Hume and the Politics of the Enlightenment

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Merrill Hume and Politics of Enlightenment

Hume and the Politics of EnlightenmentThomas W. Merrill. Cambridge University Press, 1915.


Thomas Merrill of American University introduces this book with reflections on the difficult relation of philosophy to politics, illustrated in the thought of Marx and Heidegger, each alienated from the dominant features of the modern situation, each committed to radical questioning of conventional assumptions, but each attaching themselves to political movements which eventuate in closing down radical questioning in Communism or Nazism.  He contrasts this to Richard Rorty’s response which amounts to abandoning philosophy altogether for pragmatic liberal reformism.  Such reflections led him to revisit David Hume who pursued radical questioning but also recognized its perils.  What connects these otherwise obviously distinct thinkers is the concern to understand how philosophy and politics are related.  It is this question which prompts Merrill’s careful and detailed examination of a number of Hume’s works both philosophical and political: “Hume is thus the greatest thinker to bear public witness to the pathos and dignity of radical questioning who was also a liberal, or the greatest liberal to discuss openly the problematic but unavoidable attraction of radical questioning.”(5-6)

Merrill suggests that Hume was inspired by the Socratic turn to bring philosophic inquiry down to earth, to concentrate on morals and politics.  One is reminded of Hume’s concluding remarks in his essay, “On the Original Contract,” where he describes Socrates in the Crito as expressing a contractarian understanding of his commitment to Athens while drawing a “Tory conclusion” from it.  In other words, Socrates professed his allegiance to philosophic questioning without proceeding to activistic opposition to the regime which condemned him.  Hume saw that we were moving into an age of abstract ideas, of ideologies, which threatened the stability of political order by hypothesizing “theoretical” alternative models of social order with which to reconstruct political orders altogether in the name of “progress.”  The tense relation between philosophy — when it not only turns to politics and morals but becomes politicized — and the existing order of things, reached an unprecedented level of intensity in the twentieth century and continues today.  If classically the practical virtue is moderation, we have been living for a long time with immoderation.  This is the catalyst for Hume’s effort at a constructive political philosophy to avert disaster.

We know, because he said so, that Hume soft pedaled some of his more radical views, not altogether successfully.  His criticism of conventional opinions, especially religious opinions, suggests analogy to the accusations made against Socrates.  Merrill turns to a close examination of Treatise on Human Nature to illustrate how Hume entered into radical questioning but moderated publication of his conclusions.   Merrill’s focus is on Treatise on Human Nature and on Hume’s Essays.  He does not attempt a comprehensive exploration of all Hume’s works although he is conversant with them and with the extensive literature on Hume; but he need not do so in order to make his point.  What we do get is a careful, exacting exploration of these works which illuminates the issues already mentioned, indicating the ambiguous legacy of the Enlightenment which Hume experienced as an intellectual crisis.  In response, the philosopher allies himself to ordinary people:

Hume unveils his Socratic turn as part of a larger political project. By entering into an alliance with ordinary citizens, Hume hopes to establish and secure the basis of a new kind of regime, one based not on religion but on human reason and devoted to protecting the liberty of individuals to live their lives as they see fit…a program of popular enlightenment. (31)

One strain of enlightenment thought is the establishment of a new kind of elite grounded in a science of society.  Hume’s strain might be called a moderate or popular enlightenment which resists the revolutionary, perfectionist aspiration in the alternative:

Hume is self-conscious about his own stand as an enlightener. He aims both to enlighten and educate his readers and to reflect on the problem of enlightenment itself. He means for his readers to attend to not just what he says but how and why he says it. He is no speculative philosopher discoursing in study about abstract truths. He is speaking to a specific audience at a specific time, to men and women engaged in the active life…developed society is divided into two types, the learned and the conversable. . . .The conversable world is above all a world of polite conversation, of give and take, and of mutual enjoyment. (131)

Hume sees that a division has occurred between these two worlds.  This is bad for both.  The philosopher is increasingly estranged from ordinary life; the ordinary world loses the leaven of deeper thought.  One can see then how increasingly in the modern world the elite “solicitude” for the common man could become an excuse for seeking to control him.  As Michael Oakeshott (an admirer of Hume) was later to say of the “rationalist,” he cannot get a “square meal of experience.”

Hume thus develops a political science.  But it is not our political science “which tends to oscillate between a value-free search for laws of human behavior and normative, even utopian, theory building…Hume’s political science is simultaneously realistic or empirical and normative or intended to guide practice…improve ordinary life.”(134)  In some respects this anticipates John Stuart Mill’s argument, in “The Logic of the Moral Sciences,” that a science of society could inform the art of political decision-making without usurping the task of the decision-maker.  Yet, as Merrill points out, an inspiration for Hume is Machiavelli.  Machiavelli famously rejected speculation about imaginary republics in order to present a realistic portrait of how men actually behave.  This resembles Hume’s desire not to let philosophy liberate itself from the constraints of common sense, while still believing that serious reflection on human nature is needed to make any advances in human relations.  Since human beings resign themselves to political leadership, usually with little resistance, the next question is how to enlighten the exercise of leadership.

Hume’s critique of religion, of Christianity, as an impediment seems to follow from the consequences of the Reformation which made religion a catalyst for intense partisanship – for “religious enthusiasm” — rather than a vehicle for universal accord.  More generally, Christianity’s doctrine of dual allegiance, the tension between the earthly city and the City of God, institutes a constant danger of undermining political authority, even demanding standards of conduct inimical to what human nature can actually live up to, while there is no universally agreed-upon standard.  The age of ideological conflict is a consequence of religious conflicts.

Moreover, the use of philosophy in religious debate exacerbates the problem.  Perhaps in primitive Christianity, which did not initially incorporate philosophic concepts into its interpretation of the Gospel message, the potential for a war of ideas was subdued.  The eventual intermixture of philosophy and religion has brought us to the necessity of rethinking our assumptions.  Nevertheless, Hume sees that Christianity is a powerful response to the desire for experience of transcendence, for some sort of rescue from the “deadliness of doing.” Somehow this is to be reconciled with an era of commerce and individualism in a republican form with a rule of law.

Hume’s own position is implied in the four essays on philosophic sects: Epicurean, Stoic, Platonist, Skeptic.  There without saying it in so many words, Hume seems to associate himself with the skeptic.  This role is intriguing.  The skeptic must be wary of finality in opinion, but yet will have inclinations to one view as opposed to another.  Socratic skepticism, which is a model for Hume’s, is associated with the “gadfly” and the “midwife” of thoughts.  While eschewing dogmatic pronouncements, the skeptic can encourage others to think through carefully their thoughts and the implications of those thoughts in order to make us more reflective.  If one begins from the commonly held opinions, one remains in touch with ordinary experience even as thought takes wing, avoiding the Icarian predicament.  The conversable life is thus leavened by reflective thought which, in its self-restraint, remains both respectful and critical, indirectly pedagogical.

At the same time, this approach is aimed at political authorities as well.  To encourage individuals to engage in commerce both offers them self-satisfaction in pursuit of their self-chosen goals potentially enjoying a visible, tangible reward, and also shows them the virtues of enlightened or rational pursuit of their interests.  In principle, this should encourage mutual recognition of sovereign and subject, enforced by the increasing presence of a middle class which, in its nature, is resistant to extremes.  To achieve this situation as a habit among us is further insulation against extremes.  His critique of the “original contract” recognizes that the image of the “social contract” can be deployed in service of continual reform and thus upheaval in the settled habits of social life.  Hume points out that the image of the social contract makes sense only in a society whose habits of respecting property and of promise-keeping have developed over a long period of historical development.  The contract did not produce this; rather, the historically evolved situation made it possible to use the image of the social contract to give a theoretical account of how we now understand our relations with each other.  The experience precedes the theorization of the experience.  By making explicit what is implicit in historical experience, Hume provides us the opportunity self-consciously to embrace, and to bring to maturity, our achievement and to understand it with both commitment and reflection on that commitment.  Hume might be said to be both conservative and liberal which is to say he escapes reduction to either of these poles in modern politics. Merrill has produced a splendid exposition of Hume’s achievement along with identifying what threatens to derail that achievement.

Timothy Fuller

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Timothy Fuller is a Professor of Political Science at Colorado College. He has written several forwards in the works of Michael Oakeshott.