James A Harris.
Hume: an intellectual biography
(Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2015) hb pp xiii + 621
This long awaited volume has been many years in the making. Unquestionably, however, it is a worthy outcome of all the labour that has gone into it. Harris’s intellectual biography of Hume is hugely informative, immensely readable, innovative and insightful. It is certain to be the definitive work on this subject for a long time to come. That is partly because it is the first truly intellectual biography. E C Mossner’s well known Life of David Hume, first published in 1954, is a wonderful repository of information, but it lacks the kind of coherence that Harris has achieved.
To say that Harris’s book is the first of its kind is not to suggest that Hume’s intellectual biography is a subject on which commentators have been silent. On the contrary, it has been very widely assumed that it does not need a great deal of explication since we are thoroughly familiar with its general outline. In fact, there are at least two versions of this outline that have circulated. According to the first, Hume was a philosopher whose work was accomplished early in life. His radically innovative thinking met with little success and his philosophical brilliance was not really recognized until after his death. But had he died much younger than he did, his intellectual accomplishments, and his philosophical legacy, would not have been much different. According to the second version, Hume began as a philosopher, was disappointed by the failure of his philosophical work to command much attention, and accordingly turned to other things – first essay writing, and then history.
Harris examines both these contentions in his opening chapter. They are not exactly wrong, he contends, but they completely fail to capture a genuine, life-long unity in Hume’s work. The key to uncovering this unity is to be found in Hume’s ambition, from start to finish, to be a man of letters. The ‘man of letters’ properly adjusts himself to times and fashions, and accordingly what he writes about will range over different subjects and adopt appropriately different styles. The principal concern is not to produce scholarly or scientific work that will endure across the ages, but to contribute to the discussion and formation of ideas that are of contemporary interest and importance.
One significant result of interpreting Hume’s intellectual biography in this way is that it must lead to a major re-assessment of the relative importance of his oeuvres. Hume’s Treatise was not as ‘still born’ as he alleged, but it was the rather different ‘Political Discourses’ that really enabled him to reach a wide audience, and began the career as a writer that made him rich. These ‘discourses’ are so clearly related to the issues of Hume’s day that they receive only antiquarian attention nowadays. Yet Hume could as readily describe them as ‘philosophical’ as he could the Treatise or Enquiries. This is because his ambition as a man of letters was to write about both perennial and contemporary matters in a spirit that rose above, or at any rate left to one side, the rhetoric that is inevitable when they are treated primarily as issues between factions, political or religious. To be a philosopher in this sense is not to be an academic philosopher as we now understand it.
It is philosophy so understood, Harris argues, that characterizes all of Hume’s intellectual endeavours, and thus unifies his life as an intellectual. With this understanding, we can see that there is no deep rupture or radical change of direction between the youthful author of the Treatise, the accomplished essayist, and author of the voluminous History of England. It is the same conception that enables Harris to throw new light on the posthumously published Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Commentators who identify Hume with the sceptical Philo have often been puzzled by the volte-face that Philo seems to make at the start of the final section. But Harris makes an impressive case for thinking that Hume’s purpose in the Dialogues is not primarily one of advancing a conclusion about God. Rather the Dialogues are a literary illustration, a demonstration perhaps, of how, in an ideal world, philosophical discussion would go. Differences of opinion, even of the deepest kind, would not be converted into point scoring, or lead to personal animus and division. In the Dialogues, we might say, we find civility dramatized.
If this was Hume’s ideal, it goes some way to explaining his enduring friendships with so many of the Presbyterian clergy, and their friendship with him for that matter. It also explains why, in the end, he chose Edinburgh for his final home rather than Paris which he liked greatly and where he had been warmly welcomed. Despite his own lack of religious belief, Hume’s ‘philosophical’ cast of mind found the company of moderate Scottish Christians more congenial than the company of dogmatic French atheists.
Harris’s book has much more to offer than this brief review can indicate. The book is especially good at conveying Hume’s somewhat intense concern with his own reputation as a man of letters. Harris adds an Afterword to the main text that on Hume’s own account of his life, and the manner of his death. He brilliantly reveals just how the apparent straightforwardness and modesty of ‘My Own Life’ can disguise Hume’s desire to shape the way that posterity would come to see him.
There is one respect, though, in which the book might disappoint some of its readers. Treating Hume’s philosophical works as the modern academy identifies them, as just one manifestation of a larger intellectual ambition occasions relatively little critical engagement with them. Harris does not devote any more attention to the adequacy of Hume’s arguments in the Treatise, for instance, than he does to the accuracy of his sources for the History of England. Yet the fact is that some of Hume’s works warrant a kind of attention that others do not. These are the works that have proved able to sustain philosophical debate over more than two centuries. Possibly despite his own understanding of what ‘philosophical’ and ‘philosophy’ mean, Hume in the Treatise, the Enquiries, some of the Essays and the Dialogues succeeds in articulating conceptions of action, motivation, knowledge, morality and religion that strike human beings, in quite different times and places, as either coming close to the truth, or as embodying profound errors. Again and again he produces ingenious arguments whose validity demands to be examined. Are they conclusive or sophistical? It is Hume’s ability to do this that has led these writings, correctly, to be regarded as enduring contributions to philosophical thinking of the sort that connects Plato to Wittgenstein. In short, while Harris shows just how much is to be learned if we place Hume firmly within the intellectual context for which he wrote, he is less good at showing why Hume continues to be of philosophical interest long after that context has slipped into the past.