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.

A hundred years before, Descartes had adapted an old word to new purposes by suggesting that all our thoughts are composed of ‘ideas’, by which he meant contingent time-bound states of mind rather than perfect eternal archetypes. Most of our ideas are warped by passion and perceptual bias, according to Descartes, but with a little effort we could straighten them out and spruce them up, opening them to mathematical methods and clearing the way for the advancement of science. A generation later, Locke created a whole new discipline devoted to the study of ideas in Descartes’s sense. He assumed that the ‘complex ideas’ that occupy our attention most of the time are made up of ‘simple’ ones, rather as words are made up of letters of the alphabet. Simple ideas, he said, arise spontaneously from sensation or inner reflection, and make their way into ‘the Mind’s Presence-room’ without waiting to be invited. When enough of them are gathered there, however, we can start to ‘compound and divide’ them at will, constructing all sorts of complex ideas to suit our various conceptual needs. There was a standing danger that we would make a mess of our work, especially if we allowed ourselves to be distracted by the vagaries of experience or the arbitrary meanings of words; but as long as we kept track of the simple elements that make up our complex ideas we would not go far wrong, and we could be confident that, by and large, the sum of human knowledge would carry on increasing.

Hume regarded Descartes and Locke as ridiculously optimistic: it seemed to him that we have as much chance of regulating the ‘trains of ideas’ passing through our minds as of controlling the weather. ‘There is a kind of Attraction,’ he wrote, ‘which in the mental world will be found to have as extraordinary effects as in the natural, and to show itself in as many and as various forms.’ Attraction can of course generate chaos as well as order: in the natural world it keeps the planets to their paths round the sun, as Newton had shown, but it is also implicated in storms, floods and landslides; and its equivalent in the mental world is responsible not only for good sense and sweet reason but also delirium, obsession and incorrigible perversity. Our ideas get mixed up with each other through a process of ‘association’, and before long they start behaving as if they had a will of their own: if we have been ‘very much discompos’d’ by an insult, for instance, they may make us waste the rest of the day finding ‘a hundred subjects of discontent’ in every innocuous thing we encounter. The general point was illustrated with a story borrowed from Montaigne: ‘The case of a man, who being hung out from a high tower in a cage of iron cannot forbear trembling … tho’ he knows himself to be perfectly secure from falling.’ Our imagination keeps getting the better of us, it seems, and we have to hold tight and keep our nerve while it whisks us off to places we would rather not go.

Our irrationalities may annoy us, but trying to fight them may do more harm than good. Take the notion of a personality that persists through time – an enduring self or soul or spirit that can be loved or hated for its past actions and future projects. It is a ‘fiction’, according to Hume, based on unwarranted associations of ideas; but it is also indispensable to morality, and we might be wise to treat it as if it made more sense than it does. He said something similar about instinctive moral judgments: they arise not from outward facts or dispassionate calculations but from our capacity to ‘sympathise’ with the feelings of our acquaintances, real or imagined, and from inward sentiments of approval and disapproval; but the mind ‘likes to bestow upon objects the same emotions, which it observes in itself’, and it beguiles us by endowing our moral impulses with a bogus aura of objectivity. Kindness and constancy come to be regarded as immutable obligations rather than the personal preferences they really are; but on the whole the illusion serves humanity well, encouraging us to be nicer to each other than we might otherwise be. On top of that it must have promoted collaboration between our ancestors when they were still in ‘that savage condition, which precedes society’, and it appeared to be having the same effect even now, among ‘American tribes’ whose members ‘live in concord and amity among themselves without any establish’d government’. In modern commercial societies, however, the consequences of our actions are likely to exceed the reach of our instinctive sympathies, and ordinary morality has to be supplemented by politics, law and an impartial ‘sense of justice’. Justice involves taking account of faraway people of whom we know nothing, and it sometimes requires us to override our natural moral impulses – to tell a lie for a noble cause, for example, or to expect a ‘poor tradesman’ to repay what he owes to a ‘wealthy miser’. But the sense of justice is only an ‘artificial’ sentiment – a sophisticated product of ‘education, and human conventions’ – and not as robust as we might want it to be. If its protagonists want to back it up with imaginary principles ‘deriv’d from nature’, we should perhaps allow them to dream on.

Illusion and artifice were not confined to morality and politics, Hume thought, and he found them at work in the natural sciences too. We all assume that the idea of causal necessity arises from observation of the world, but it is really the product of an unconscious inner habit that makes our minds jump unthinkingly from the idea of a cause to the idea of its expected effects. The ‘efficacy or energy of causes’, Hume said, ‘belongs entirely to the soul’, but our imagination, with its ‘propensity to spread itself on external objects’, insists on projecting it onto ‘nature’ and treating it as if it were a ‘quality in bodies’. Causal necessity was just another fiction, comparable to the continuity of the self or the objectivity of virtue and justice – a useful fiction, but a fiction all the same.

The main lesson of the Treatise was that the dogmatisms of the past are no longer viable, and should be ditched in favour of scepticism – not the extreme scepticism associated with certain ancient philosophers, but a diffident scepticism based on ‘Humility, with regard to the Operations of our natural Faculties’. When he started work, Hume seems to have thought he could make an unanswerable case for scepticism on the basis that every idea can be traced to experience; but as he went on he found himself falling into ‘contradictions and absurdities’ that he couldn’t get out of. In a note on the illusions of selfhood he admitted to being nonplussed: ‘I find myself involv’d in such a labyrinth,’ he said, that ‘I neither know how to correct my former opinions, nor how to render them consistent.’ There was another difficulty too: given that all our beliefs except the most elementary appear to arise from involuntary associations of ideas, why should such concepts as selfhood, causation or justice be regarded as especially problematic? What was to prevent the same suspicion from falling on the principles that Hume himself had taken for granted – and in the first place, on the assumption that all ideas must spring from experience? At one point, he was stopped in his tracks by the thought that we might be able to imagine a colour we have never come across in reality: we could look at two different shades of blue, for example, and ‘raise up’ the idea of an intermediate shade that we had not seen before. ‘The instance is so particular and singular,’ he said, ‘that ’tis scarce worth our observing,’ but he must have realised that he had just put the skids under his entire enterprise.

On reflection he wasn’t very worried. Any imperfections in his arguments for scepticism could be construed as additional evidence for it – further confirmation that our beliefs are shaped by involuntary associations of ideas. Folly is always with us, it seems, even in philosophy: ‘I plead the privilege of the sceptic,’ he wrote, ‘and confess, that this difficulty is too hard for my understanding.’ The project of a complete science of ideas had undone itself, and we should acknowledge that ‘’tis not solely in poetry and music, we must follow our taste and sentiment, but likewise in philosophy.’ If illusions are inevitable then we should learn to laugh at them: ‘Errors in religion are dangerous,’ he said (another of his jokes, presumably), but ‘those in philosophy only ridiculous.’


Hume’s hopes for the reception of his first book were pitched very high, and he was duly disappointed. ‘Never literary attempt was more unfortunate than my Treatise of Human Nature,’ he wrote, ‘it fell dead-born from the Press, without reaching such distinction as even to excite a Murmur amongst the Zealots.’ But he exaggerated: an observer in Edinburgh remarked on ‘how much and how frequently it was mentioned, in every literary conversation’, and there were a dozen reviews within a year, many of them quite indignant. He was denounced as a ‘free-thinker’, and his notions about the mind and causation were dismissed as ‘unheard-of paradoxes’, so he ought to have been quite satisfied.

On the other hand, he had reason to be worried about his future: having published a comprehensive system of philosophy when he was still in his twenties, he was at a loss as to what to do next. (‘Had Hume died at the age of 26,’ as Lytton Strachey once said, ‘his real work in the world would have been done, and his fame irrevocably established.’) But he soon found a solution: he turned his back on the rigours of the Treatise and launched himself on a new career as a writer of the kind of prose that aimed to be, as he put it, ‘natural, without being obvious’. He produced the first of several volumes of Essays in 1741, presenting himself as a solicitous friend to his readers, and an ‘Ambassador from the Dominions of Learning to those of Conversation’. Over the next two decades he published dozens of short pieces about such topics as the origins of morality, the rivalry between philosophical sects and the nature of marriage, without coming to any very definite conclusions. In the 1750s he returned to book-writing with a series of histories that coalesced over a decade into a six-volume History of England, from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution of 1688 that sold in vast quantities. He took uncomplicated pleasure in his fame and commercial success, and by the time of his death in 1776 at the age of 65 he prided himself on being ‘not only independent, but opulent’, claiming that ‘the copy-money given me by the booksellers, much exceeded anything formerly known in England.’

But he hadn’t confined himself to literature. In 1746 he accepted a post as secretary to Lieutenant General James St Clair, who was preparing to lead a force of several thousand in an assault on the French in Canada. He spent two or three months anticipating a ‘romantic adventure’ on the other side of the Atlantic, but owing to bad weather the expedition was diverted to Brittany where – to the delight of Voltaire – it was thoroughly humiliated. Afterwards he accompanied St Clair on an embassy to Vienna and Turin that was rather more successful. His military career then came to an end, but he never regretted it: he was well paid, he enjoyed going out in uniform and for two years he had the opportunity to observe high politics at close quarters. In the 1760s he returned to the service of the state, this time as private secretary to the British ambassador to France. He performed his official duties conscientiously, but he also had time to enjoy his literary fame. The ‘great historian of England’ was pursued by the top salonnières in Paris, and he encountered adulation wherever he went. ‘I am convinced,’ he said, ‘that Louis XIV never suffered so much flattery.’ He formed philosophical friendships with D’Alembert, Diderot, Buffon, Duclos, Holbach and Helvétius, but their antipathy to religion was too dogmatic for his taste, and for a while he preferred the company of Rousseau, though their friendship soon blew up in a spectacular quarrel.

In the last ten years of his life Hume revised many of his post-Treatise publications, worrying at stylistic flaws that were apparent only to him; but he didn’t attempt to write anything new, and his attention shifted from the library to the kitchen. He had lost his figure long ago: ‘The Corpulence of his whole person was far better fitted to communicate the Idea of a Turtle-eating Alderman than of a refined Philosopher,’ as a friend put it, and he had always detested the ‘monkish virtues’ of fasting and self-denial. ‘Ye ken I’m no epicure, only a glutton,’ he said, and announced that he would now give free rein to ‘my great Talent for Cookery, the Science to which I intend to addict the remaining Years of my Life’. He collected recipes and gave detailed instructions to his kitchenmaid, taking special pride in his mutton and old claret (‘no body excels me’) and his beef and cabbage (‘a charming dish’), not to mention a never-to-be-forgotten sheep-head broth. By 1769 he had abandoned all his old occupations, or so he claimed, in favour of a ‘new Profession’ as a cook.

He would always regret the swagger of the Treatise: ‘The positive air,’ as he called it, ‘which prevails in that book, and which may be imputed to the ardour of youth, so much displeases me, that I have not the patience to review it.’ He liked to give the impression that once it was finished he gave up philosophical exertion in favour of fame, friendship and food. This version of events has been accepted by many, and it received partial endorsement in Mossner’s Life, but it was never very plausible. In some ways he stayed quite close to his early work, recycling many of its arguments in his essays; and while he gave up punishing his readers, he never stopped setting himself intellectual challenges. James Harris has now set the record straight in a fine book that he calls, rather pointedly, ‘the first intellectual biography of Hume’.

The main theme of the later works, as Harris presents them, turns out to be politics. Hume continued to regard the institutions of government as a necessary supplement to morality, and in his essays he approached them with studied insouciance: ‘To those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye,’ he said, ‘nothing appears more surprising … than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few.’ The explanation could not lie in physical force, since the governed always outnumber their governors; nor would it be found in the ideal republics of the classical philosophers, or in ‘pure reason’ itself (‘so uncertain a guide … that it will always be exposed to doubt and controversy’). Politics, he concluded, belonged to the realm of ‘opinion’, where difference always reigns, rather than knowledge, which aspires to unanimity. The content of government was constantly changing – Hume was impressed by the fact that ‘trade’ had recently become ‘an affair of state’ – but its form remained much the same: endless argument, and in particular a ‘perpetual intestine struggle, open or secret, between Authority and Liberty’. The struggle led to the formation of rival political parties, animated by mutual hatred and contempt; but once the dust settled it became obvious that none of them could ‘ever absolutely prevail’ and that they all ‘meant well to their country’. Party passion was a folly, but without it politics would lose its vitality and government would fail.

Harris finds the same issues woven into the History of England, which emerges from his account not only as a well-told story, but also as an exercise in original political thought. Hume started with ‘the first inhabitants of Britain,’ whose lives were dedicated to tribal warfare; he proceeded through the arrival and departure of the Romans, the rise and fall of feudal power, and the ‘madness’ of the civil wars, before concluding with the ‘glorious revolution’ of 1688. But while he regarded the revolution as ‘a new epoch in the constitution’, he refused to go along with the sanctimonious Whigs who presented it as the fulfilment of some natural destiny involving ‘antient English liberty’. It was the unintended outcome of curious accidents and foolish passions, notably the stand-off between the ‘superstition’ of the papists, who made a bad case for monarchical authority, and the ‘gloomy enthusiasm’ of the puritans, who made an even worse case for popular liberty. But there was no point in being censorious: Elizabeth had been an ‘excellent hypocrite’ with a talent for seeming more liberal than she was; James and Charles were less adroit, but they made an ‘excusable mistake’ when they overstepped their constitutional powers; Cromwell was a ‘fanatical hypocrite’, but the civil wars were a misfortune for which ‘no party or both parties would justly bear the blame’. Even Voltaire was impressed: Hume’s History was ‘the best ever written in any language’, he said, and proof that the study of the past should be left to the philosophers. The public loved Hume’s even-handedness too, and Harris enables us to see why.

Harris identifies two traditional approaches to Hume’s intellectual development: according to one, he became so disenchanted with the destructiveness of the Treatise that he turned away from philosophy to work on subjects that would be less taxing; according to the other, the Treatise was more constructive than it seemed, offering a series of hypotheses about morality and the passions that he was able to build on in his later works. Harris rejects them both, and with good reason. He prefers not to get hung up on the Treatise, and presents the History and the various essays as independent works that can stand their ground without reference to it. Hume more or less created the role of the modern professional writer, after all, and instead of looking backwards he preferred to concentrate on the next project and the next fee: he didn’t think of his works as having ‘unity of any kind at all’, according to Harris, and his readers would do well to stop looking for one. But Harris has revealed a certain continuity in spite of himself: not a positive doctrine but a negative capability – Hume’s gleeful sense that everything we know is wrong.