Enlightenment Scotland: Site of James Boswell’s Home in James Court, Edinburgh

The site of James Boswell’s place in James Court off the Royal Mile is near one of my favorite pubs in Edinburgh: the Jolly Judge. You can see the plaque on the wall near the doorway just beyond the lamp.

In James Court, just off Edinburgh’s famed Royal Mile, there’s a little winding set of stone steps leading to a simple wood door. The plaque near the steps reveals that they lead to the place where James Boswell lived from 1773 to 1786. The first flat that Boswell occupied in James Square was torn down, but the recently discovered remains of a very old staircase in one of these oft-reconstructed buildings may be the one which linked the two floors of his home. From what I’ve read thus far, it seems this marked building, site of Boswell’s second flat here in James Court, contains only parts of the original structure.

Boswell, the Edinburgh-born lawyer, diarist, and writer most well known for his biography of Samuel Johnson, has connections to two towering figures of the Enlightenment: David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The ways in which his life intersected with theirs exemplify his vibrant and complex life and personality.

On Sunday, July 7, 1776, Boswell visited the bedside of his dying friend Hume. Hume was the leading light of the Scottish Enlightenment, often honored as the greatest philosopher to write in English. In fact, Boswell first moved to in James Court, into Hume’s cute but tiny old flat, taking it over when Hume moved to New Town in 1772. It was at the latter place that Boswell, ‘too late for church’ anyway, stopped by to see if Hume, notorious for his religious skepticism, ‘persisted in disbelieving a future state even when he had death before his eyes.’ Boswell, habitual bacchanalist in wine and women, was nevertheless very religious and had a superstitious terror of hell. He was dismayed and shocked to find that his old friend did not only persist in his disbelief but was at ease, even happy, and showed no discernable fear of his impending annihilation. Boswell was left ‘disturbed… for some time.’

The doorway to James Boswell’s home in James Court, Edinburgh, Scotland. The plaque reads: ‘James Boswell 1740-1795, lawyer, diarist & biographer lived here 1773-1786’

Ten years earlier, Boswell played a part in destroying the trust and friendship between Hume and Rousseau. Hume had agreed to help Rousseau, who was fleeing political persecution in Europe, find safe haven in England. Mutual admiration and a warm friendship sprung up between the two menimmediately though Baron d’Holbach (another mainstay of the French Enlightenment community) warned Hume that Rousseau was not to be trusted. This proved true. Rousseau’s growing paranoia led him to believe that Hume was plotting to destroy him and began to spread word of Hume’s perceived deviousness. The unraveling situation was not helped when Hume’s friend Boswell, charged with escorting Rousseau’s beloved mistress Thérèse Le Vasseur to join him in England, had an affair with her along the way. Rousseau believed that Hume had helped orchestrate this betrayal as well. Aware of Boswell’s notoriously insatiable sexual appetite, Hume certainly showed very poor judgment in trusting Boswell with this task. Before long, Hume and Rousseau became bitter enemies. Hurt and angry, Hume attacked Rousseau publicly as well, sometimes in very unseemly ways, and the whole episode revealed that even the most wise can also be the most foolish.

Another view of the site of James Boswell’s home in James Court. This would have been the second and larger flat that Boswell occupied here; the building which held the first, formerly David Hume’s, was torn down.

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Remembering Margaret Cavendish

Margaret Cavendish (née Lucas), Duchess of Newcastle

Margaret Lucas Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, was a rare and singular intelligence, a memorable and outrageous personality, and a prolific thinker and writer. Born on an unknown date in 1623, she was not given much of a formal education beyond the basics of reading and writing. As is so often the case for such independent and active minds, she obtained a higher education on her own. She sought out the company and conversation of learned people, including her brother John, a lawyer, scholar, and founding member of the Royal Society, and otherwise gobbled up learning wherever she could find it.

She married William Cavendish, Marquis and then Duke of Newcastle upon Tyne, in the spring of 1645. Though he was thirty years her senior, they had much in common, including a deep love of literature. Like Margaret, he was an unusual and independent personality, and he encouraged her in her intellectual pursuits, helping her to get her works published when she ran into obstacles doing it on her own. She wrote in a wide variety of genres, including philosophy, poetry, and plays; she wrote essays, a utopia, a biography of her husband, and an autobiography. She hung out with Thomas Hobbes, Kenelm Digby, René Descartes, Marin Mersenne and Pierre Gassendi at her husband’s salons; unfortunately, they would not engage her in serious conversation. So, she engaged with their ideas on her own within her philosophical writings. She designed her own outrageous clothing, was reputed to sprinkle her speech with obscenities, and as far as she could, did as she liked. However much it was due to her connections or to her own accomplishments, she was the first woman to attend a meeting of the Royal Society. Though she was so much younger than her husband, she died two years before him on December 15, 1673, at age fifty. William outlived her by two years, proud of his ‘Mad Madge’ to the end.

Learn more about this amazing woman at:

Biography of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle upon Tyne (c. 1623-1673) ~ for the Manuscripts and Special Collections pages of the University of Nottingham website

Duchess of Newcastle Margaret Cavendish ~  at the Poetry Foundation

“Mad Madge” – Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle ~ by Lauren Gilbert for English Historical Fiction Authors blog

Mad Madge: Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, Royalist, Writer and Romantic ~ Min Wild’s review of Katie Whitaker’s biography for the Independent

Margaret Cavendish (1623—1673) ~ by Eugene Marshall for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy 

Margaret Lucas Cavendish ~ by David Cumming for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

A Walk to Calton Hill, Edinburgh, Scotland

Green fields and an old stone wall after a summer rain, Edinburgh, Scotland

Journal: Calton Hill, Edinburgh, early Saturday evening, August 12th

Right now, I’m tucked into a little sort of alcove formed by a guardrail behind me and an old cast iron fence in front of me, sitting on one of the concrete guardrail supports, resting my back on the end of the wide rail, with my feet up on the stone wall from which the cast iron posts rise. The slope of the hill behind Arthur’s Seat and the abbey ruins on the Holyrood Palace grounds are in my view. I’m eating an early dinner (or late tea) of sharp cheddar, an apple, a tangerine, and gingerbread which I brought with me, and a lightly salted, crusted pillowy pretzel and tiny bottle of wine which I picked up on my way here.

A view from my walk on Alnwickhill Rd north to Edinburgh’s city center with Arthur’s Seat in the background

Arthur’s Seat looms larger and the castle enters the view in the distance to the left, walking north along Liberton… perhaps Brae, perhaps Road, the one becomes the latter as you head north

I slept off much of my jet lag yesterday, last night well into the morning, with a break of wakefulness to sit down for a celebratory carvery dinner – with Yorkshire pudding, oh joy! – and beer, then grocery shopping. Much of this morning and early afternoon was spent on letters, working on my history of ideas travel articles for Ordinary Philosophy, going through photos of my journey of the last few weeks for that series, and a very, very long hot bath. It was raining pretty steadily all that time and it’s Saturday during the annual, world famous Fringe Festival, so it was not a good day to go hiking or taking care of business or commence job-hunting. Not that I minded at all. My room is cheery and cozy and I passed the first part of the day very pleasantly and unhurriedly.

Shops and cafes line Clerk Street

More shops and cafes on bustling Newington Road. The showy peacockian array of vintage clothing in the shop window catches my eye. I have a long background working with vintage clothing and these are very nice specimens

The crowds thicken considerably as I draw near to central Edinburgh

But as soon as I left the bath, it felt like it was time to go out. I was suddenly eager to see the lovely city I first fell in love with about three and a half years ago. It’s about an hour and a half walk from where I’m staying and I need the exercise, so I decide to go on foot. I love walking, and it’s a great way to get a detailed sense of the lay of the land between the city center and where I’m staying at the southern end of town near the city bypass. It’s sprinkling on and off a little, but I don’t mind. I’ll likely get tired of the damp and cold over time, but the last few weeks traveling through the United States have been mostly oppressively hot. It felt good today to put on a light wool sweater and not to be flushed and soaked in sweat after only a few moments of activity.

On the Royal Mile, the crowds meld into a dense throng attending Fringe Festival. During this famous, international event, the city population grows by about a third, even though many of the locals leave for vacation during this time to escape the hubbub and overcrowding

The route north to Calton Hill is pretty straightforward. After about a mile you clearly see Calton Hill and the Castle most of the way, so it’s very easy to orient yourself. I passed by petite and tidy suburban row houses, old and even ancient standalone ones, stone walls ditto, and even in one place, to my surprise, small crop fields [on subsequent thought, I think it’s a golf course, it just looks different than many American ones]. These gave way to taller, fancier buildings, new apartments, large handsome older row homes, parks, rows of shops with flats over them, then fancier homes, then tall handsome guest houses, and then, suddenly, I was in the city proper. It’s usual for Edinburgh’s old city to be very busy in tourist season but today, it’s absolutely packed, thronged with festival goers interspersed with those locals who have not fled the city, gritting their teeth as they try to reach their destinations through the hordes.

A view of Edinburgh’s New Town from the North Bridge. Sir Walter Scott’s darkly romantic neo-gothic monument rises prominently from the center of that stretch of Prince Street

A view of Calton Hill from the North Bridge

David Hume’s mausoleum and a monument to Scottish American soldiers featuring Abraham Lincoln at Old Calton Burial Ground at the foot of Calton Hill. I think it’s a beautiful thing that a great emancipator of the human person has a monument next to that of a great emancipator of human thought

I reached Calton Hill and turned into the cemetery gates to my right and paid my respects at the tomb of my man, the great Enlightenment philosopher David Hume. It was through him I met this lovely city, and he who inspired me to apply to the University of Edinburgh which he attended as a young prodigy of twelve years old.

His monument is beautiful, a neoclassical structure with clean lines, embellished just enough with a frieze of flowers and a carved urn. Other family members are buried here with him. The monument was built to reflect Hume’s wishes about the kind of monument he’d prefer if one was to be built for him; it was designed by his architect friend about a year after his death. He didn’t want anything too fancy. It’s near the base of the hill, just down the street from where the scenic walkway named for Hume circles the crown of the hill and its monuments. He successfully lobbied the town council for this path to be built so that the local people could take their exercise in a wholesome and beautiful environment readily accessible from the crowded, dirty, often dark and dank city. In this as in so many other ways, he’s totally my type of guy.

The doorway to David Hume’s mausoleum, Calton Hill, Edinburgh

I look forward so much to learning more about his life, thought, and legacy in my upcoming year here in Edinburgh. If, indeed, it’s only a year. Who knows, I may get even more hooked on this place and find myself here longer…

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My view of a slope of Arthur’s Seat and the abbey ruins from my little picnic alcove tucked between the guardrail and the iron fence, Calton Hill

Happy Birthday, W.V.O. Quine!

WVO Quine on the Bluenose II in Halifax, Nova Scotia, photo courtesy of Douglas Quine (cropped)

WVO Quine on the Bluenose II in Halifax, Nova Scotia, photo courtesy of Douglas Quine

The emphases in my own education in philosophy were Ethics, Politics, and Law, so I didn’t spend as much time studying Willard Van Orman Quine’s great contributions to philosophy as I would like. However, if my focus was Mathematical Logic, Epistemology, Philosophy of Language, or Philosophy of Science, I would have spent a lot of time with the prodigious output of his remarkable intelligence. But one of his important observations is brought up in introductory philosophy classes generally, an epistemological (having to do with knowledge) quandary: Given that science continuously makes new discoveries, sometimes in the process overturning and replacing earlier theories, how can we ever say that we actually know anything about the world? Science relies on the fact that all theories are subject to revision, expansion, and being proved wrong. Does this mean, then, there’s no such thing as knowledge, since, in theory, anything we claim to know may be disproved by later discoveries?

For Quine, there is no dividing line between science and philosophy; they are interconnected ways of discovering and understanding the world. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, Quine ‘denies that there is a distinctively philosophical standpoint, which might, for example, allow philosophical reflection to prescribe standards to science as a whole. He holds that all of our attempts at knowledge are subject to those standards of evidence and justification which are most explicitly displayed, and most successfully implemented, in the natural sciences. This applies to philosophy as well as to other branches of knowledge.’ The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says further, ‘…Quine often appeals to [Otto] Neurath’s metaphor of science as a boat, where changes need to be made piece by piece while we stay afloat, and not when docked at port. He further emphasizes that both the philosopher and scientist are in the same boat (1960, 3; 1981, 72, 178). The Quinean philosopher then begins from within the ongoing system of knowledge provided by science, and proceeds to use science in order to understand science. …his use of the term “science” applies quite broadly referring not simply to the ‘hard’ or natural sciences, but also including psychology, economics, sociology, and even history (Quine 1995, 19; also see Quine 1997). But a more substantive reason centers on his view that all knowledge strives to provide a true understanding of the world and is then responsive to observation as the ultimate test of its claims…’

Oh, and he played the mandolin and piano, and learned a lot of languages just so he could deliver his lectures in the native language of the audience. Whatta guy!

Learn more about the great W.V.O. Quine:

W. V. Quine, Philosopher Who Analyzed Language and Reality, Dies at 92 – by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt for The New York Times, Dec 29, 2000

Willard Van Orman Quine – by Peter Hylton for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Willard Van Orman Quine: Philosophy of Science – by Robert Sinclair for The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Willard Van Orman Quine, 1908-2000: Philosopher and Mathematician – Website by Douglas B. Quine, W.V.O. Quine’s son

Willard Van Orman Quine – by Luke Mastin for The Basics of Philosophy: A huge subject broken down into manageable chunks

Willard Van Orman Quine – In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, John Stuart Mill!

John Stuart Mill and Helen Taylor, daughter of Harriet Taylor, collaborated with Mill after her mother's death, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

John Stuart Mill on writing to make a living versus writing for posterity, from his Autobiography: ‘…The writings by which one can live are not the writings which themselves live, and are never those in which the writer does his best.’

~~~~~

One of my very favorite ideas in political philosophy is John Stuart Mill’s ‘marketplace of ideas’ (though he didn’t phrase it this way himself): that the free, open, and vigorous exchange of ideas in the public square does more to further human knowledge than anything else. But not only has his comprehensive and to my mind, absolutely correct defense of free speech in his great work On Liberty had an immense and beneficial influence on the history and theory of human rights, he was admirable in myriad other ways as well:

‘Mill believed in complete equality between the sexes, not just women’s colleges and, someday, female suffrage but absolute parity; he believed in equal process for all, the end of slavery, votes for the working classes, and the right to birth control (he was arrested at seventeen for helping poor people obtain contraception), and in the common intelligence of all the races of mankind… all this along with an intelligent acceptance of the free market as an engine of prosperity and a desire to see its excesses and inequalities curbed…. Mill was an enemy of religious bigotry and superstition, and a friend of toleration and free thought, without overdoing either…’ ~ Adam Gopnik, from his article and book review ‘Right Again‘, 2008

‘The son of James Mill, a friend and follower of Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was subjected to a rigorous education at home: he mastered English and the classical languages as a child, studied logic and philosophy extensively, read the law with John Austin, and then embarked on a thirty-five career with the British East India Company at the age of seventeen. (He also suffered through a severe bout of depression before turning twenty-one.) Despite such a rich background, Mill credited the bulk of his intellectual and personal development to his long and intimate association with Harriet Hardy Taylor. They were devoted friends for two decades before the death of her husband made it possible for them to marry in 1852; she died in Avignon six years later. Mill continued to write and to participate in political affairs, serving one term in Parliament (1865-68). The best source of information about Mill’s life is his own Autobiography (1873). Mill

Philosophically, Mill was a radical empiricist who held that all human knowledge, including even mathematics and logic, is derived by generalization from sensory experience. In A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive (1843) he explained in great detail the canons for reasoning inductively to conclusions about the causal connections exhibited in the natural world.

Mill’s moral philosophy was a modified version of the utilitarian theory he had learned from his father and Bentham. In the polemical Utilitarianism (1861) Mill developed a systematic statement of utilitarian ethical theory. He modified and defended the general principle that right actions are those that tend to produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people, being careful to include a distinction in the quality of the pleasures that constitute happiness. There Mill also attempted a proof of the principle of utility, explained its enforcement, and discussed its relation to a principle of justice. Mill

Mill’s greatest contribution to political theory occurs in On Liberty (1859), where he defended the broadest possible freedom of thought and expression and argued that the state can justify interference with the conduct of individual citizens only when it is clear that doing so will prevent a greater harm to others. Mill also addressed matters of social concern in Principles of Political Economy (1848) and Considerations on Representative Government (1861) and eloquently supported the cause of women’s rights in The Subjection of Women (1869).’

~ from The Philosophy Pages by Garth Kemerling, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License

Read more about John Stuart Mill:

Anschutz, Richard Paul. ‘John Stuart Mill: British Philosopher and Economist‘. In Encyclopædia Britannica.

Gopnik, Adam. ‘Right Again: The Passions of John Stuart Mill‘. New Yorker magazine website, Oct 6 2008

Heydt, Colin. ‘John Stuart Mill (1806—1873)‘, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty, from Project Gutenberg

Wilson, Fred. “John Stuart Mill“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Bertrand Russell!

Betrand Russell in 1938, image public domain via Wikimedia CommonsBertrand Russell lived an extraordinarily long life, in which he did an extraordinary number of extraordinary things.

Encyclopedia Britannica introduces him thusly: ‘Bertrand Russell ….born May 18, 1872, Trelleck, Monmouthshire, Wales- died Feb. 2, 1970, Penrhyndeudraeth, Merioneth, [was a] British philosopher, logician, and social reformer, founding figure in the analytic movement in Anglo-American philosophy, and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. Russell’s contributions to logic, epistemology, and the philosophy of mathematics established him as one of the foremost philosophers of the 20th century. To the general public, however, he was best known as a campaigner for peace and as a popular writer on social, political, and moral subjects. During a long, productive, and often turbulent life, he published more than 70 books and about 2,000 articles, married four times, became involved in innumerable public controversies, and was honoured and reviled in almost equal measure throughout the world…’

For myself, he was particularly influential to my younger freethinking self, disenchanted with the religion of my youth and seeking new and more satisfying ways of viewing the world. I read his History of Western Philosophy and Why I Am Not a Christian each several times over. I admire his clear, precise thinking and his principled anti-war stance which came at a significant cost, including jail time and loss of a prestigious job at the University of Chicago, and it’s always so enjoyable to watch him speak (you’ll find plenty of videos on YouTube) in his oh-so-aristocratic accent with a pipe often tucked into the corner of his mouth. He was not a perfect man, but he was never a less-than-fascinating one.

Read more about Bertrand Russell:

Bertrand Russell – in Encyclopedia Britannica

Bertrand Russell – by Andrew David Irvine for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Bertrand Russell Got Stoicism Seriously Wrong, by Massimo Pigliucci

I’m an admirer of Bertrand Russell in some ways, and not in others. For one, I, too, have discovered over time that Russell had gotten some things very wrong about some philosophers and their ideas, and had to overcome some of the prejudices his History of Philosophy had instilled in me. Thanks for the defense of Stoicism, Massimo Pigliucci! This essay serves as a good introduction to Stoicism as well.

How to Be a Stoic

IMG_8246When I was growing up in Italy, the very first book of philosophy I ever laid hands on was by Bertrand Russell. Well, to be exact, it wasn’t a book of philosophy, but about a philosopher: his autobiography. From then on, I went to read Why I am Not a Christian, which solidified my own misgivings (as a teenager) about the Catholic faith I was brought up with. And of course soon afterwards I read Russell’s famous History of Western Philosophy. I realized even then that this was no neutral historical survey of the philosophical canon, but rather a highly opinionated personal take on more than two millennia of philosophizing. But I was a teenager, with little or no previous knowledge of philosophy, opinionated was fun! Recently, however, a viewer of my YouTube channel asked me what I thought about Russell’s harsh criticism of Stoicism. I couldn’t…

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