David Hume: 300 years on
Three centuries after his birth, David Hume is remembered as a thinker who has influenced not only the development of philosophy as an intellectual discipline, but also the way in which we address social, political and economic challenges
The 300th birthday of the British philosopher and historian David Hume was celebrated around the world on 26 April 2011. Some of Hume’s contemporaries would have been distressed by the thought that he might be remembered three centuries after his birth. In fact, they would have been more than distressed. Many regarded Hume as a dangerous and irresponsible sceptic who meant to rob impressionable people of the beliefs they needed to live virtuous, useful and happy lives.
Chief among the convictions of which Hume supposedly wanted to deprive people was their belief in God, a belief that was taken to be the foundation of moral and political life. It was thought that Hume wanted to make people doubt the reliability of the laws of nature, the existence of a world outside the mind and even their own continued identity through time. He put forward arguments that seemed to undermine the objective basis of morality and, in his hugely popular The History of England, to question the basis of a political system that, through the replacement of the Catholic James II with the Protestant William of Orange in 1688, had revived and secured the ancient liberties of England.
Hume’s contemporaries tended to take philosophy seriously. Philosophy was not then, as it mostly is now, only the concern of university academics. There were, after all, few university academics in the 18th century because there was only a small number of universities: Oxford and Cambridge in England, together with five universities in Scotland. The philosophers of the age made it their business to speak to a much wider constituency than the members of these seven universities, in an English that was elegant and clear, and so what they said was of some significance. Philosophers were supposed to play their part in instilling and reinforcing the basic principles of a respectable morality, an establishment politics and a moderate religion.
Hume was judged to fail on all counts. An early critic charged him with “sapping the foundations of morality, by denying the natural and essential difference betwixt right and wrong, good and evil, justice and injustice”. James Beattie, professor of moral philosophy at Aberdeen’s Marischal College, declared that Hume had done great harm, his aim being to “subvert the principles of truth, virtue and religion”. Samuel Johnson would rather leave the room than find himself in the same company as the man who had “so little scrupulosity as to venture to oppose those principles [that] have been thought necessary to human happiness”.
Yet Hume is both remembered and celebrated, both in his native Britain and all over the world. Tercentenary events are taking place in Chirnside, the village in the Scottish Borders where Hume grew up; in Edinburgh, where Hume studied and where he spent the second half of his life writing the books that made him both famous and rich; and in London, where almost all of Hume’s works were published. Commemorations are also being staged in St Petersburg, Toronto and Brazil.
What explains this change in attitude? In the 19th century, as philosophy retreated from the drawing room and the coffee house back into the university lecture theatre, philosophers became more and more concerned with answering Hume. In Scotland, France, Germany and the newly founded United States of America, the very possibility of philosophy was taken to depend upon the development of a response to Hume’s scepticism. One response was a so-called ‘philosophy of common sense’, a reassertion of the naturalness and inescapability of the basic beliefs that Hume had appeared to undermine.
Another response to Hume was developed by Immanuel Kant. He argued that the basic cognitive principles that Hume questioned should be seen not as the product of experience, but rather as conditions of the possibility of experience. Instabilities in Kant’s system gave rise to Hegel’s even more demanding exploration of the dynamics of the human mind’s engagement with the notion of objective reality. Hume’s philosophy thus stayed alive because so much effort was taken to kill it. When, in the early 20th century, Anglophone philosophers could no longer subscribe to the abstruseness and difficulty of Hegelianism, they looked to Hume for inspiration. He continues to provide the basic idiom and orientation of much of the philosophy that is done in English-speaking universities.
Hume himself would, however, have been disappointed by the idea that his work would live on only in the world of university philosophy. Not long before he died, he said that his ruling passion was a “love of literary fame”. Uncharitable readers of Hume have taken this as a confession of vanity. One of Hume’s 19th century editors remarked that “few men of letters have been at heart so vain and greedy of fame as was Hume”. But here the editor in question betrayed his own narrow, purely academic understanding of the nature of philosophy. After Kant and Hegel, it seemed impossible that a philosopher could remain a philosopher while seeking to write for a large audience about matters of everyday and universal concern. That view remains prevalent today, especially in the English-speaking world. Philosophers are not supposed to concern themselves with the affairs of common life. Yet Hume’s intellectual development was marked by an increasing interest in making a difference to how his contemporaries – as many of them as possible – understood the world in which they lived.
Then and now
Hume’s agenda was, in some respects, very much of its age. The question of the true significance of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, for instance, does not seem particularly relevant to British politics today. In The History of England, published in six volumes between 1754 and 1762, Hume’s demolition of the confusions and contradictions of the cruder forms of pro-Revolution ideology is brilliant and often very funny, but the disagreements that animated 18th-century discussion of the origins and nature of ‘English liberty’ have, for the most part, slipped away into the past. We take the constitutional settlement that followed 1688 for granted. Some worry about the extent to which European law is altering that settlement, but the general principle that the power of the executive is given by, and therefore answerable to, the will of the people as embodied in a parliamentary legislature is no longer contentious.
Hume predicted this. He regarded public opinion as the major determinant of politics, shaped less by abstract speculative issues than by our desire to live in conditions of peace and security. Once things have been peaceful for a while, and once prosperity is reasonably widespread, the questions of principle that bring about revolutions will cease to matter.
A regime whose legitimacy was once deeply controversial will be given general acceptability and loyalty by the passage of time. It is one of the most fundamental principles of Hume’s theory of human nature that we are all, in every time and place, first and foremost creatures of habit.
In other respects, Hume’s concerns were those of anyone who reflects on life in a commercial society. This kind of society, new to the world in the 18th century, is now the one in which almost all of us live. He explored these concerns most comprehensively in his essay collection Political Discourses, published in 1752.
The question at the front of Hume’s mind here was an old one. It concerns whether it is possible for a country to devote itself to the pursuit of trade and wealth, while preserving the moral values that give it the capacity to maintain itself as a free and independent society. Ever since the Roman empire had collapsed as a result of the corruption and moral deterioration associated with personal enrichment, people believed that every country faced a choice between virtue and martial valour on the one hand, and luxury, enervation and weakness on the other. Hume argued that this belief was false and that a country could be at the same time wealthy, strong and free. He sought to show that “the ages of refinement and luxury are both the happiest and most virtuous”, that “luxury and the arts are favourable to liberty, and have a natural tendency to preserve, if not produce, a free government”. For Hume, it was a fundamental mistake to regard international trade as a zero-sum game. The truth was that a country could only benefit from the growing prosperity of its neighbours. The idea that military means should be used to reduce the trading capacities of other countries needed to be consigned to the dustbin of history.
Hume was not, however, straightforwardly optimistic about the consequences of modern commerce for the nation state. In passages that resonate particularly powerfully in our current circumstances, Hume worries about the consequences of amassing ever-increasing national debts. By the middle of the 18th century, it was already inconceivable that a country might be able to sustain itself without raising income through the selling of bonds. Hume regarded the necessary consequence of this – the devotion of a growing proportion of the nation’s wealth to the paying of interest on loans – as “ruinous, beyond the evidence of a hundred demonstrations”. It would result, he thought, in “poverty, impotence and subjection to foreign powers” and was inevitable that, in the end, countries would have to choose between wholesale default on their debts and giving in to control by foreign creditors.
Hume’s greatest virtue as an analyst of the age he lived in, and perhaps the reason for his enduring significance, lies in his ability to expose a serious problem without feeling compelled to identify a solution. While Hume’s contemporaries were wrong to see him as a purely negative and destructive thinker, he was a sceptic in the sense that he was much surer about the difficulties that our theories face than about what the solutions to those difficulties might look like. In this respect, he is at his most impressive in his essays, where he frequently restricts himself to the elaboration of a puzzle about something that had hitherto been regarded as straightforward. The tone of these essays is that of someone contributing a single move to an ongoing conversation. He is a writer who wants his reader to take the conversation forward, not one who has a message of which everyone else must take heed.
One conversation that was taking place in Hume’s time, and that we are still having now, concerns the role that religion plays in morals and politics. Hume did not intend to subvert the principles of religious belief as such; his contemporaries misread him in this regard. He did, however, believe that it was obvious that religion, when distorted (in Christian countries) into either evangelistic, fundamentalist Protestant enthusiasm or authoritarian, repressive Catholic superstition, often does more harm than good to individuals’ lives and the stability of the political order. How, then, should religion be regulated by the state? And how should it be regulated by the philosopher’s means of distinguishing between beliefs that reason entitles us to hold and those that reason shows to lack justification? Again, Hume does not have a straightforward answer to such questions. As in so much of his work, he contents himself with reminding us both how pressing they are and how difficult it is to come up with good answers to them.
James Harris is senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of St Andrews. He is writing an intellectual biography of Hume, which will be published by Cambridge University Press.
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