Hume

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April 28, 2017 – MCAT CARS Passage

Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.

In the years immediately following Hume’s death in 1776 his near-contemporaries were in no doubt about the surest foundation of his claim to lasting reputation. Thomas Ritchie, writing in 1807, could see no merit in Hume’s contributions as either a metaphysician, or a moralist, or as a writer on economics and politics. For Ritchie, it had been only when Hume turned aside from these speculations and applied himself to the history of his country that he had achieved anything durable. In the pages of the History of England, Ritchie announced, there was to be found “a source of useful information to the statesman, a noble monument of its author’s talents, and an invaluable bequest to his country”.

The disregard for Hume’s philosophical writings expressed by Ritchie strengthened during the first half of the 19th century. In that Kantian climate Hume could be presented only as a thinker who had, with a kind of gifted wrong-headedness, explored the dead-end of scepticism with unprecedented thoroughness. Hume had been a mesmerising magician who with virtuoso flourishes had demonstrated the melancholy truth that, pursued in this way, there was after all no rabbit in the philosophical hat. Sir William Hamilton dramatised Hume’s career as a moment of disciplinary dilemma, when philosophers were forced to choose between “either . . . surrendering philosophy as null, or of ascending to higher principles, in order to re-establish it against the sceptical reduction”. Hume’s contribution had been the vital but ancillary one of supplying the crucial first impetus to Kant.

The Victorians, however, were no more enthusiastic about Hume’s historical works than about his philosophy. Even when the volumes of the History of England had first been published some had noticed that they were, in the polite euphemism, “lightly researched”. It was clear that Hume had worked solely from printed sources, and that he possessed neither the technical skills, nor in all probability the appetite, to forage in archives to any good effect. His was a history written in a library, and it was bound to suffer once the Germanic revolution in historiography had been assimilated by English writers. John Stuart Mill dismissed the History of England as “really a romance [which] bears nearly the same degree of resemblance to any thing which really happened, as Old Mortality or Ivanhoe”. Francis Jeffrey, writing in the Edinburgh Review, pronounced the devastating verdict (he was of course fond of pronouncing devastating verdicts) that Hume’s “credit among historians, for correctness of assertion, will soon be nearly as low as it has long been with theologians for orthodoxy of belief”.

It was only towards the end of the 19th century that the tide began to turn, and then only in a limited way. In respect of Hume’s philosophy, eventual disenchantment with Kant was a necessary preliminary to a partial restoration of Hume’s fortunes. The publication of Leslie Stephen’s History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century in 1876 initiated a tentative reassessment of Hume’s philosophy, in that the questions Hume had pondered were rescued from the condition of being simply misconceived. On the contrary: these had been and were still the stubborn, fundamental philosophical questions. Stephen did not find Hume’s answers satisfactory, but the questions had at least been the right ones:

Hume began as a philosopher . . . but in the Treatise reasoned himself into a position which made philosophy look as though it had destroyed itself under the pressure of systematic sceptical argumentation. Therefore, he turned from philosophy to subjects which could be treated purely empirically, such as politics, political economy, and history, but in each case the work that he produced was evidence that . . . his power as a destroyer was much greater than his abilities as a creator. . . . Hume’s scepticism left him trying to make ropes of sand in his writings on these topics.

Stephen and other late-Victorian writers such as James McCosh and Hume’s editors T. H. Green and T. H. Grose tended to script Hume’s career as a drama of two acts. In the first, Hume had written the Treatise of Human Nature and had thereby discovered the dismaying truth that progress in philosophy was not to be had. In Act Two, he had turned aside from philosophy, had dabbled in essays and history-writing, had pursued a public career, and amassed considerable wealth and public fame. As Grose sourly remarked, “Few men of letters have been at heart so vain and greedy of fame as was Hume.”

One might have expected that the preferences and aversions of Bloomsbury would have overturned this narrative. In a way, they did. In Portraits in Miniature Lytton Strachey admired what his Victorian predecessors had disparaged: “Had Hume died at the age of twenty-six” — the age at which he had completed the two volumes of the Treatise — “his real work in the world would have been done, and his fame irrevocably established.” For Strachey the Treatise was the “masterpiece” which contained all that was most important in Hume’s thought. The rest of his life had been nothing more than filling in time. It is clear, however, that in reversing the Victorian evaluation of Hume which he had inherited, Strachey had done nothing to reshape the underlying narrative of Hume’s career. This was still a drama of two acts, and the interval still arrived disconcertingly early.

Adapted from standpointmag.

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This was an article on Philosophy.

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Jack Westin
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13 Comments


  1. Hume’s career = drama of two acts = 1) bad philosopher + 2) bad historian.

    Reply

  2. Hume’s philosophical writings =/= good + career = downhill

    Reply

  3. humes phil + history=bad
    real career ended early-rest = waste of time

    Reply

  4. MI= Hume’s philosophical writing was bad and his career was full of dilemma.

    Reply

  5. MI: Hume, negative view philo writings. Not successful career

    Reply

  6. Hume’s career = contribution is not recognized = 2 acts (1. philosopher, 2. bad historian)

    Reply

  7. MIP: people’s perceptions Hume = mixed; 2 acts of life = try philosophy + public career/history

    Reply

  8. Hume’s death= left a reputation+ his work philo—> politics
    Victorian= Hume’s skepticism= destroyer>creator + 2 dramas
    Hume= memorizing (AU)

    Reply

  9. MIP: Hume’s contributions to philosophy and even history where bad + Stephens = Hume asked right questions but his skepticism was too much; tone = neutral

    Reply

  10. Discuss reception of Hume’s philosphical, historical works

    Reply

  11. MIP: Hume couldn’t do philosophy, so moved to history. His history wasn’t good either.
    Tone: neutral

    Reply

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