Cycling Through Edinburgh, First Time

This blog post is going to be a bit different than the others: it’s going to be about cycling!

Hope you don’t mind the departure.

So today I finally had access to a bike, though I don’t think you, Bryan, my dear husband and resident bike mechanic extraordinaire, would approve of it.
It was abandoned at my hosts’ place by a former guest who couldn’t take it with them. And no wonder. The goddamn thing weighs about a hundred pounds. Adam (of the couple I’m renting a room from, nicest guy you’ll ever meet, as is his lady, Krystallenia) did fix it up a bit, but I discovered issues with it while riding. For one thing, the seat was way too low, I felt like I was riding a little clown bike (made of lead), and my knees started to ache fast.

But I was cheered at the prospect of exploring Edinburgh’s awesome hub of dedicated cycling/pedestrian paths (greenways), converted defunct tram lines, so I made the best of it. 

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Not too shabby! So I meandered through these bike paths, and while I had a general idea where I was going, a kind man soon disabused me of that notion. He could see my eyes glaze over as he tried to explain how the spiderweb of paths would lead me to where I was eventually headed, so he offered to accompany me. He pointed out (as I had realized) that the downside to the lush greenery that surrounded the paths was that you were completely shielded from seeing any landmark that could indicate where you’re going.His name is Adrian, a family practitioner, and he’s getting back into shape from being off the bike for three years. On his last cycling holiday in the Pyrenees, he fell and broke his neck. He’s okay now, he reassured me. We exchanged travel tips: he’s about to travel to the US with his wife and teenage daughters to see the usual beauty spots, the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Zion, and so forth.

When we reached the end of the bike maze, we parted, after he showed me where a bike co-op shop was, who might do quick repair. The other major issue I had discovered: the handlebar stem as not firmly bolted down, and would slip off to one side whenever I’d stop, then push off to start again. A sweetheart named Dougie (or Duggie?) raised the seat and tightened down the handlebars for me, after grumbling over the bike a bit (I apologized for asking him to work on such a shitty bike, and he grumbled, kindly, that it came from a ‘car shop, not a bike shop’). He refused to take any payment at all.

I continued on my way, through a maze of little windy, hilly, cobblestone streets. Would have been impossible without the handlebar repair.

When I neared Calton Hill, I turned towards Arthur’s Seat, which I had seen from my explorations on my first day there. Here it is, seen from the hill that day:


And here it is as I start the ascent:

It’s so beautiful, and has a wonderfully wild feel to it, for a place right next to the city

It was hard to stop stopping to take pictures, every bend in the path revealed a scene more enchanting than the last.

So at the summit, I stopped to eat lunch, as it started to sprinkle. There was, like, twenty weathers that day. But I dressed as a San Franciscan in spring, so I was set.

Smoked German cheese and a pear

If you want to keep warm on a ‘driech’ day (thanks for the cool new addition to my vocabulary, Jackie!), ride up Arthur’s Seat on a two-hundred pound bicycle (yes, it got heavier). I don’t think it really was kosher to take my bike up, but the signs didn’t specifically say not too, so I did. You would have been proud of me, Bryan, there was definitely some ‘gnar’. I was roasting by the time I reached the top.

So I went down, and spent the rest of the day half biking, half sightseeing by foot.
On the way back (I couldn’t linger ’till dark cause I had no lights, I went by way of Dean Village, which drops below the Dean Bridge and along Leith Waterway.

And finally, I reached my temporary home, to this sky


It was a good day. David Hume’s birthday! Yet I was the one that got the gift. Adam made scones and tea, and before bed he and I, and eventually Krystallenia when she came home from work, talked about Poland where he’s from, Greece where she’s from, and the US.

First Day in Old Edinburgh: Hume Sites and Monuments

On Calton Hill with Edinburgh’s Old City in the background.

‎It’s early Sunday afternoon, and I’m recovering from probably the single longest day of walking I’ve ever done, and that’s saying a lot for this avid hiker and walking enthusiast. My hip joints ache, my feet ache, my calves ache, my shins ache. But I don’t care, each of these aches are little tokens of a beautiful day. But let me back up a bit…

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Saturday, ‎May ‎03, ‎2014

I started my exploration of the Old City from the other end, where the Castle of Edinburgh overlooks all from its high perch on a craggy rock, along the Royal Mile, which heads east from the castle to Calton Hill and the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

The first half of my day is spent getting my bearings, creating a mental map of how the Old City hangs together, while spontaneously popping into any historic place that looked interesting. That can get expensive, paying entrance fees, but what the hell, it was my first day. Anyway, that’s what keeps these wonderful old places from falling into ruin or turning into tacky gift shops, so it’s worth every penny.) I have my little camera out to keep my hands free and snap a gazillion photos along the way. I don’t have a way to upload those photos and share them with you now, but I will when I get back home in a couple of weeks. The photos you see here are taken on my tablet.

Arthur's Seat as seen from Calton Hill on a gray spring day, Edinburgh, 2014 Amy Cools.JPG

Arthur’s Seat as seen from Calton Hill on a gray spring day

So here I am, overlooking Edinburgh from Calton Hill.

It’s on Calton Hill that my journey following David Hume really begins, though I had looked into some sites associated with his life on the way, that I’ll return to later. It’s here on Calton Hill that he’s buried, and it’s here, I discover, that he caused the first path in Edinburgh to be built dedicated solely to the improvement of mind and body. Here, people would be encouraged to take their exercise by having a lovely place to walk, on this hillside with its spectacular views of the city, the surrounding countryside, and the Firth (estuary), away from the hustle and bustle, the crowds, the dirt, the unhealthy air, and the smells of the city. The first path to be built is named Hume Path in his honor, so of course, that’s the path I choose.

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Hume Walk sign, Calton Hill, Edinburgh

David Hume’s grave monument, Calton Hill, Edinburgh, Scotland

Old Calton Cemetery, Calton Hill, Edinburgh, 2014 Amy Cools.JPGI head back downhill a little from the park at the top of the hill, and Calton Hill Cemetery is on my left. I go through the gate and up the short flight of steps, and a bit ahead to my right, I find Hume’s elegant and rather simple monument and gravesite. I spend a good bit of time here musing: the power of physical objects to really bring things into focus still never fails to surprise me, and my sense of purpose in this journey to Edinburgh is strengthened.

I’ll soon write a reflection on his good and noble death

Hume's and Abraham Lincoln Scottish soldier monuments,

Hume and Scottish soldier monuments at Old Calton Cemetery

I’m also moved to discover that a monument to Scottish-American soldiers was erected, featuring a statue of Abraham Lincoln. It seems to me so fitting that these two great heroes of freedom are honored here side by side, one of freedom of person, the other of thought.

When I leave Calton Hill, I return to the Royal Mile by an alternate route, with a detour along York Place to St. David’s Street. This street got its name from a fond prank by his close friend Nancy Orde, who wrote this little tribute in chalk on the side of Hume’s house. The street bears the name to this day.

My explorations are sure to bring me back to this street since Hume once lived here, so stay tuned. I’ll be back when I’ve gathered more details.

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Statue of David Hume on the Royal Mile by Sandy Stoddart, 1995

I return to the Royal Mile and this time head west, passing by a grand statue of David Hume, across from St. Giles’ Cathedral. I’m not sure it looks anything like him based on all of his portraits I’ve seen, but it’s a handsome statue, very classical. This bronze Hume probably looks much better with his shirt off than the real man ever did; he was a portly and not terribly good-looking fellow, as much as I admire and respect him. But who knows? Perhaps the younger Hume was a little more fit, before the years of poring over books left him out of shape. The statue’s right toe is polished and very shiny, looks like it’s a tradition to rub his toe for luck.

Plaque in close leading to James’s Court, where David Hume lived for a time

James Court on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh

James Court on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh

I return to James’s Court, where he lived for awhile in a tenement (apartment) with his sister. The original buildings are mostly gone, lost in a fire ages ago. I visited Gladstone’s Land and the John Knox house earlier in the day, two restored tenements from the era, and the Writer’s Museum, the restored home of Lady Stairs, built in 1622 and purchased and decorated by her in the 1700’s, all of which gives me a good idea of what Hume’s place would have looked like generally. James’s Court is a lovely little courtyard reached through a couple of lit

The old city is full of such little closes leading to pretty little courtyards or providing access to who knows where, all nearly irresistible to an American like me, where ancient cities are rare. Each time I see one of those closes, it looks like a little magic portal to some other place and time, and I just have to go through it. I spent much of my day stumbling on interesting corners of the city this way.

Tenements on the Royal Mile at Lawnmarket. 'Tenements' used to just refer to apartment buildings; the term gained its negative connotation later

Tenements on the Royal Mile at Lawnmarket. ‘Tenements’ used to just refer to apartment buildings; the term gained its negative connotation later

Granny's Green Steps

On the other side of Lawnmarket (the same little neighborhood as James Court) is another stand of tenements across from the castle, in the area where Hume was born in 1711. The original buildings are also no longer there; while most of the tenements that stand today in old Edinburgh are old, most of them date from the mid-1700’s and later. Many of the original tenements were lost in fires, a common occurrence in those days when people depended on open flames for all light, heating, and cooking, and a fire that started in one place would quickly spread. Many of the others were torn down, since after Hume’s time, the tenements became the homes of the poor, where overcrowding and the accompanying disease and filth left them in very poor condition (people and buildings like).

I end my first day of Hume-seeking here, as I suddenly realize I’ve been walking for hours without eating. I eat a meal of the obligatory haggis (it’s delicious, even if it does sit a bit heavy; I suspect it’s not the haggis that the Scots of yore ate, which was boiled. This haggis does not appear to be prepared that way), and I wash down with a pint, of course.

It’s a typical Scottish spring day, cloudy and a little chilly, totally bearable to one used to San Franciso weather. It rains on me just a little during my walk back to my temporary home.haggis-and-a-pint-edinburgh-scotland-2014-amy-cools

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Hume’s New Scene of Thought, and, It’s Good to Be Able to Say ‘I Don’t Know’

David Hume, sculpture by Sandy Stoddart on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh

David Hume was always a nerd, something I love about him. Since he was a young boy, he always had his face buried in a book. And he was a happy nerd, self-described as having a ‘cheerful’ and ‘sanguine’ (optimistic) personality. I like that too.

Perhaps that’s why he was able to enter into his self-described ‘New Scene of Thought’. It was a whole new philosophy, one which included, as a central guiding principle, that the honest thinker should never claim to know, or to understand, that which the human mind can’t know or understand, and if they can’t know or understand it, they shouldn’t make strong claims of knowledge about it. But another guiding principle is this: the process of learning and thinking critically is among the noblest endeavors there is.
 
This sounds simple enough. But to the thinkers and to the everyday person in his time, this was not the way people thought. It was the end of the long period of scholasticism, of academics and theologians who took great pride in devising complex and subtle arguments about anything and everything under the sun (and above it), and whose authority was not to be challenged. If you were a member of this elite, you better support this system or you better find another occupation if you don’t want to be financially, and reputationally, ruined. if you were an everyday person, you should stay in your place, accept what the great thinkers have to tell you, and don’t ask too many questions.
 
It’s also a challenge to the way many people think today, from the strong skeptic who says ‘no one can know anything at all, so who cares?’ to the theocrat who says ‘I know the author of the universe, I know what he says, and I know what everyone must believe and how they should act’. We live in an age where screaming pundits dominate the media, who are certain ‘the other side’ is leading us all straight to ruin; where politicians are more reluctant to serve the public interest by putting aside their differences and working together on important issues; where the funding and communication of science is up for grabs to the highest bidding corporations.
 
Hume challenged the philosophers, the theologians, all those who made extraordinary claims about the ultimate nature of reality and of the workings of the human mind. He thought that they were undermining, even destroying the great project of philosophy by being so abstract, and so extravagant in their claims. Too many, Hume thought, had pretensions of knowing exactly how the universe came into being and how it worked, what was ultimate source of morality, what is meant by ‘the soul’ and how human beings are defined by it, and so on. These thinkers based their claims on two things: that the author of the universe has communicated these things to them and that they knew what the author meant, and that the elaborate arguments they constructed were all based on irrefutable logic and careful reasoning. Or some combination of these.
 
Yet these philosophers and theologians were in violent disagreement all the time, sometimes with the such disastrous results as a willingness, even an enthusiasm, for silencing, oppressing, even killing those with different opinions. This was so for even such highly abstruse arguments as to whether there were one or three persons in God, or what was the nature of the invisible force that made the planets go around the sun.
 
How do we account for such disagreements, when they originated from such seemingly perfect sources, revelation and logic? 
 
That’s because, Hume said, they got this wrong: that there’s such a thing as perfect human knowledge or understanding, or even that there is any mind at all that exists that knows all there is to know about everything. The honest thinker is the one that understands that a mind is a limited, fallible thing, and that the one way to know the most we can know is to carefully observe the world then only accept those ideas as true which observation can support. ‘The wise man…proportions his belief to the evidence.’ That’s another thing they got wrong: they tried to go so far with their logic, that the evidence they founded it on was so far removed, or so slight, I’d liken it to building a pyramid of elephants on a ball in a cartoon circus. Better to have a pretty solid foundation before you try such a thing.
 
Hume’s ‘New Scene of Thought’ helped make philosophy a reinvigorated, attractive scene for the curious and the thoughtful. Philosophy, at the time, referred to all areas of study whose project was to discover and understand as much as could be known about the universe. 
 
Funnily enough, it’s the attitude that human beings are fallible in our perceptions and our thinking, that enabled us to learn out as much as we have so far about so many areas of life, and that made the scientific process not only sucessful, but possible. That means when we observe something, or think something, we can’t just run out and proclaim our discoveries, just like that. We have to talk to each other compare notes, patiently test our theories again and again, and even if we’ve done all that, be able to say, humbly, ‘I was wrong’ if a better explanation comes along. This doesn’t mean we can’t believe in anything. It means that belief is always on a spectrum, is stronger or weaker depending on the support we have for it: whether it’s supported by observation and evidence, whether it consistently leads us to make successful predictions and form quality explanatory theories, and so on. But it should never be absolute. We should always be open to finding out more, and always suspicious if someone tells us they have the final, absolute answer.
 
It took this optimistic, friendly (Hume was well known to be a kind and genial person), and careful thinker, of great integrity, to form such a beautifully honest philosophy. Always having his nose in a book, he was well-read, and understood that there was an incredibly wide range of human thought and experience to draw from, much of it contradicting each other. And his reaction was not that we should resolve these contradictions by finding some orthodoxy and sticking to it, or saying at all that is not strictly logical in some abstract, perfect sense is valueless. He was able to take it all at face value for what it was: the natural outcome of what it means to have a human mind. The human mind is not just a reasoner, or a believer: it also perceives, dreams, thinks, feels, hallucinates. It’s variable, and it’s fascinating, and it all needs to be taken into account, if you want to pursue understanding to the utmost that you can. 
 
If you don’t yet have the answer, you must always be ready to say, honestly, ‘I don’t know’. That leaves you able and ready to say the next best sentence in the quest for knowledge: ‘Let’s find out.’
 
And this is only his epistemology (the study of knowledge) and his answer to metaphysics (the study of the fundamental nature of reality). Don’t get me started on his moral philosophy, which is even more awesome….. ’cause that will be the topic for another essay.
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Sources and inspiration:
 
Hume, David. ‘Letter to a Physician‘, 1734. 

Hume, David. My Own Life, 1776. 

Morris, William Edward. ‘David Hume‘. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2009.

To Edinburgh I Go, In Search of David Hume

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy! I’m pleased and excited to announce my upcoming adventure: my first philosophical-historical themed adventure, and my first trip to Edinburgh, Scotland!

Here’s my plan:

I’m taking a series of trips to places around the world, where I explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. I’ll follow in the footsteps of thinkers who are no longer alive, since those who are still telling their own stories. But those who are no longer alive in the body live on in the ideas that they pass on, and in the example they provide for us to follow.

I’ve decided to start with the philosopher I most admire as a person as well as a thinker, the great David Hume. He was not only revered for the brilliance of his ideas and his honesty in presenting them, but also as a premier example of a genial, generous, great-hearted person; so much so, in fact, that one of his closest friends nicknamed him ‘Saint David’.

Hume is often described as the greatest philosopher to write in English and among the greatest philosophers of all time, period. He was a central figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, and a profoundly influential empiricist and moral philosopher

So off to beautiful Edinburgh I go! There, I’ll visit the places where he worked, thought, wrote, studied, and rested. I’ll be traveling there in the first two weeks of May, and will be writing throughout the trip. I’ll be writing in this blog not only about his ideas, but about what I can discover about his everyday life, and whatever feeling of his time and place I manage to uncover in my time there.

If you have any questions for me to answer while I’m there, or pictures you’d like me to take for you, or any information you have that could help me with this project, I’d love to hear from you!

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Here are my essays on Hume as I discover him in my travels, in (roughly) chronological order:

First Day in Old Edinburgh: Hume Sites and Monuments
Hume’s New Scene of Thought, and, It’s Good to Be Able to Say ‘I Don’t Know’
Hume Sites and Monuments, Part 2
The Consolations of Philosophy, and A Death Free from Fear
Scotticisms
Happy 303rd Birthday, David Hume!
Cycling Through Edinburgh, First Time
The Debate Over Government and Freedom
The Tale of the Magic Toe – Superstition? Or What?
Hume Sites and Monuments, Part 3
Water of Leith
Last Day in Edinburgh, May 13th, 2014
Hume, Aristotle, and Guns
and a memory quilt I created for my 2014 Edinburgh trip: A Hill and a Wall in Edinburgh, 2015, 102″ x 69″
Chirnside and Ninewells, Scottish Borders, Childhood and Summer Home of David Hume

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!