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Sunday, August 28, 2011


David Hume was born in Edinburgh in 1711 and died there sixty-five years later. [Old joke among philosophy graduate students: How can you remember the date, 1776, of Hume's death? Answer: It is the same year that Adam Smith published An Inquiry Concerning the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.] Hume came from what today we would call a middle-class family -- his father was an advocate -- and he never married, supporting himself very modestly by a number of positions as tutor or private secretary, and later by the royalties from his books. He attended Edinburgh University at a very early age -- twelve, or perhaps younger, rather than fourteen, which was the norm. At university, he immediately took to philosophy, eschewing the legal studies which his parents had planned for him. The two great influences on him, as on many young thinkers of that period, were the exciting new physical theories of Newton and others, and the philosophical theories of John Locke, whose Essay Concerning Human Understanding was published in 1690. For anyone interested in the details of Hume's life, I strongly recommend the definitive biography, The Life of David Hume, by E. C. Mossner, which appeared in 1954. There is of course a vast literature on Hume's philosophy, and I shall not even try to comment on it. As I have several times indicated, my own essay on the Treatise can be found at, accessible from this website.

At an astonishingly early age, Hume conceived the idea of writing a full-scale systematic investigation of the cognitive and emotional capacities of the human mind, and he plunged into this work with such intensity that he seems to have come close to a breakdown in his very early twenties. He went to France both to recuperate and to continue his work, there spending some time talking with Jesuit philosophers. While still in his twenties, he brought his efforts to completion in the form of a three volume work entitled A Treatise of Human Nature. The work was published anonymously, the first two volumes in 1739, the third in 1740. The three volumes are entitled "Of the Understanding," "Of the Passions," and "Of Morals" -- roughly speaking epistemology, psychology, and ethics.

The work was not kindly received by reviewers, a fact that Hume felt very, very keenly, inasmuch as he had at that early age committed himself to a life as an author and philosopher. In 1955, newly returned from my European wanderjahr and embarked on the writing of my doctoral dissertation, I amused myself by roaming the stacks of Widener Library at Harvard, pulling down volumes of 18th century English and German literary journals and looking for contemporaneous reviews of the Treatise and the Critique. In the November/December 1939 issue of a journal called A History of the Works of the Learned, I found an anonymous review cited by Mossner and Kemp-Smith of Book I of the Treatise, which had appeared in January of that year. "It was in most ways a review calculated to dissuade the young author from any career connected with the investigation of philosophical problems." [I am here quoting from my own doctoral dissertation.] "Two quotations will suffice to give the tone of the piece:

"... a Man, who has never had the pleasure of reading Mr. Locke's incomparable Essay, will peruse our author with much less Disgust, than those can who have been used to the irresistible Reasoning and wonderful Perspicacity of that admirable writer."

And: "I have afore hinted the mighty value of this Discovery (i.e., "that all our ideas are copied from our impressions"), the Honour of which is intirely due to our Author [the whole review is written in this sarcastic, ironical tone], but it cannot be too often inculcated. I verily think, if it were closely pursued, it would lead us to several inestimable Desiderata, such as the perpetual motion, the grand Elixir, a Dissolvent of the Stone, etc."

I concluded my discussion by remarking that "[t]he entire review proceeds in this manner. Its saving feature is the reasonably accurate, though completely unsympathetic, summary given of the principal doctrines of Book I. On the whole, we can forgive the reviewer who was faced with the impossible task of reading, comprehending, and commenting on one of the great philosophical works of all time, within the short span of ten months after its publication. But this must have been small comfort to the man who wrote late in his life that 'my love of literary fame (was) my ruling passion.' "

Despite his unpromising debut as an author, Hume did in fact achieve very great renown as a writer. Surprisingly, at least to someone like me who knows Hume as a philosopher, far and away his most successful publication was a six volume History of England. I have read long stretches of it and it is, to this modern reader, an utterly tedious recitation of kings, dukes, princes, earls, wars, and dynasties, going all the way back to Roman times, with none of the fascinating economic, social, cultural, or institutional analysis that makes History these days the most accomplished of the humanistic disciplines. But there was in Hume's day nothing at all like it. It can, I think, reasonably claim to be the first major work of British historiography. [Gibbon's Decline and Fall, which is far greater as a work of historiography, did not begin to appear until the year of Hume's death, twenty-years after the History.] Hume also published several very popular collections of essays, in which he discussed a wide range of topics, including economic theory. I shall have something to say about several of them, in particular one elegant essay entitled "Of Miracles." As I have already indicated, Hume also recast the doctrines of the Treatise in two shorter works, the Enquiry Concerning the Human Understanding and the companion Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, but these were not much better received than the Treatise. The Enquiry Concerning the Human Understanding, incidentally, is in several very important regards different from the corresponding passages in the Treatise, and I shall in due course talk about that some.

Hume's other great work, the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, was composed by him well before his death. Indeed, he seems to have written drafts of a portion of it as early as 1751. But its doctrines were so likely to give offense to a nation that had an established religion [the Anglican Church] that Hume's friends, among them Adam Smith, prevailed upon him not to publish, and the Dialogues did not appear until his nephew, serving as literary executor, brought it out in 1779, three years after Hume's death. I shall have a good deal to say about the Dialogues after I have finished talking about the Treatise.

Tomorrow I shall launch into a systematic discussion of the Treatise, but I should like first to say a bit more about Hume the man. Not all great philosophers have been admirable human beings [one thinks of Nietzsche, for example, or even of Marx], but Hume was, it seems to me, in every way a truly good man. I should very much like to have had the opportunity to spend an evening in his presence.

It was not, I am afraid, a very imposing presence. Hume had a flabby body and a face very much like a pudding. Mossner's biography has as its frontispiece a 1754 portrait of Hume dressed a la turque, which was then all the style. It is not flattering. By way of contrast, the portrait I have seen of Kant shows him to have been a little man with a pigeon breast and a sharp face. I often think that God got them switched when it came time to match souls with bodies. Kant's little body housed the most powerful mind in Europe, and Hume's great pudding of a body contained a light, agile, quick mind.

Hume was a genial, good-natured man, much beloved of the young ladies, who liked at soirees to sit on his lap and tease him. The French called him le bon David. Trying to imagine what the world looked like to him at these social gatherings, I find myself thinking of Jane Austen and Emily Dickenson, two other powerful, agile, penetrating intellects who seemed to the rest of the world to be inoffensive, and retiring. "I am nobody/ Who are you?" as one of Dickenson's most famous poems begins.

Quite the most famous incident in Hume's generally uneventful life involved Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Genevois enfant terrible whose Of the Social Contract and Emile electrified intellectual Europe. Hume met Rousseau in Paris, and when Rousseau's revolutionary doctrines made him persona non grata with the ancient regime, Hume undertook to use what little influence he had at the English court to arrange a royal pension for Jean-Jacques. Rousseau came to England, more or less under Hume's sponsorship, and almost immediately [Rousseau was certifiable] formed the paranoid conviction that Hume was secretly plotting against him. Rousseau began to write letters to English literary figures, impugning Hume's character and his literary reputation. Hume was furious. Finally, Rousseau made a mad dash for one of the Channel ports and fled back to France while Hume fumed and all Europe laughed.

It sometimes surprises students that Hume lived much of his life in Edinburgh, rather than relocating permanently to London, but in the middle and later eighteenth century, Scotland was experiencing a literary and intellectual flourishing, often referred to as the "Scottish Renaissance," and though Hume was one of its leading lights, there were many other important figures who had been born in Scotland, including Thomas Reid, Frances Hutcheson, and of course Adam Smith. As I believe I observed during my tutorial on The First Critique, this circle of thinkers had a direct influence on Kant through the intermediation of Scottish merchants who, when they brought their wares to the North Prussian port city of Konigsberg, would inform Kant of the latest intellectual developments in Scotland.

I think that is enough by way of introduction. In the next Part, I shall begin my commentary on the Treatise. If any of you would like to read the Treatise as I proceed, and I urge you to do so, the indispensable edition is by L. A. Selby-Bigge, which includes an extraordinary index, worth the price of the book all by itself.


Chris said...

I think it's fair to say that unlike Hume and Kant, Marx philosophy matches his picture!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Quite true. He was, in a way, a real style setter in radical fashion. Although he actually led a very quiet and sedentary life, he managed to imprint on the European consciousness the image of the radical bomb thrower. A nice parlor game for a lazy Sunday afternoon is conjuring up the pictures of great thinkers and seeing whether they match their thoughts. Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein do rather well in that regard, I think.

imcdpe said...

I went on Amazon looking for the Selby-Bigge edition, and noticed many comments there recommending the Oxford edition by the Nortons. Any reasons to prefer one to the other?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Sine the book was written in English, obviously any edition is fine. I am partial both to the Selby-Bigge index and also to the sheer feel and look of the book -- an important consideration for me. But obviosuly it doesn't make a great deal of difference.

Unknown said...

I've heard some horror stories about the Norton edition of the Treatise from one of my professors (and she is primarily a Hume scholar, so I trust her judgment).

It seems that the Nortons changed some of Hume's words in order to mask what they regarded as inconsistencies in his text. The Selby-Bigge edition contains what Hume actually wrote, and for that reason it is probably to be preferred.

Michael said...

Would it be entirely unreasonable for
me to read Enquiries first (mostly since I already have them...) or is the Treatise a better elaboration of Hume's thought?
Also I think you mean "Ancien" regime, not "Ancient," since the meaning is somewhat different.
Michael M.(Not the one who posted above!)

Chris said...

Michael I read the enquiry in two days because tue sheer genius and clarity was overwhelming and engaging. If it's already in your possession, make haste ;)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Changed the words? Good God. I suppose their edition of Beethoven's quartets has altered the key signatures and they have put van Gogh's ear back. Sigh.

ancien, indeed. My bad.

I am going to focus on the Treatise, but obviously it cannot hurt to read the Enquiries. Section X of the first Enquiry ["Of Miracles"] is a gem. read it all!!!

Unknown said...

Looks like there's once again two Michaels posting. For some reason, I can't figure out how to add K (the initial of my last name) via Google Mail. If anybody has any suggestions, please let me know. Otherwise, I'll simply sign my posts with the "K" added.

Chris said...

Professor Wolff,
Will you be going into Hume's darker side as well? Caveat; Hume ranks in my top three favorite philosophers to read, quote, and all around accept as setting guiding stones for my own path in philosophy. Praise aside, I've heard he was terribly and irrationally racist, and extremely conservative (politically). Will these less than appealing attributes come forth in your introduction into Hume? Maybe the racism isn't highly pertinent, but I always found the notion that he was conservative to be quite vexing, considering he's also quite affable, genial, gregarious, and skeptical.

Angus said...

Have you ever read the letter Adam Smith wrote when Hume died? The peroration is extremely touching:

"His temper, indeed, seemed to be more happily balanced, if I may be allowed such an expression, than that perhaps of any other man I have ever known. Even in the lowest state of his fortune, his great and necessary frugality never hindered him from exercising, upon proper occasions, acts both of charity and generosity. It was a frugality founded, not upon avarice, but upon the love of independency. The extreme gentleness of his nature never weakened either the firmness of his mind or he steadiness of his resolutions. His constant pleasantry was the genuine effusion of good nature and good humour, tempered with delicacy and modesty, and without even the slightest tincture of malignity, so frequently the disagreeable source of what is called wit in other men. It never was the meaning of his raillery to mortify; and, therefore, far from offending, it seldom failed to please and delight, even those who were the objects of it. To his friends, who were frequently the objects of it, there was not perhaps any one of all his great and amiable qualities, which contributed more to endear his conversation. And that gaiety of temper, so agreeable in society, but which is so often accompanied with frivolous and superficial qualities, was in him certainly attended with the most severe application, the most extensive learning, the greatest depth of thought, and a capacity in every respect the most comprehensive. Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit."

The whole letter is online here:

Angus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert Paul Wolff said...

That is really wonderful. I had totally forgotten it, although, since Mossner quotes from it extensively in his last chapter, I obviously read it some time half a century and more ago. Thank you for bringing it to my attention [and to the attention of readers of this blog.]