Philosophers' bark was worse than their bite

Rousseau's Dog

November 24, 2006

The intellectual war correspondents who brought us the amusing Wittgenstein's Poker and the fascinating Bobby Fischer Goes to War make a second visit to a philosophical battlefield in this "tale of two great thinkers at war in the age of Enlightenment".

The opponents under humorous scrutiny here are the "passionate" French philosopher and novelist Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the "rational" Scottish historian and philosopher David Hume, who brought the fleeing Rousseau to England in 1766 and spent the next few years regretting it.

While it may be fair to describe Hume as having been a rational sort of chap, it is at best misleading to refer to him as a rationalist (as David Edmonds and John Eidinow do), let alone to describe the confrontation as one of "reason vs passion" (as the book's dust jacket does).

After all, Hume is an empiricist par excellence, best known for making passionate anti-rationalist pronouncements such as "reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them", "the rules of morality are not the conclusion of our reason", "it is not reason which is the guide of life, but custom", and "it is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger".

The authors are not unaware of all this (chapter 11 is devoted largely to Hume's empiricism), but that just makes their unqualified choice of packaging for this quarrel all the more peculiar. To suggest that their "ideas could scarcely have had less in common" is to mask the fact that what we have here is, in essence, a clash of temperaments that cannot be explained in terms of contrasting philosophies.

Nonetheless, the book is very well researched (of particular interest are the various public letters that the enraged pair sent to the tabloids), and a joy to read.

Moreover, Rousseau's Dog is written with such wit and intelligence that it is impossible not to like it. Apart from offering admirably clear intellectual biographies of both philosophers (one infelicitous exception is the section on Hume's account of causation, which ignores the past 15 years of literature on the subject), it also includes a rather useful dramatis personae, as well as a select bibliography and chronology of main events.

Finally, a word about the book's mischievous title. The cause of the war in question was not Sultan, the little dog that Rousseau brought with him from France, but an anonymous satirical letter that Rousseau (who was its object of ridicule) suspected Hume had conspired to create. A more apt, if less intriguing, title might therefore have been "Hume's Letter" were it not for the fact that in a number of places the authors explain that "Rousseau's dog" refers equally to that other permanent companion of the Frenchman, described by the philosopher Friedrich Grimm as his "deeply rooted belief that the world was hostile and treacherous, ready at any moment to betray him".

The title could imply that it was Rousseau's paranoia that triggered the bitter dispute, and that Hume had little to do with the fatal letter. This is not to say that the authors do not find fault with the way in which the Scotsman dealt with this second dog, which was as much a "source of endless trouble" as the first. Indeed, they conclude that it was in his very attempt to save his reputation from the Frenchman's wild accusations that the otherwise bon Hume ironically failed to meet Rousseau's standard of true friendship (met only by his dog, which thereby also stands as a metaphor for what Rousseau valued most). Shortly before his death, Hume is alleged to have said: "I have written on all sorts of subjects... yet I have no enemies; except indeed all the Whigs, all the Tories and all the Christians." Perhaps he should have added "all the Revolutionaries" to his list.

Constantine Sandis is lecturer in philosophy, Oxford Brookes University.

Rousseau's Dog

Author - David Edmonds and John Eidinow
Publisher - Faber
Pages - 320
Price - £15.99
ISBN - 0 571 22405 9

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