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Sunday, December 6, 2009

OF CONVENTIONS, NEIGHBORS, AND DAVID HUME

In A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume observes that agreements can arise from unspoken habits and repetitions of behavior, without explicit promises. He writes, "Two men, who pull the oars, do it by an agreement or convention, tho' they have never given promises to each other." [Book III, Part II, Section ii, for those of my readers who wish to consult the greatest work of philosophy ever written in the English language.]

Susie and I live in a three story condominium building, the first floor of which is occupied by commercial establishments. In all, there are eight apartments, four on each of the second and third floors. We are in one of the third floor condos. Each morning, two different deliverers drop two copies of the NY TIMES and three of the Wall Street Journal near the back door. [This is the first place I have lived in my entire life where the TIMES is delivered, but that is another story entirely]. As I am an early riser, I see all of these papers when I go out for my morning walk. A while ago, I discovered that the young woman at the end of our hallway is the other TIMES subscriber, and I fell into the habit of bringing up her paper, along with mine, when I came back from my walk, and dropping it in front of her door. Then, a bit later, I noticed that the WSJs have mailing labels, which identified which apartments they go to, so I brought them up as well and dropped them off on the second and third floors.

One morning, I did not go out for a walk [my old legs were aching]. When I finally stepped out of my apartment, there was my NY TIMES at my door. With not a word spoken, my neighhbors and I have collectively fallen into an agreement that the first one up will bring up everyone's paper.

Hume traces the origins of the concepts of property, obligation, and right to just such habitual patterns of reciprocal accommodation and cooperation, thereby setting himself against the social contract tradition then dominant in English langiage political theorizing.

To this day, I have not seen the inside of my neighbors' apartments, nor they mine -- very New York of us, quite unSouthern, in fact. And yet, the very first suggestion of an implicit social contract has sprouted.

Now then, what has this to do with Afghanistan or health care reform? Not a thing.

2 comments:

NotHobbes said...

As do most of population of Edinburgh, we live in a "stair" or 19th century apartment block. There are 7 other residents in our stair and we have a similar unwritten contract regarding the cleaning, disinfecting of the old stone stairway(Laborious, tedius, back breaking-but necessary)
Residents generally clean their section of the stair and the hallways both above and below(There is no agreed time nor rota, it just happens as and when required)
A peculiar thing though; the young woman living on the top floor will only clean directly outside of her apartment-not a single step further.
I wonder if such instances of non-conformity have ever been the subject of investigation?

Maciek said...

In Poland social contract isn't popular theory or legitimation of the state power or social institutions. There is no contractual tradition at all. I think, in the former history of Poland it will be hard to find so evident events, which could be interpreted as contract, like in USA history. But the way of Poland from real socialism to today's democracy seems to be really contractual. But not in Humean - conventional and "game theoretical" - sense; more in the sense of historical contract (like Mayflower c.), or in the Rousseau's sense of second "just contract".
Ps. Suwalki this is today a centre of the (in my opinion) most beautifull part of Poland - Suwalszczyzna (Suwalstchisna?). I was there many times and I like this part of Poland very much. I live in Lodz, town in a centre of Poland, but I have a family in Augustow (near of Suwalki). If it is not too personal question, I'am very interested, what was the reason, that Your Father's family went to USA, Mr. Professor.