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.
The 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.