David Hume was born 300 years ago this month. Prompted by the anniversary, many philosophers worldwide will be reflecting on his great works. In the UK this comes at a cost, since doing so deflects us from scrambling to find activities with more immediate and measurable “impact”. We can nevertheless find a kind of justification in his writings.
Speaking of the different species of philosophy, in the first part of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), he wrote that “though a philosopher may live remote from business, the genius of philosophy, if carefully cultivated by several, must gradually diffuse itself throughout the whole society, and bestow a similar correctness on every art and calling”.
I find it interesting that it is the idea of diffusion that appealed to him here. It did so to George Eliot, too, when in the wonderful final sentence of Middlemarch (1874), she contrasted Dorothea’s quiet future with the idealistic visions of doing good with which she had started life: “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
Incalculably diffusive processes are real enough. Education is one of them. Sending a book or an idea into the marketplace may be the datable beginning of a diffusive process, but then there may be no datable end product. William Shakespeare’s works diffuse after more than four centuries; Hume’s after three. Their works are tributaries into the vast stream of thoughts and ideas and writings and political changes that made the modern world. But nobody can calculate the effect that just one work had, any more than they can calculate just how much of the growth of a flower, or how much of its beauty, was the result of any one raindrop falling on any one day. Yet nobody doubts that rain makes the garden grow. It is an incalculably diffusive process.
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