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Natural Philosopher

The skeptical mind, and sympathetic character, of David Hume.

Apr 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 28 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
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After pretending to study law, and abandoning a brief attempt to work for a sugar importer in Bristol, David Hume, the second son of a prominent Edinburgh family, decided to return home and live with his mother, sister, and brother. He was then in his early twenties, and his mother had this to say about him: “A fine good-natured creature but uncommon wake-minded [weak-minded].” He went on to become one of the two most influential thinkers to emerge from the Scottish Enlightenment, with his friend Adam Smith, and something more. David Hume (1711-1776) is probably the greatest philosopher to have written in English.

David Hume

Portrait of David Hume by Allan Ramsey


He disturbed the philosophical peace. It was reading Hume, Kant said, that awakened him from his dogmatic slumbers. He consummated the empiricism developed by Locke and Berkeley while casting its premises into doubt. And in the middle of the Age of Reason, he said reason alone couldn’t give us motivation or morality. 

But unless you’re a hidebound metaphysician, or a very confident rationalist, you aren’t likely, after a few hours with Hume, to stagger out of the room, your ordinary world suddenly upended. Just the opposite: He may plunge you into skeptical bewilderment, but only to pull you back to familiar habits, instincts, attachments, and customs.

What might be the most famous passage he wrote conveys that exact maneuver. After pursuing his subversive analysis of experience to the point where the world and the self seem about to disappear forever in a blur of transient mental events, he writes:

Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium. .  .  . I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when, after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find it in my heart to enter into them any further.

Hume didn’t think we could reason our way to ultimate reality, and wasn’t interested in authenticity. He did spend some time with someone who was: Rousseau, who repaid his characteristic kindness, and his generous help in getting the Swiss vagabond safely to exile in England, with peevish complaints and paranoid accusations. They didn’t quarrel over ideas, but Rousseau made a hugely influential opposition between authentic nature and inauthentic society, and Hume did not. Social pursuits and pleasures were, for him, natural pursuits and pleasures.

But Hume did write, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” He made the feeling of sympathy the basis of morality. He thus contributed something to the change (usually charged to Rousseau’s account) from the traditional ideal of a reason-ruled moral life to one in which moral purpose and meaning come from inner feelings.

But since Hume’s own feelings were those of a broad-minded 18th-century British Tory, with pride of possession conspicuous among the “natural passions” he enumerated, he doesn’t come across as radical, or as what turgid academic theorists would call a “transgressive” thinker. Like his far more unsystematic but equally conservative skeptical predecessor, Montaigne, he substitutes character and instinct and social convention for reason and abstract virtue. Like Montaigne, Hume was an oracle of the ordinary.

Hume is still inspiring and vexing professional philosophers, especially those in the Anglo-American analytic tradition. But lacking the tremulous life-changing urgency of a Pascal or Kierkegaard or Nietzsche, he doesn’t often tempt the general reader. In this compact introduction to his life and thought, Annette C. Baier, a professor emerita of philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh and clearly a Hume fan, attempts to tempt. She goes over his major ideas without the usual analytic fretwork, making them accessible and interesting, although Bertrand Russell’s chapter on Hume in his History of Western Philosophy still gives you a better idea of what was at stake and what their consequences have been. The only thing missing is an adequate discussion of the essays, especially those on taste and on tragedy, which can be read as Hume’s brief but strong foray into aesthetics and a persuasive account of the power that art can have over us.

The best thing about this book is the way Baier captures and contemplates, with the help of excerpts from an autobiographical sketch Hume wrote, the odder episodes of his mostly even-keeled life. There’s his first stay in France, for instance, where in his mid-twenties he spent three years writing his first and greatest book, a monument of philosophical and ethical naturalism called A Treatise of Human Nature, while using the library of a nearby Jesuit college. She imagines “the large, clumsy, studious young Scot, with his poor French,” arguing the improbability of miracles with the surprised Jesuits.

It took Hume a year of looking in London to find someone willing to publish it, and then, he said, “it fell dead-born from the press.” His other philosophical works didn’t do much better, but his essays, his Political Discourses, and his massive and sometimes slyly satirical History of England brought him enough money to settle in a handsome house (still standing in Edinburgh) between stays in continental Europe, where he served as secretary to a British general and was a frequent and genial guest welcomed as le bon David in the freethinking salons of Paris.

There a married aristocratic lady called Hippolyte de Saujon, Comtesse de Bouffleurs, openly flirted with him. But Hume politely retreated, preferring the more rough-hewn company of Scotland to French finesse and intrigue. He never married. His one marriage proposal was spurned, but he was no solitary sage. He was, in his own description, “a man of mild dispositions .  .  . of an open, social and cheerful humour,” and he had many loyal friends and avoided intellectual feuds despite his sharply ironic religious skepticism.

Though he deployed it against miracles in a famous essay, and against what is now known as intelligent design in his posthumously published Dialogues on Natural Religion, it was real skepticism, not militant atheism, and he didn’t presume to tell people what to believe; he just resisted the efforts of “enthusiasts” of all stripes to impose their own beliefs. The blasphemies of the Parisian philosophes, Baier thinks, made him uncomfortable. And he would have despised the rationalist fanatics who turned the French Revolution into a massacre.

But before dying in the year that America declared her independence, he was already sympathetic to the far more moderate American cause. Benjamin Franklin visited him in Edinburgh, and Hume, noting the resistance to his work in Scotland, England, and Ireland, wrote to him, “I fancy that I must have recourse to America for justice.” This casual but compelling little book helps prove him right.

Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.

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