David Hume is commonly considered to be the greatest (or at least most influential) philosopher to ever write in the English language. Hume's esteemed place within the history of Western philosophy seems like it might be a verification of Nietzsche's offhand remark that great thinkers are often untimely -- that the radically of real philosophers can only be appreciated with the perspective that only temporal and cultural difference can bring. After all, during his lifetime Hume was better known as the writer of a magnificent six-volume history of England than for any philosophical works he produced. Of course, the staunchly empirical character of Hume's thought was more than a little disconcerting to his contemporaries even those that admired the narrative grace found in his History of England. That is to say, when you argue that our knowledge of miracles and God is to be judged on the same level (i.e. sensuously) as knowledge about everyday objects you are going to ruffle a few feathers. In his day Hume was considered too controversial to ever receive an academic appointment; today he is required reading in most introduction to philosophy courses. However, while time may have softened our view of Hume, it has certainly done little to dull the sharpness of philosophical skill.
Harold Noonan's short volume Hume (Oneworld Publications 2007) is an admirable introduction to the general trajectory of Hume's philosophy. Noonan's strategy is to treat Hume not only as a powerful figure in the philosophical cannon deserving of attention in his own right, but also as a valued interlocutor that has things to say to us even today. This is a wise move on Noonan's part. Many of the issues that concerned Hume still matter to us today, from what we can say about the ultimate reality of empirical science to the strained relationship between science and religion. On this last point Hume is especially contemporary: Many of the counterarguments Hume employed against so-called arguments from design (or that the world obviously demonstrates an intricacy that only an intelligence could have accomplished) are still in circulation today in the works of intellectuals such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Indeed, Hume is something of a patron saint to defenders of both secular government and education. Noonan himself uses such controversies to his advantage in his reconstruction of Hume's various arguments on such controversial topics. Of course, Noonan does not do this at the expensive of neglecting the immediate concerns of Hume's day. Noonan is careful to contextualize Hume's thought while at the same time reflecting on its continued relevance. Again, it is a wise strategy that pays off for Noonan.
Stylistically Noonan's presentation is clear, he mostly leaves technical terms to the side in favor of a vocabulary friendly to a general reader. When he does decide to utilize a specialized word from Hume's work he is quick to spell out its meaning in everyday language. Though Noonan does sacrifice some scholarly rigor in order to make Hume comprehensible to the general intelligent reader, he by and large offers thorough and accurate explanations for many of Hume's most complicated positions.
The book itself is divided into 7 thematic sections that cover everything from Hume's life to his theory of personal identity. This approach is itself virtuous, since each section can more or less be read independently from the others it makes an ideal point of access for someone interested in only one or two aspects of Hume's philosophy. So, if you need to get a quick account of Hume's famous analysis of cause and effect, but do not have the time to wade through an entire book in order to grasp it then Noonan's volume may be of great use. I am not, however, sure Noonan's book will be as interesting to Hume scholars or to those with an already substantial background in Hume though. Noonan gives us the classical portrait of Hume and makes few controversial claims regarding the master Scottish thinker. It is asking a little much for any interpretive study to both introduce a thinker to an entirely new audience and say something interpretatively audacious at the same time.
Noonan's book does have its shortcomings though. Though the thematic presentation of Hume's philosophy is well done it tends to leave you with the feeling that Hume's thought came fully developed, changing little over his life. While it is true that Hume's first major publication, A Treatise of Human Nature, lays the groundwork for much of his philosophical system it is misleading to suggest his thought did not become more nuanced and exhibit some fairly substantial changes throughout his life. Additionally, the various secondary texts and general interpretive prejudices Noonan relies on are almost exclusively Anglo-American. While interest in Hume is certainly stronger in English speaking countries there is a rich tradition of Hume commentary in both Germany and France that is more or less ignored. In particular, Noonan's general characterization of Hume could have only benefited by taking into account Gilles Deleuze's masterful commentary on Hume, Empiricism and Subjectivity. Deleuze gives us a Hume that is less mechanical and determined in his thought -- a Hume whose philosophy is overflowing with contingency. This may be asking too much of a book whose purpose is to introduce readers to Hume's thought, but it is still a shortcoming that seems all to prevalent in almost all introductions to Hume in English.
All in all, Noonan's Hume would be an excellent choice for somebody who wishes to learn a little something about Hume, but is unable to devote large amounts of time to study. It is clear in its style and in the presentation of Hume's arguments, but still manages to do justice to their complexity. While it may not do much for Hume specialists, it may help those same specialists present Hume in a clearer light to the uninitiated. While it relies a bit to heavily on English interpretations of Hume to gain its general orientation, this is a fault that is not unique to it in Hume secondary literature. Finally, Noonan's Hume would make a fine purchase for those interested in getting an overview of Hume as well as those that wish to present Hume -- in the classroom or otherwise -- in a more clearheaded manner.
© 2007 Adam Hutchinson
Adam Hutchinson is currently a PhD student in philosophy at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA.