FROM time to time in this column, I set out to define just what it is in the modern world that has given eminence to famous Scots, apart from their citizenship in a successful imperialist power.

A couple of months ago I wrote about why we should acquaint ourselves with the early work of the philosopher David Hume, specifically the basis he laid out in his first book, the Treatise of Human Nature (1739). I am going to return to him here.

Nowadays he is celebrated as one of the figures who formed the mental world we all live in, not only in Scotland but in the entire world, entire western world at least.

It was not always so. Up until his time, Christianity gave to educated Europeans the framework in which they conceived of their existence, its origins, its purpose and so on.

Now hardly any of us do that.

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If we are no longer coherent about the vital framework, it does not worry us greatly. We would rather believe nothing special than believe the scientifically implausible.

I would ascribe to Hume a large role in bringing about this state of affairs. But the task was not easy. Though Hume laboured at rendering his arguments as clear as he possibly could, he still noted in dismay how few of his readers seemed to understand them.

He lamented that the Treatise “dropped deadborn from the press”, and brought him none of the recognition he had expected. Yet one of the text’s points is that philosophy is betraying itself when it makes the world harder to understand.

If an inquirer will just see in philosophy a mental exercise, as this book shows it to be, it should not stay obscure and mysterious for long.

In reality this is not at all what happened to the Treatise, leaving Hume to wonder what else he had to do to launch the intellectual career he longed for.

From an early age Hume had had it all worked out in his mind – he would lead nothing less than a revolution in philosophy and by this means establish a science of man. It would then be an enterprise he could gradually extend from metaphysics and moral philosophy to politics, political economy and history.

Hume believed the metaphysical and moral had been established as firmly as possible in what he called his own “scheme of thinking”.

It was a prospect so exciting that he did not pause long enough to say exactly what he meant by it, leaving us to puzzle.

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Though remaining ignorant, we can at least see how alongside this intellectual ambition Hume had a material one, to become an independent man of letters.

In olden days, men of letters needed before all else to find for themselves a patron, at best from the world of royalty or at least high nobility. In a poor country like Scotland this had become since the Union of Crowns in 1603 an ever-more distant dream, yet it had not completely died.

In a new age, in Scotland as in the rest of Europe, publishing had to be a business that, while logistically demanding, at least offered the man of letters wider independence.

Even in a backwater such as Scotland some such opportunities could exist, for instance by combining artistic creation with commercial enterprise, as in the case of the Ramsay family, poets and printers in Edinburgh. Allan Ramsay painted the most elegant portrait of Hume.

The National: Portrait by Allan RamsayPortrait by Allan Ramsay (Image: -)

Hume could see how, in such company, he might not only free himself from the patronage of the great but also set an example that fellow writers could follow, especially if they had access to literary circles where members knew and encouraged one another.

Doing this from the standpoint of an atheist philosopher might seem an odd way to appeal to public attention. But Hume was usually careful not to flaunt his unbelief in a way likely to alienate the open-minded. Luckily for him, he also cultivated a personality that it was a pleasure to encounter and get acquainted with.

Here was the context in which he made a famous remark that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them”.

It was also a view that let him understand why contemporaries of his own could reject certain doctrines he espoused, however clearly he did so.

Disappointed Hume might have been but the failure of the Treatise proved decisive for the approach to publication that he afterwards followed. Never again did he offer the public a work of abstract philosophy at such length.

This did not mean he was abandoning philosophy, rather that any serious treatment of metaphysics or morals by him should take account of the obstacles to it that he had set out in the Treatise.

In fact it only took a year or two for Hume to publish another work markedly different in content and tone, the Essays (1741). The individual pieces no longer dealt with philosophical topics.

On the contrary they appealed to people likely to follow the everyday arguments of political life in the new UK, but looking for a more sophisticated tone than was to be found in the polemical pamphlets of the period.

The hottest topics often came from Lord Bolingbroke, an English Whig who sought to show that views like his own had an ancestry that went back to the ancient Roman republic.

In answer, the volumes of Essays published by Hume staked out a framework for understanding contemporary British life and its politics in particular.

In various combinations of subject matter, from morality to money-making, they covered ground likely to appeal not so much to elitist cliques as to any free citizen.

Alas for Hume, his home town of Edinburgh had still to catch up with the most progressive elements of national culture – the city usually refused him the jobs he applied for.

In the end, though, Hume’s efforts were not entirely wasted. The years of essay writing, between the failure of the Treatise and the publication of his last collection, the Political Discourses, saw him cover an amazing expanse of intellectual ground. It still did not bring him commercial success.

When this finally arrived, it was through the initiative of his publisher, Andrew Millar.

In 1753, Millar put together a cheap, four-volume edition of Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects, in which the Philosophical Essays and the Enquiry Concerning Morals were placed between the Essays, Moral and Political and the Political Discourses.

Though Hume did not immediately understand it, the effect of the edition was to enable his political essays to act as he had once hoped, and draw attention to his philosophy in a format which for the first time was both accessible and calculated to encourage sales.

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In ambition, Hume still set an example to everybody, by embarking on the full-scale British history that would preserve his intellectual reputation till the 20th century.

By the time that century dawned, his was the standard general work on the subject, known and respected by all intelligent readers. It was only because there were so many of such people intimately acquainted with what he had had to say that we at last turned back to think what he had really meant.

During the reign of Queen Victoria, Hume was still classified in the Advocates Library, Scotland’s main public repository of books, as “historian”.

After two more reigns he was reclassified as “philosopher. And that is how he has stayed.

The content remained the same but we read him differently. The same process continues today.