In such a Labyrinth

Jonathan Rée

  • Hume: An Intellectual Biography by James Harris
    Cambridge, 621 pp, £35.00, September 2015, ISBN 978 0 521 83725 5

Back in 1954, the American critic Ernest Campbell Mossner brought out a Life of David Hume that was not only a pioneering work of scholarship but also a labour of love. Mossner wanted to rescue his hero from the romantic reactionaries who typecast him as a narrow-minded representative of the Age of Reason. In particular, he hoped to challenge the condescension of Thomas Carlyle, who dismissed Hume as an associate of Voltaire and the French philosophes, and a slave to the ‘obscurations of sense, which eclipse this truth within us’. Hume had imagined, according to Carlyle, that the mechanistic logic with which he navigated the ‘coasts and harbours’ of human inquiry would enable him to ‘sound the deep-seas’ as well. But he and his friends were deluding themselves: they were ‘far wrong’, Carlyle said, ‘in reckoning that when their six hundred fathoms were out, they had reached the bottom’, and their mistake was soon exposed by Kant and the rest of the German transcendentalists.

Mossner sought to rehabilitate Hume by portraying him as a ‘congenial friend’ rather than a cerebral Enlightenment cynic. He would leave it to others, he said, to extol Hume’s prowess ‘as philosopher, or historian, or economist, or political scientist’. He preferred to celebrate him simply ‘as man and as Scot’ – an emblem of ‘the universality of the man of letters of the Enlightenment’, a champion of ‘the perennial theme of the dignity of human nature’, and above all a ‘kindly person … temperate and loveable’.

Mossner told his story well, but he isn’t held in high esteem by the Hume scholars who have proliferated since the 1950s. (I remember one of them opening a lecture by saying that Mossner’s Life ought to be shelved upside-down, and that every sentence would be improved by the addition of ‘it is not the case that …’) He certainly could have spent more time addressing Hume’s arguments, and he was mistaken when he described him as an advocate of the ‘essential dignity’ of human nature – ‘essential absurdity’ would have been nearer the mark. Hume’s openness and amiability had their limits too: he was cagey about the extent of his religious doubts, and he enjoyed making fun of those who hankered after traditional piety. In an essay published in 1748, he argued at length that reports of miracles should never be credited, but ended by appearing to switch sides: ‘The Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles,’ he said, ‘but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one.’ A well-turned joke, but clever rather than kind.

Mossner had a point about his kindliness all the same. Hume could be sharp, but he was magnanimous too – magnanimous not as a matter of character, but out of long-standing philosophical principle. The early stages of his intellectual development are obscure: he was born into a prosperous Berwickshire family in 1711 and seems to have been a sullen lad, acquiescing in his mother’s Calvinism before going to Edinburgh University where he studied Greek and Latin without distinction or enthusiasm. But then he discovered ‘modern philosophy’ – meaning the ‘way of ideas’ pioneered by Descartes and Locke in the previous century – and everything changed. ‘When I was about 18,’ he wrote, ‘there seem’d to be open’d up to me a new Scene of Thought, which transported me beyond Measure … & I could think of no other way of pushing my Fortune in the World but that of a Scholar & Philosopher.’ He dreamed of devising a new science of ideas that would do for metaphysics what Newton’s Principia had done for natural science; but his confidence quickly deserted him and – in spite of ‘anti-hysteric pills’ and a daily pint of claret – he sank into a depression that lasted several years. When he reached the age of 23, he solved his problem by going to live in France. He spent a few hectic weeks in Paris before moving to a ‘country retreat’ in Anjou where he flourished as never before, loving his seclusion and working hard on his book. Three years later he came back to Britain with a bulky manuscript in his luggage. After much anxious tinkering, the Treatise of Human Nature appeared in 1739-40, filling three volumes and more than a thousand pages.

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