See below for a report from Rebecca Davies (NTNU, Trondheim, Norway). Rebecca was awarded a BARS Stephen Copley Research Award, and she explains her subsequent research activity here.
Rebecca Davies – Stephen Copley Award Report
I used the award to visit to the National Library of Scotland’s special collections to begin what will eventually be an extensive examination of the letters of David Hume, as part of a broader consideration of his epistemology. This research will be incorporated into my current project on the treatment of ‘genius’ and precocity – or ingenia proecocia – in educational writing of the long eighteenth century. I am interested in how Hume – in his unguarded moments where he is not consciously the philosopher – represents human ‘powers and faculties’, and the nature of knowledge, relative to both childhood education and knowledge acquisition into adulthood. The work carried out in the NLS informs a chapter exploring the treatment of genius, learning and cognition in Enlightenment epistemology, to reassess and relocate Romantic conceptions of creative genius. As Paul Bruno has observed, Hume does not explicitly comment upon genius in the sense of originality and untutored talent in his published works. Consequently, my key focus for this research was whether he engages with the subject, even obliquely, in his private writings, through discussions of reading, education and knowledge acquisition. I was also interested in his conception of education more broadly.
Although, unsurprisingly, the archives did not reveal any letters on the topic that have not been already published by Grieg, it was nevertheless useful to view the contents in an unmediated form, to trace themes of study, intellect, and Hume’s perception of the physical effects of thought and education without an overt chronological and biographical focus. The letters provided some diverse and interesting commentaries regarding Hume’s own education and attitude to knowledge and learning. Although well known, some key examples of this focus on knowledge and learning appear in the famous ‘Letter to an Anonymous Physician’ – where he notes the necessity of forgetting the reasoning of the ancients in order to come to a better understanding of the ‘truth’ – and his discussion of Rousseau’s unlearned ‘genius’, before their infamous feud. The most useful letters for my purpose were more esoteric, such as those addressed to his friend Baron Mure, written in the 1760s, reporting on the suspect pedagogy of the teacher Graffigni at the school Mure’s young sons were attending. Hume is singularly unimpressed by Graffigni’s ‘novel’ methods of teaching Latin, which he claims will not advance the understanding of the young people. In comparison, his letters to and from his nephew’s tutor, Mr Blacklock, demonstrate a harmonious agreement regarding the ideal methods for knowledge acquisition. These letters will form the basis of an examination of the practical application of epistemological theory in pedagogy, specifically relative to notions of ability and understanding in the pupils.
The generosity of the award enabled me to look at MS23151-23153 over the course of five days, and establish the usefulness of investigating this resource further.