State of the Union

David Hume, Lonely Philosopher

In the Old Calton cemetery in Edinburgh, David Hume’s mausoleum, a stout, cylindrical tower, dominates the surrounding tombstones. Contrasting with this imposing tomb, Hume insisted that it carry a simple inscription: “only my name with the year of my birth and death, leaving to posterity to add the rest.” Unfortunately, given Hume’s importance to Western philosophy, posterity has done a rather lopsided job in adding much to this epitaph.

Part of the reason for this lopsidedness is Hume’s own doing. James Harris explains in his much-anticipated book Hume: An Intellectual Biography that Hume was obsessed with his persona, crafting a public façade as “a sedentary man of letters, able to make light of his own pedantries and foibles, but all the same dedicated wholly to his books.” His late-in-life essay “On My Own Life” gives very little in the way of biographical detail, focusing its attention only upon the image of Hume as a man of letters. He writes, “this Narrative shall contain little more than the History of my Writings; as, indeed, almost all my life has been spent in literary pursuits.”

As a philosopher Hume tends to engender knee-jerk reactions. His explorations into empiricism, skepticism, atomism, and anti-religion receive adulation or condemnation, depending upon the audience. His biography is often told as a series of flashpoints: his failure to win any academic posting, his friendship with Adam Smith, his nuclear falling-out with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and his deathbed meeting with diarist James Boswell. These moments are like fireworks on a dark gray biographical backdrop that spanned over half of the 18th century. They obscure as much as they illuminate.

Fortunately, Harris’s biography does an excellent job of brightening much of this gray backdrop, offering readers a narrative of Hume’s life that runs through his writings. By treating Hume’s own self-representation as an integral aspect of his life and thought, Harris delivers a rich portrayal of the Scottish philosopher that, while lacking in the kinds of human details that readers may expect, provides the most sustained examination of Hume’s philosophy within the context of his life.

Here we see a Hume who rejects all forms of dogmatism, except, of course, his own. Even the Enlightenment hero-worship of the classical world fails to entangle him for very long. Like most of the philosophes, Hume was a dilettante, both self-obsessed and exceedingly opinionated. He was capable of a high degree of self-reflection and charity, however, rarely returning a harsh word of criticism—of which there were many—with another.

Perhaps the best examples of this charity come from Hume’s friendships with fellow Scottish thinkers Francis Hutcheson and Adam Smith. Both of these men, at different times, opposed Hume’s attainment of a university professorship. In 1744, Hutcheson declined a faculty position at the University of Edinburgh, and when the university’s provost suggested Hume as an alternative, Hutcheson voiced his disapproval, siding with city leaders who despised Hume’s well-known religious heterodoxy. Then in the early 1750s, after Adam Smith accepted the chair of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow, Hume was proposed to take Smith’s vacated faculty position as professor of logic. While Smith voiced his affection for Hume as a friend and thinker, he, as Harris explains, “never thought that Hume was a plausible candidate,” expressing concerns similar to Hutcheson’s. Hume’s response to these betrayals seems to have been mild, remaining on good terms with both men without any hint of a grudge.

Born into a Scottish noble family in 1711, Hume was educated at Edinburgh, but he rejected the study of law for that of “literature,” eschewing a life of social advancement for a life of good books. Hume’s voracious reading habits dictated his late teens and early twenties, as he consumed everything from Cicero and Virgil to natural philosophy and advanced mathematics.

He suffered not only from melancholy and poor health but also from financial shortfalls, forcing him to rely upon friends and family, even having to retreat to his brother’s home at Ninewells for two years. Although he worked hard, he bounced between the educated equivalent of odd jobs, serving at various times as a tutor, secretary, librarian, and bureaucrat. He longed for financial independence through his philosophical publications, which he would eventually achieve by writing them “with Addisonian concision and perspicacity.” He wanted to write philosophy that people would read.

Key to Harris’s biography is his argument that, for Hume, philosophy was “a habit of mind” rather than an academic discipline or “a body of doctrine.” Hume’s philosophy was not a profession so much as a way of life and thought. It compelled him at a young age toward classical Stoicism, which nearly led to a psychological breakdown, and it drove his relentless application of Lockean empiricism that has made his epistemology so preeminent, and indefatigable, in Western thought. While Harris does not deny the differences between Hume and Locke that other scholars have harped upon, he explains that what separates them are matters of revision and improvement more than contradiction. Hume believed that “he was following in Locke’s footsteps,” yet he was not slavishly devoted to the earlier thinker.

Harris eschews the two popular views of Hume’s philosophy, either as a terribly divided affair—often separating his early and later writings—or as a failed effort at “a unified and systematic study of human nature.” These readings are too simplistic and ahistorical, according to Harris, and most importantly they fail to appreciate Hume’s desire for popular approbation.

In his philosophical magnum opus The Treatise of Human Nature, which was also his first published work, Hume wrote that he was “like a man, who having struck on many shoals, and having narrowly escap’d shipwreck in passing a small firth, has yet the temerity to put out to sea in the same leaky weather-beaten vessel, and even carries his ambition so far as to think of compassing the globe.” This is Hume at his most honest, simultaneously self-aggrandizing and self-effacing, aware—perhaps more than anyone else of his time—of the limits of human reason and still able to boast of his abilities. He saw himself as an intellectual Odysseus, and what he needed was a Homeric style to tell of his adventures. Unfortunately, the Treatise, as profound as it was, lacked the aesthetic quality to which Hume so desperately aspired.

Much of the confusion surrounding Hume’s philosophy comes from the seemingly drastic shift in his career following what he called “the dead-born from the press” publication of the Treatise. Although Hume never attempted a complete revision of the Treatise in an effort to garner better sales, he did summarize and popularize many portions of it in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), and he then reworked much of the Treatise’s third book in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751).

Harris argues that Hume never abandoned his early philosophy; instead, he refashioned his authorial identity by changing the way he wrote philosophy. In order to achieve the financial independence and literary acclaim he desperately craved, Hume, according to Harris, determined that the “manner not the matter” of the Treatise needed to be altered. It was this manner that Hume reworked in his later writings, particularly in his widely successful Essays. The skepticism nurtured by his reading of Pierre Bayle, George Berkeley, and Bernard Mandeville can be seen in both the Treatise and in his later works, but in the later works it would be dressed up with the rhetorical flair of a Joseph Addison or a Samuel Johnson. The Essays won him the popular acclaim he sought, eventually erasing what Hume called “my former disappointment,” and it was the Essays that he encouraged even his most educated readers to buy.

thisarticleappearsThe same purposes rest at the heart of Hume’s The History of England. Hume believed that his philosophy provided him with an impartial perspective, with which he could write a history that would be read, as Harris explains, “in the study but also in … [the] drawing room and coffee house.” On display throughout the History is Hume’s virulent anti-dogmatism. Hume disdained the popular Whiggish reading of the English past, writing, instead, a history of politics that was “willing to offend everyone,” Whig and Tory alike. He rejected the idea of an ancient constitution in England, as well as the legitimacy of the divine right of kings, dismissing both of the political philosophies that dominated the English Civil War. For Hume, the Tudors and Stuarts were all tyrants, and Oliver Cromwell was no better, appearing in the History as a power-hungry “hypocrite,” who justified his misdeeds by “religious inspiration.” In the end, Hume achieved something unique in the historiography of his time. His History was, in Harris’s words, an “emotional engagement with the victims of history” that entertained his readers without fitting neatly into any existing political narrative.

It is this sense of Hume’s inapproachability—the fact that he does not fit any comfortable categories—that sets Harris’s biography apart, capturing something of the philosopher that is so easily forgotten. Like his mausoleum, Hume imposes himself upon the Western intellectual skyline, yet as Harris reminds us, “he had no disciples and propagated no school.” Humeans have been hard to come by in the last two centuries. This is not only due to the fact that Hume’s philosophy is not systematic but also due to Hume’s steady anti-dogmatism, regardless of whether the dogma was Rousseau’s view of human society or the Christian view of salvation. While Hume could boast of having many friends and many readers who marveled at his intellectual travels, he remains a supremely solitary figure, alone at sea in his “leaky weather-beaten vessel.”

David J. Davis is assistant professor of history, and director of the Masters in Liberal Arts program, at Houston Baptist University.

Burkean Politics Don’t Keep Win-Loss Records

In an otherwise strong review of Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate, Elizabeth Corey sets conservatism on the wrong footing in relation to liberalism.

First, let me say that Corey is quite right that “the essence of the conflict” between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine can be found in their “different orientations toward the entirety of human experience.” Furthermore, I agree with her that “most people who call themselves conservative” are actually followers of the ideologically-oriented Paine. Most conservatives “are concerned with efficiency, problem-solving, and changing the world.” Most “have qualms about technology … but we no longer resist it.” Most are willing to “give up on the rule of law as an ideal and promote policies that encourage our own favored outcomes.”

I agree with Corey’s general assessment of the current state of political conservativism. As Mark Signorelli recently commented about Corey’s piece, “We occupy a political order determined not merely by liberal ideas, but by liberal emotions.” Taking this one step further, I would say that the current political climate mirrors G.K. Chesterton’s definition of a maniac. The maniac is a “clean and well-lit prison of one idea: he is sharpened to one painful point. He is without healthy hesitation and healthy complexity.” Without the kind of hesitation that comes with concern and care for tradition and the recognition of human complexity, our public discourse plunges into the gloom of rancor, vituperation, and indifference to others’ opinions.

There is, however, a mistaken notion that Corey puts forward in addition to her review. She writes that “in most respects, and particularly in politics, it appears that Paine has won the day.” While I wholeheartedly support Corey’s conclusion that what we need is a “reorientation of the modern soul,” I fail to see how Corey’s capitulation that “Paine has won” is at all necessary or helpful.

In an effort to make her point, Corey gives the discussion over to the kind of slavish power discourse of winning that is all-too-often misappropriated today. Here, the misappropriation is blatantly apparent. What game were Burke and Paine playing? What has Paine won? Was Burke not informed about the competition? What were the rules? When did it end? Will there be a rematch?

An essential aspect of the conservative mind is the belief that society and civilization are neither competitions nor games to be won or lost. They are not contests between hostile ideas or policies or movements. In Reflections on the Revolutions in France, Burke defined society as “a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection.” The basic contours of this kind of partnership—things like justice, charity, fellowship, temperance, and patience—build a lasting civilization. Read More…

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Adam Smith, Communitarian

illustration by Michael Hogue

Legend has it that at the age of four, Adam Smith was kidnapped from his Scottish home by a traveling band of gypsies. A gentleman passing the gypsies on the road noticed the crying baby and alerted town officials, who rescued young Adam hours later. Of this near tragedy, Smith’s 19th-century biographer John Rae sardonically commented that it was very fortunate because Smith “would have made … a poor gipsy.”

This story is where Jack Russell Weinstein begins a fascinating examination of Smith’s moral philosophy. He is convinced that in a way Smith’s philosophy continues to be held hostage by political pundits and intellectuals on the right and the left. In his academically rich study, Weinstein argues that the significance of Smith’s sweeping exploration of human virtue has been eclipsed by countless oversimplified readings of his economics. Weinstein believes, however, that in the modern world of diversity and multiculturalism it is Smith’s moral philosophy that we need more than his economics.

Ever since 1776, the first year of its publication, The Wealth of Nations has proved more popular than Smith’s first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith’s emphasis on free markets, his colorful metaphors like the invisible hand, and his farsighted expectations for the industrial revolution have made Wealth of Nations essential reading in our market-based, technologically-driven world.

This favoritism for Wealth of Nations has made Smith a “widely misunderstood” thinker, according to Weinstein. Smith is too often positioned as the godfather of “unfettered markets, libertarian governments, interactions solely for the purpose of satisfaction, and atomistic cosmopolitanism.” What has been lost is Smith’s “clarion call for personal relationships” as the basis for human society and his advocacy for a functioning pluralism—though Smith did not use the term—that is at the heart of Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Adam Smith’s Pluralism is the first volume in a trilogy Weinstein intends to write on Smith. Here he proposes a “Smithian shift” in contemporary liberal theory, emphasizing Smith’s key principle of sympathy and his efforts to find a method of achieving harmony in the disparate motives and passions of individuals. The book pays particular attention to the roots of Smith’s moral philosophy found in the works of Thomas Hobbes, the Earl of Shaftesbury, Bernard Mandeville, and David Hume. With this context and his own mastery of Smith’s writings, Weinstein hopes to rescue Smith’s moral philosophy from a host of abductors and put it to work for the 21st century.

After briefly bemoaning the deformation of Smith’s philosophy at the hands of political pundits, Weinstein offers a critical assessment of previous literature on Smith. Many scholars have investigated what is known now as the Adam Smith Problem, which pits the altruism of Theory of Moral Sentiments against the self-interest of Wealth of Nations, demanding from Smith’s thought a singular, overarching cause to explain human action. This oversimplified perspective, Weinstein contends, fails to see Smith’s promotion of “multiple motives,” which Smith believed were not only “essential” for society but also consistent with human nature.

Weinstein also takes issue with philosophers like John Rawls and Alasdair MacIntyre who, in their different ways, “badly misrepresent Smith.” For Weinstein, however, the greatest impediment to a thorough appreciation of Smith’s moral philosophy is the specter of Immanuel Kant. Weinstein points to Kant as an unfortunate addition to liberalism’s intellectual framework:

many of liberalism’s shortcomings are the product of its Kantian foundation. The conceptions of autonomy and universal reason that Rawls and others build on do not allow for complex notions of identity, political consideration of affection for individual persons, the importance of subjectivity, the emotions in moral and political commitments, and variations in human reason.

Assertions like this alone make the book worthwhile. To appreciate Smith fully, Weinstein rightly suggests, we must dispose of Kant’s quest for singularity and uniformity and, following thinkers like MacIntyre, acknowledge the permanent reality of differing moral traditions.

Much of the book is spent illustrating Smith’s appreciation for the kind of variety and depth in human nature and reason that is absent from the Kantian tradition. Smith, Weinstein argues, did not bifurcate the human faculties of reason and emotion, which is why any attempt to develop a single Smithian motivation for human action is erroneous. Reason and emotion are too interlinked in the human condition to be separated. This is why Smith distrusted any logical or analytical approach to human society that demoted emotion and intuition to a second or third tier of experience. Weinstein explains that for Smith, far from emotions being the antithesis of reason, they regularly “initiate, are the consequence of, and are often indistinguishable from reason.”

The complexity that Smith sees in human reason flows over into his study of human society. Smith refused to accept the cynical view of human nature propounded by Hobbes and Mandeville. Yet he was also a moral realist who acknowledged human vice and vanity, which were at odds with an equally evident inclination toward virtue. Following from this, in a particularly insightful portion of the book Weinstein completely discredits any purely economic reading of Smith. He contends that “life is not a marketplace” for Smith. Instead, “it is often familial, pedagogical, spiritual, and natural; it is only sometimes commercial.” Competition and self-interest were means to an end, not ends in themselves. Rather, Weinstein sees the healthy notion of harmony as the most dominant ideal running through Smith’s philosophy.

Weinstein builds upon Smithian harmony, explaining that while life is not always commercial, it is always communal. Community, in turn, derives its lifeblood from “imagination,” because imagination creates the capacity for sympathy. Unlike Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers, Smith “presumes human difference” as a necessary and inherent aspect of civilization, rejecting the Kantian ideal of “noncontextual normativity.” Smith recognized that cultural, temporal, and social differences shaped norms and values, making it impossible to create a single, all-inclusive norm of human behavior. This is why sympathy is so important. It offers a means that is natural to the human condition—our desire to commiserate with our fellow man—to bridge the gap between our differences.

Smith believed that “political society is not derived from a social contract,” according to Weinstein. Instead, society is a natural expression of what it means to be human. The state of nature for Smith is one of community, and the ultimate questions related to human society are questions of morality and virtue, not economics and politics. Thus, a broad, morally robust education rooted in a particular community is essential to forming sympathetic individuals. While Smith did not idealize the role of education—it could not completely eliminate human selfishness and vanity—he believed it had the power to “direct vanity to proper objects” and to “convert competing passions into a harmonious character.”

The role of language is an essential component of Smith’s moral philosophy because it is the fundamental connection between the individual and the community. In his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, Smith expounded on the virtue of both poetry and prose, which “provide the capacity for exchange and agreement” in different contexts of human relations. It is in the sections of Adam Smith’s Pluralism on the importance of language that Shaftesbury’s influence on Smith shines through the strongest, particularly with Shaftesbury’s stress on language as a vehicle for unifying “the good and the beautiful.”

Language is so basic to Smith’s moral philosophy that toward the end of the book Weinstein feels compelled to contend with Michel Foucault and the postmodern critique of the discontinuity between language and reality. Though interesting, this chapter is something of a belabored effort, as Weinstein’s examination finishes with the same stalemate as everyone else who contends with the postmodernists. In Weinstein’s words, “Smith may have nothing to say” to them, “but they, in turn, have no means of refutation.” Web issue image

Adam Smith’s Pluralism is a refreshing study of Smith, but it is not without its problems. Weinstein neglects the relevance of Smith’s metaphysics, dismissively referring to “whatever the metaphysics that underlie Smith’s system.” Further on, in an attempt to assure the reader that Smith’s pluralism can transcend its Judeo-Christian heritage, he asserts, “there appears to be no divine revelation for Smith.” If this is true, it is neither self-evident in Smith nor evident in Weinstein’s analysis. Nor does Weinstein address such obvious influences on Smith’s metaphysics as Isaac Newton’s natural theology, which is essential to Smith’s baseline understanding of a created order in both the moral and physical universe.

If this were another exposition of Smith as the grand economist, then the neglect would be acceptable. But Smith’s principle of sympathy is rooted in metaphysical assumptions about human nature and society and their purpose in absolute reality. Without this foundation, the argument for sympathy as a compass for morality, as well as a mediator of competing motivations, loses much of its potency. The liberal who embraces Smith’s sympathy but refuses to deal with his metaphysics must do so either arbitrarily—sympathy being as good a guiding principle as any other—or, as Steven D. Smith has argued in The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, surreptitiously, smuggling in certain beliefs about human nature without explanation or defense. Either way, the options are quite pale and shallow.

Nevertheless, even without Smith’s metaphysics, this is an invigorating reorientation of liberal theory. There are striking similarities to Burke’s moral imagination, which is particularly evident in Weinstein’s analysis of the intersections of beauty, language, and moral choice. Weinstein rescues Smith’s moral philosophy from its economically obsessed captors will prove an extraordinary blessing for conservative and liberal alike.

David J. Davis is assistant professor in history at Houston Baptist University and author of Seeing Faith, Printing Pictures: Religious Identity During the English Reformation.