Tickling Hume’s Toe:
Revolutionary Feelings at Edinburgh Radical Book Fair

I arrive in Edinburgh mid-afternoon, already dusk, and navigate my way around the throngs of tourists, carving out a frigid triangle between the station, my hotel and the Radical Book Fair. I’m early. Gary Younge is already on stage, regaling his audience with stories related to his latest book, Dispatches from the Diaspora — time spent with Nelson Mandela’s entourage, being threatened with guns as a Black man looking for directions in Mississippi, and tumbling drunkenly from Maya Angelou’s limousine.

During the Q&A, talk turns to journalistic ethics and retaining your integrity. It is surprising how familiar Younge’s advice is; surprising how emphatically it needs to be repeated nonetheless. It is advice easily forgotten. Most mainstream political journalists see themselves as pollsters today, it seems, noting how attentions are routinely turned towards future election prospects, foregoing any insightful description of or even engagement with the present, and in this way only lubricating the further repetition of capitalist stasis.

Younge recalls an allegory I’m certain I’ve heard before, but he can’t remember its origin either. There have been reports that it is raining: persons A say that it is; persons B say it is not. It is not simply the job of a journalist to relay what persons A and B have to say; it is also their job to go outside and “see if its actually fucking raining”.

It’s an important point and one that furnishes an integral journalistic belief of Younge’s: there is no such thing as objectivity. It is something that can just as easily be said about writing in general.

We three who follow Younge half an hour later — Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, Nathalie Olah and myself — would no doubt all agree with this sentiment.

Our three books are quite different; our host, Noor Hemani, confesses a curiosity at Lighthouse as to whether they would fit together well at all. They fit together wonderfully, in fact, even if they hardly overlap that neatly, because we seem to share an understanding that no such stories ever do, but that is why we write them. We share a certain bemusement, perhaps, facing down the politics of representation, of seeing and being seen, and the sometimes torturous trap of self-awareness and self-expression, writing through it anyway.

Drinking an overpriced pint of lager before all of this, I leaf through Blanchot’s The Space of Literature again, a book that is becoming more important to me during every subsequent read. “In the solitude of the work — the work of art, the literary work — we discover a more essential solitude”, he writes. “It excludes the complacent isolation of individualism; it has nothing to do with the quest for singularity.” The space of literature is a space of intensive concentration later opened outwards and offered up to others, where we ourselves may no longer be able to dwell comfortably. The four of us gather there briefly in Edinburgh regardless.

I won’t recount the particulars of our discussion — you can watch it above — but I want to at least affirm how lovely and oddly therapeutic it was to share our anxieties about these things together on stage. One thing Suhaiymah said that resonated with me and my own book was an insistence on “seeing” with other parts of yourself: not just seeing with your eyes, through which we might more painfully feel the gaze of another reflected back at us, but also “seeing with your heart”.

That night, I had so many dreams, of the sort that often follow a therapy session; I clearly had a lot to process.

Noor concluded the discussion by turning to the overall theme of the fair: “revolutionary feelings”. My thoughts turned to David Hume, who was born and eventually died in Edinburgh, and for whom, as Deleuze once wrote, “reason is a feeling”.

This is the subject of the first chapter of my PhD, which I’m currently working on. Just as Gary Younge spoke of the first principles of writing about this world that many journalists have seemingly forgotten — the impossible straining for an always elusive and always illusory objectivity — I think often of how this impossibility has been cemented in culture-war discourses following Ben Shapiro’s idiot idiom: “facts don’t care about your feelings”. It is (Deleuze’s) Hume who provides the perfect antidote to this.

Although often seen as a precursor to the Enlightenment rationality of Immanuel Kant — woefully understood by many as being necessarily affectless and dispassionate (see this example I saw on Twitter earlier) — for Hume, feeling is paramount. “The most lively thought is still inferior to the dullest sensation”, he writes in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. It is not, then, that facts don’t care about your feelings, but rather that the ideas we later come to hold about our feelings are but pale imitations of what is first experienced. This makes thought strange, since it is so innately tangled up with feelings and our perceptions of them, which we then try to relay to others through various forms of communication. As Hume continues:

When we reflect on our past sentiments and affections, our thought is a faithful mirror, and copies its objects truly; but the colours which it employs are faint and dull, in comparison to those in which our original perceptions were clothed.

But it is the desire to describe them anyway that leads us to pursue knowledge and art and a better world more attuned to them.

To try and represent these feelings as fully as possible, it is necessary we experiment, reaching out to truth through an supposedly inapposite expressionism, never forgetting our place in Nature and our drifting between reason and passion. In point of fact, despite Hume’s reputation for rationality, he pointedly asserts that this task of expression and reflection cannot be left to science alone, no matter how highly we hold scientific thought in our esteem. “Indulge your passion for science”, Hume says, ventriloquising Nature, “but let your science be human, and such as may have a direct reference to action and society.” Hume’s empiricism, in this sense, is a most affective and affected materialism. “Be a philosopher; but amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.”

I went to visit Hume the day after the panel, having a few hours to kill before my train home to Newcastle. There is a statue of him on Edinburgh’s High Street, which is now a peculiar sort of tourist attraction.

Unveiled to the Scottish public in 1995, the sculptor Alexander Stoddart denied Hume the clothes of scholarly propriety, instead draping him in a cloth that barely covers an original perception. He presents Hume to us reclining with a tablet, like one of the ancient Stoics he so admired, both defiant and vulnerable, laying the body beautifully bare. It is nonetheless a strange way to render a modern philosopher, whom we might expect to see buttoned up in academic thought, not lounging around in near nudity. But it is a rendering that is wonderfully evocative of Hume’s thought, particularly his thoughts on art’s relation to other forms of knowledge.

The talented artist, Hume once wrote, “possesses an accurate knowledge of the internal fabric, the operations of the understanding, the workings of the passions, and the various species of sentiment which discriminate vice and virtue.” It is essential that the artist, in representing life, learn to render the body accurately through feeling. It is no easy task, but it is a noble one. “How painful soever this inward search or enquiry may appear, it becomes, in some measure, requisite of those who would describe with success the obvious and outward appearances of life and manners.”

But art also needs science in order to do this, Hume argues. With a nod to Malebranche, he remarks on the ways in which we see the world through the knowledge provided by the arts and sciences (and other things too, of course) in tandem, situated somewhere between the “ugliness” of anatomical reality and the “beauty” of its mimetic rendering (with any transgression or subversion of these aesthetic judgements also requiring some knowledge of their normal functioning). Hume writes:

The anatomist presents to the eye the most hideous and disagreeable objects; but his science is useful to the painter in delineating even a Venus or a Helen. While the latter employs all the richest colours of his art, and gives his figures the most graceful and engaging airs; he must still carry his attention to the inward structure of the human body, the position of the muscles, the fabric of the bones, and the use and figure of every part or organ.

Hume’s statue can be viewed in much the same way, even if they are not fully aware of how we do this unconsciously. Consider the most vulnerable parts of Hume, as rendered by Stoddart, which are his toes. They dangle invitingly over the edge of the plinth on which he sits, glinting in the winter sunshine. We see them, no doubt struck by their prominence, and are surely entertained by the fact that we can tickle this man presented to us with such high esteem. This is indeed how people often choose to interact with this sculpture, with Hume’s toes now humorously polished by the touch of superstitious passersby.

A travel website explains the superstition as follows:

Local tradition dictates that the touch of David Hume’s toe will bring good luck, though the practice ironically defies the philosopher’s vehement rejection of superstition. Due to the statute’s placement to the High Court, suspected criminals are also said to rub the prodigious digit to help with their case. Since 1997, when the public statue was erected at the top of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, it’s become an international point of interest for handsy passersby.

Here Hume is situated between the law, that most “rational” social scaffolding, and the irrational flows of the social in actuality. But Hume also placed his own thought provocatively between the two, and so Stoddart’s sculpture, imbued with both thoughtful reverence and an anatomical beauty, becomes a tandem expression of forms of knowledge that Hume would have no doubt enjoyed. Similarly, I do not think this irony is entirely in contradiction with Hume’s thought. In fact, I imagine it as a habit that would tickle Hume in more ways than one.

It is not so simple to suggest that Hume was a supreme Enlightenment rationalist — of the sort admired by many who are beholden to a politically impoverished scientism. Hume challenges all knowledge, all of “human understanding”, when he uncovers the ways that ideas are formed through habit. This is true of all empirical “knowledge”, in the sense that science and superstition share a kind of empirical testing and processing, even if we later recognise the latter as being ultimately mistaken. This is to say that both are grounded through repetitive observations.

In a scientific experiment, for example, it is the task of the scientist to construct a situation in which a particular phenomenon can be observed, thus allowing for the demonstration of a hypothesis. Doing x to y should lead to z, the scientist suggests, but may nonetheless be aware that z will not always be the result achieved in every instance. It is for this reason that, in attempting to account for all interference and influence, the scientist will repeat their experiment enough times until their hypothesis can be said to be (at the very least) probabilistically true, all things being equal or at least appropriately understood within our general theory of relativity. But the same logic is exercised when I come to pick out my lucky pants, to give another example, since I have repeatedly observed good fortune occurring when I wear them. This superstition may lack the same weighted veracity of “objective” scientific truth, but both habits nonetheless begin with a feeling we believe can be verified — and I have personally met enough scientists passionate about astrology to appreciate how our thinking about cause and affect in the present has yet to purify itself in purely scientistic terms.

All of this is to say, as Hume himself argues, that so much of our knowledge is habitual. We recognise “truth” only as an observable tendency, which may not be true in every single instance but happens often enough to form beliefs. Habits thus present us with knowledge that shapes our behaviours. But if all knowledge is in some way founded by belief, then the task of “moral philosophy”, for Hume, is to logically explain how one set of beliefs is more viable than another and thus identify and differentiate between good habits and bad. This is no less true of philosophy itself, since, as Hume writes, the general reader may feel that any metaphysics may appear to “arise either from the fruitless efforts of human vanity, which would penetrate into subjects utterly inaccessible to the understanding, or from the craft of popular superstitions, which, being unable to defend themselves on fair ground, raise these entangling brambles to cover and protect their weakness.”

Distinguishing between good and bad habits is also a process grounded in feeling, and it is considering how we feel about different things that can lead us to journey outside the realms of social doxa. People who have embarked on such journeys were everywhere at the Radical Book Fair. So often, these books begin with an inherent understanding of how the world should be, of how we are led to believe the world should function, and an experience that contradicts that truth. Any kind of marginalised person will already know what this is like. As individuals, we grow up in a world that takes certain normative positions for granted — whiteness, heteronormativity, our categorisation within a cisgender binary, etc. — and come to understand that this structure of understanding does not (at all or in part) allow us to understand ourselves in a way that makes sense.

We come to understand our difference and, if we feel so inclined, begin to communicate that difference in order to further furnish human knowledge and understanding with other points of view. When we hear someone like Ben Shapiro claims that “facts don’t care about your feelings”, then, as he is so famous for doing, he is explicitly advancing an anti-intellectual position dressed up as its opposite. It is of course unsurprising that a social conversative would be against progressivism, but when phrased in this way, as a statement so baldly epistemological rather than simply political, Shapiro denies a fundamental tension within the human condition that arguably makes thought possible in the first place. Facts not only “care” about feelings, they are wholly dependent on them, and so, via Hume, we find them newly entwined and problematised in equal measure.

The irony of the superstition surrounding Hume’s toe becomes an interesting expression of this same tension. Hume himself did not escape superstition or error; the door is always left open for new forms of knowledge. And knowledge, we must remember, is an object of collective ownership. Superstition is not eradicated, then, so much as it becomes the central problem to be questioned. How we distinguish superstition from fact is the central question of Hume’s philosophy, in this sense, and he demonstrates that the two are not as easily distinguishable as they might first appear.

With all this in mind, I do not think Hume would ridicule those who tickle him, but rather ask that his ticklers consider what it is about human psychology that makes them want to tickle him in the first place. Knowing that this superstition is a touristic habit, one which supposedly flies in the face of Hume’s own philosophy — an irony no doubt repeated by every tour guide who leads their flock to Hume — why do it anyway? Because we know that others have. Because even superstitions can become truths under the veil of social doxa. That tickling Hume is a superstition is, in a sense, besides the point. Regardless of whether we believe in this superstition wholeheartedly, we perform the ritual to take part in a collective experience, and thus experience a sense of social solidarity. This is what makes Hume so interesting for Deleuze. As François Dosse writes, for Deleuze, Hume’s question “is less one of taming selfish ardor than of extending solidarity.” Deleuze himself writes:

The moral and social problem consists in going from real sympathies that exclude one another to a real whole that would include the sympathies. The problem is how to extend sympathies.

This superstition regarding Hume’s toes, then, is one that I imagine would have fascinated Hume greatly. It gets to the very heart of this thought on habit and truth, recognising the inescapable problem of subjectivity, of the knowing subject, later so pithily summarised by Lacan: “truth has the structure of fiction”.

Hume’s psychology of human nature presents us with a new awareness of our strange fallibilities, and Hume himself is not exempt from these. In fact, Hume’s bad habits of thought are particularly egregious today and demonstrate a failure of extended sympathies and solidarities that fly in the face of his own thought.

The short article about Hume’s statue on the aforementioned travel website also notes, for example, that the statute “has come under fire with the progressive Black Lives Matter movement”, given Hume’s assertion that “I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to whites” — something I did not know and which made me feel very embarrassed to have mentioned my enthusiasm for him at the close of our panel at the Radical Book Fair, in which we had discussed multicultural solidarity explicitly in light of Israel’s current genocidal assault on the Palestinian people.

“There was never a civilised nation of any other complexion than white,” Hume continues, “nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation.” It is a horrible sentiment but one that is disproven easily, since our subsequent elevation of other lives has made their eminent actions and speculations so much more visible to society as a whole. In this way, the greater and more uncomfortable irony of Hume’s thought is not a popular phalangeal superstition, but rather the way that his own thought humiliates his short-sighted racism. Alive during the transatlantic slave trade, we see Hume engaging in a kind of dehumanisation that neglects his most important observation: that feelings are tantamount within the human condition, and fascinating precisely because they are so difficult to represent. Enslaved Africans, lest we forget, were dehumanised primarily through a disregard for their feelings, with their wailing grief reduced to the grunting of livestock rather than expressions of abject emotion.

This is why affect is otherwise so integral to his empiricism. It is shared feeling and the shared association of ideas that constitutes civilised society, and in this comment on the uncivilised nature of Black life, Hume unwittingly demonstrates the lack of civility of his era. But it is a lack of civility that we no doubt still share, as we witness Palestinians and their supporters being dehumanised in much the same way, such that grieving revolt is dismissed as inhuman noise. Our humanity is nothing if we cannot recognise the emotions and passions expressed by others for what they truly are. Reason is a feeling, and feelings give us reason to act and speculate on other ways of living in greater sympathy and harmony with the / each other. This is what makes feeling revolutionary.

I write all of this down in my notebook, perched on a stoop outside the National Gallery of Scotland, shaking off my bad dreams with a coffee beside me and a cigarette precariously placed in the hand not holding a pen. It is Armistice Sunday in two days’ time, although the media has begun to spin a new narrative of us having an “Armistice Weekend”, something I nor anyone else has ever heard of before, as a way to legitimate their ongoing disapproval of peace marches calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

It is always striking how habitual (in a pejorative sense) this annual day of remembrance has become. As I walk from the National Gallery to Edinburgh Waverley station, I turn my nose up at a mobile poppy shop, downwind of the newly opened Christmas market, selling all kinds of merch for mourning, raising money for indeterminate but tacitly nationalistic causes.

A short walk later, this cynicism becomes shame as I pass the Garden of Remembrance that flanks the Scott Monument on Princes Street. An old man bows his head before a temporary memorial, shivering with emotion and reaching into his various pockets in search of some sequestered handkerchief. His face is contorted as he rummages, as if looking not only for a tissue but for words, holding tears and the painful memories he has nonetheless given him space to quietly recollect. Here in a man in the midst of a remembrance.

Nothing else grows in this temporary winter garden, other than than balsa crosses and plastic poppies that gather in rows. I am never unmoved by them, and though my own grandparents never spoke about the wars they lived through, I do remember visiting Flanders on a school history trip in my early teens, seeing the thousands of graves and hearing the Last Post at the Menin Gate. No remembrance industry is so effective at passing on those inexpressible feelings, the horrors experienced in lives led long before mine. That is surely the whole reason for remembrance on Armistice Day: the transferal of feeling outside of experience and the revolutionary sentiments that grew out of them. Whilst the media has kicked up a storm around marches for Palestine overshadowing a more lazy remembrance, there is no better tribute to the feelings of those no longer with us than unearthing those feelings here in relation to present horrors. That too is a revolutionary feeling.

On Saturday, back in Newcastle, I walk across town with friends to the Central station, and join a silent protest on the concourse.

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