It can confidently be claimed—and has already been by several reviewers in the philosophers’ trade journals—that this book is absolutely indispensable to anyone wanting hilly to understand the whole range of Hume’s writings. That range includes much more than the Treatise, the two Enquiries, and the Dialogues—the four works normally studied in university courses in philosophy. It is not for nothing, either, that the catalogue of the British Museum Library lists Hume’s publications under the heading “David Hume, the historian,” or that it is the Liberty Press which has published both the only 20th-century reprint of his History of England and what is now the standard edition of his Essays.
The present book is perhaps best read after readers have refreshed their memories of the same author’s Hume’s Philosophy of Common Life. That would prepare them to appreciate a considerably more comprehensive conception of philosophy than that which is usual in departments of philosophy throughout the English-speaking world. Here the master problem is that of Hume’s answer to the question: “What is philosophy?” This question is construed comprehensively as including such sub-questions as “What is the philosophical life? What is philosophical truth? What is the proper relation of philosophy to religion, to culture, to its own history?”
Part One consists of “Humean Reflections.” After an initial chapter asking the kind of question beloved of contemporary English-speaking academic philosophers —”Is Hume an Empiricist?”—Livingston proceeds to chapters on “The Dialectic of True and False Philosophy,” “The Origin of the Philosophical Act in Human Nature,” “The Ancient Philosophy,” “Philosophy and Christendom,” “The Modern Philosophy,” and “True Philosophy and the Skeptical Tradition.” His crucial contention is that, for Hume, the fundamental distinction is not the empiricists’ distinction between sensory experience and the interpretation thereof “but the dialectical distinction between two sorts of interpretation: custom and reflection.” It is precisely this dialectic which makes Hume, in his own way, the most profoundly conservative of philosophers.
The chapter on “True Philosophy and the Skeptical Tradition” employs an understanding of this dialectic to explain how friends who knew Hume well and supported his applications for chairs of philosophy, first at Edinburgh and later at Glasgow, could have believed, as apparently they did, that (had he been appointed) he would have been able in good conscience to meet the religious demands made on holders of these offices. For, as Livingston tells us, Hume would have been required both to sign the Westminster Confession and regularly to attend church. And at Glasgow, he would also have been required to lead students in prayer.
The next two chapters are concerned with “True Philosophy and Civilization” and “False Philosophy and Barbarism.” The second member of this pair includes sections not only on Rousseau but also on “‘The Gloomy Enthusiasm’ of the Parliamentary Party.” It was Hume’s insight into the nature of what he called “true philosophy”—first broached in the Treatise and revisited in volumes V and VI of his History in his interpretation of the English Civil War as an ideological struggle—which led him to conclude that
the gloomy enthusiasm, which prevailed among the parliamentary party, is surely the most curious spectacle presented by any history; and the most instructive, as well as entertaining to a philosophical mind.
That enthusiasm simply is the autonomy of philosophy in its religious aspect. Hence the fundamental lessons of both volumes V and VI of the History and of the dialectic of true and false philosophy in the Treatise are the same, namely, that philosophical autonomy cut free from custom entirely subverts itself (Here it is necessary to recognize, as Livingston is most eager to insist, that the English Civil War is rightly so called since two parties were warring for the control of a single state. By contrast, what is traditionally called—by the winners—the American Civil War instead was, like the American Revolutionary War, a war in which one of the parties wanted to secede from, rather than to acquire control over, the other, which sought to maintain that control.) Hume thought that the English Civil War was unique in history and that it had a special philosophical significance. For the first time
a mass speculative consciousness had generated mass speculative passions which had the power to overthrow an established political order and which eventually sought to destroy not only the political order but the moral and social order as well, and to replace it with a new one.
As we know, this unique status was not maintained for many years after Hume’s death. For the ideas of Rousseau (which, as Livingston makes clear, Hume abhorred) helped to shape the “mass speculative consciousness” which generated “mass speculative passions” having the power to overthrow the established political order of France and to replace it with a truly modern state. This was a republic “one and indivisible” possessing, in the name of the General Will of the nation, total power over both the persons and the property of the citizens.
The remaining two chapters of Part One deal with “English Barbarism: ‘Wilkes and Liberty!'” and “English Barbarism: ‘The Poor Infatuated Americans.'” The second of these clearly reveals how, and for what reasons, Hume first began to support American secession well before this aim was adopted by most of the future Founding Fathers and, at the time of the Declaration of Independence, was—among all his Edinburgh friends—alone in adopting this position. This same chapter also reveals that one of those friends, the painter Allan Ramsay, advocated a form of total war against the secessionist American population. Such total war is, Livingston claims, “possible only among ‘civilized’ nations. It is shaped and legitimated by an act of reflection, a way of thinking about the world whereby an entire people becomes the enemy.” Hence “Lincoln’s scorched earth policy and demand for unconditional surrender exhibited a new frame of mind that only eighty years later would reveal itself in the terror bombing of Dresden.”
“Part Two; Humean Intimadons” consists of four chapters in which Livingston engages in “what Oakeshott called ‘the pursuit of inhmations.'” The first of these chapters finds inspirafion in Hume as “a virtual Founding Father.” Livingston contrasts the compact with the nationalist theory of America’s founding. The former holds that the Constitution was a compact between sovereign states, delegating enumerated powers to a minimum central government; the latter agrees with Lincoln in his justification for coercing the Confederate states back into the Union: “The Union is older than any of the States, and, in fact, it created them as states.” Construed as an historical proposition, this statement is, as Livingston insists, simply false. For the Continental Congress was as much a congress of sovereign states as the Congress of Vienna.
The second chapter in Part Two, “The Right of Resistance: A Humean Free State versus a Modern Consolidated Leviathan,” examines Hume’s writings in the light of two doctrines essential to the identity of the modern state: the theory of sovereignty and the organic theory of the state. Livingston concludes that no support is to be found there for either of these essential doctrines and derives from this want of support a strong presumption against the modern state in Hume’s thought.
The first thing to notice about the modern state is its disposition to centralize and to consolidate smaller social and political units into a larger whole. With consolidation has come an increase in the state’s power to command the resources, material and human, within its territory. (The very idea of having “human resources” to exploit is a gift the modern state has seen fit to lavish upon itself) One measure of this power, which marks a fundamental difference between the modern state and its premodern counterpart, is the authority to impose both income taxation and universal conscription. Livingston points out that it is this enormous increase of state power—to some extent foreseen by Hume and the Old Whigs—which has made possible in our century unprecedentedly destructive wars between individual states as well as massacres, similarly unprecedented in their extent, of their own subjects by controllers of states.
The third chapter of Part Two, “The Right of Resistance: Secession and the Modern State,” while perhaps the most freshly stimulating, has the least direct connection with the ideas of Hume. For, as Livingston notices.
Secession does not appear as a uniquely political concept until the idea of the modern state contains an ethic of self-government (which may easily lead to a demand for secession) and a prohibition against secession—for a modern state is one and indivisible.
The final chapter, “Preserving One’s Humanity in the First Philosophic Age,” contains sections on “Hume and Vico” as well as “Hume and Hegel.”
It is, by the way, most misleading to assert that “the European Union has avoided confronting the question of secession,” as the promoters of that enterprise are forever insisting that every step in the construction of their centralized and all-controlling European superstate is irreversible.
[Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium: Hume’s Pathology of Philosophy, by Donald W. Livingston (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) 433 pp., $68.00]