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HumeReview - Hume
An Intellectual Biography
by James A. Harris
Cambridge University Press, 2015
Review by A. P. Bober
Feb 2nd 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 5)

Though Harris details Hume's views on ideas, impressions, passions, cause, history, religion, and morals, the reader should know he presents a kaleidoscope--"the development of Hume's ideas through time is a principal concern of this book. . . ." (xiii)--rather than evaluates them systematically. The reader needs no skill at philosophic disassembly. He believes the work to be "the first intellectual biography of Hume . . . [making the] "attempt to give a complete picture of . . . the full range of his writings. . . ." (vii); Hume's main biographer, Mossner, writes ' "for a reader less interested in the ideas than in the man".' (ix) Behind that word "range" lie hundreds of pages revealing Hume as a fiercely independent underminer of cant in complex tension with his own natural affability, sense of practical moderation, concern for reputation, and desire to support, as social scientists say, the cohesive effect of religion as "the flywheel of society," despite his nuanced relation to atheism. He (51) simply had "[no] emotional . . . need for religion. . . ." He disfavored our philosophical counseling: ethics as therapy, medicine for the mind (265).

The reader best previews the text through the introduction, the afterword, and enough of the first chapter to counterpose Shaftesbury's influence to that of Bernard Mandeville and Bayle, followed, perhaps, by a sifting of the extensive endnotes for insights. For Harris (2) Hume "is best seen . . . as . . . a philosophical man of letters . . . who wrote on human nature, on politics, on religion, and on the history of England. . . ." rather than in our sense of letters as literary. Harris questions (12-13) any fundamental continuity to his thought (14): We best "take each of Hume's major works on its own terms, as an independent and distinct expression of its author's genius . . . if we are to diminish the temptation to regard any one of those works as plainly more important than the rest." Those works include, of twenty (575-77): Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, The History of England, as well as, out of concern for attack, the posthumous Essay on Suicide and the Immortality of the Soul. Again (25): "We can say . . . both that Hume never gave up on philosophy and that there was nothing systematic about the manner in which he chose . . . topics. . . ." Harris emphasizes Hume's ambivalence toward his early Treatise of Human Nature as well as his misgivings about publishing works that might incite religious dogmatists wishing to exclude him either from presbyteries or from academic positions (which in the end he would have refused).

That drive for independence (18) meant that "he never accepted . . . a position, or a favour, that . . .[kept] . . . him from writing as he wanted to write . . . unconstrained by any practical demands, whether professional or political, or, for that matter, moral." Although Hume shared a novelist's interest (20) in "the foibles and weaknesses of particular human beings" the historian was to alternate between particulars and generalities. Indeed, because of increasing awareness of "distinction of ranks" (John Millar), propaganda, "factions," ideology, and norms, Hume was a proto-sociologist. He had close contact, including exchange of works, with continental intellectuals: Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, and other philosophes, not to mention his best domestic friend, Adam Smith. Stylistically, Hume pestered publishers (23) by "constantly re-reading his own works, mostly with a view to minute alterations. . . ." Behind his reactions I sense the chameleon-like ambivalence of social being who would be neither Aristotle's beast nor god.

Simple things remain unanswered after Harris. The inquiring reader might find Hume entering the university at ten, eleven, twelve, or even thirteen, years of age.

More important, we must reconcile a book entitled Hume, where the "major events in Hume's life are fully described" (publicity blurb before the title page), with Harris's statement (viii), "Several important episodes of Hume I say little about." A half-page paragraph (viii-ix) listing events excluded fails to mention one Agnes Galbraith who named David as co-responsible for her pregnancy. Harris rightly advises starting with Mossner's Life which addresses that question, while he, ignoring it, prevents weighing its possible relation to Hume's strictures on religion and morals. He must not allow any doubt to stand. Weeks before Agnes's admission of turpitude Hume left for Bristol for a mercantile career. Did she wait until then so he could not defend himself? Did they plan the escape? Who could be privy to such a conversation? David's uncle was the cleric who had to investigate, with church elders, her probity. (She would ultimately face them a fourth time.) She weathered being put in the pillory for a few hours on a Sunday, as well as the uncle's condemnation from the pulpit, whence he wished her dead in childbirth. My extensive search beyond Harris inclines me to, as did they, doubt her claim.

Everything up to now suggests "Hume's Thought" as a more logical title. Titillation cannot motivate us.  At minimum the controversy would upset him, or he might feel compassion. But Harris is the one man who could make a judgment about any effect on his thought, and thus dismiss the matter after a forthright examination. Much less deserving of mention is Hume's timid relationship with the Comtesse de Boufflers who strode the Channel after him as he hid from her. She was also not above using him to keep her social position. Frankly I believe his strictures regarding religion and morals derive from his intellectual integrity, his consummate skill in "deconstructing" any argument, and his ability, famously,  to "awaken [us] from our dogmatic slumbers."

On the positive side, rather than stop collecting an annual salary from the Advocate's Library, he gave the 42 pounds (a lot at that time) to his blind poet friend, William Blacklock (353). Harris diminishes the kindness saying "it saved his honour."

Finally, Harris fails to report Hume's claim, on delivering his critique of miracles to Jesuits at La Flèche, of leaving them "gravelled." Hume was not an outright Pyrrhonist. "Humean impartiality was a matter of being willing to offend everyone." (375) Again, he was moderate and practical.

Many wanted the dying atheist, who called that position an outgrowth of "merely verbal" skepticism,  to recant. For Johnson, who considered Hume a liar, Boswell asked if he believed an afterlife was possible. The answer: "It was possible a piece of coal put on the fire would not burn."

Harris's writing style approaches that of Hume, sentence lengthy and with comma breaks, as between subject and object, and unjustifiably between main and subordinates clauses, that would offend the fluidity North American readers prefer. The fastidious reader will wince at rare usage errors: no possessive before the gerund; a few balancing syntactical parallelisms left uncompleted; editors missing words dropped and added, which deter us little. The sophisticated reader will wade through with greater ease. The reader making a considerable outlay of cash will want to remain in the armchair when complex historical details swamp the mind. Thus, an appendix outlining essential history would save time. Explaining key terms, such as Whig--contractarian, religious (latitudinarian?), political (republican?, court?)--and Tory, would obviate needless search and add to understanding.  Positively, the book is a course review in modern Euro-American history since Hume supported our "just" revolution.


© 2016 Anthony P. Bober


A.P. Bober has studied a psychology spanning Skinner and a humanistic-clinical view based on existential phenomenology and had been a PhD candidate in a substantive yet philosophic European-based sociology including the "critical" view. His teaching augmented courses in group theory/"small-group developmental dynamics" (lab) while introducing "sociology of knowledge" and "issues in biological anthropology," with publications in the first two fields. Currently he is writing a book on mystical experience as metaphorically tied to neuroendocrinology.


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