Adam Smith, the basis of scientific medicine, logarithms and a range of technological and scientific discovery which provided the basis for Susan Boyle to take the world by storm.  But perhaps the most significant contribution to civilisation, probably second only to the invention of cricket itself, is most definitely of Scottish invention. In 1797 Janet Keiller in Dundee invented marmalade and made proper breakfast possible. Truly, a small nation invented the modern world. Wha’s like us?
The genius of the Scottish Enlightenment


  1. Agreed that no breakfast is complete without marmalade. I also look forward to FB's thoughts on Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations' Batting Talents and perhaps further discussion of Napier's invention of blogs.

  2. Silly Point - many thanks. Napier was a very great man - in addition to the invention of blogs as you identify he also did lots for the decimal point - and he hit 16 6s once in a T20 innings. He is unlucky not have been capped by England.