Hume: An Intellectual Biography, by James A. Harris

Jacqueline Broad discovers admiration for a misunderstood and misrepresented philosopher

October 8, 2015
Review: Hume: An Intellectual Biography, by James A. Harris

If the Scottish philosopher David Hume were ever depicted as a comic book superhero, he would undoubtedly be drawn as the Arch-Sceptic, a dark and brooding figure with a permanently curled lip and an ever-ready retort for those mortal enemies of good philosophy – intellectual sloth and religious dogma.

In his 18th-century heyday, Hume was regarded as the scourge of Christian bigots everywhere, a crusading atheist who could not rest until he had witnessed the demise of all religion. His contemporary critics fought back with accusations that he was an unnatural “monster”, a man who had robbed the unhappy masses of their chief consolation, and someone whose work represented “the vile effusion of a hard and stupid heart”. In the 19th century, scholars perpetuated such views by attributing to Hume an extravagant and universal scepticism, one that left his readers in a state of permanent mistrust and doubt about their own faculties. And so, well into the 20th century, Hume suffered the fate of many a complex superhero: despite his best intentions, he came to be misrepresented and misunderstood.

James Harris’ superb new intellectual biography aims to correct some of the misrepresentations and misunderstandings, and to shed a positive light on the real Hume and all his writings. The book succeeds admirably in deflating the heroic myth. Not only would the real Hume never have fitted into superhero tights anyway (he was somewhat “corpulent”, as Harris politely puts it), he also suffered from a debilitating – and distinctly unheroic – lack of self-confidence. Following a devastating nervous breakdown in his late teens, Hume lived with his mother and siblings on and off over the years, and avoided taking up any kind of paid employment well into his thirties. He never seemed inclined to follow the ordinary path of life, to become established in a profession, or to get married and start a family. He famously missed out on two distinguished academic appointments – the chairs of moral philosophy at the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow – because he was regarded as too unpredictable and too unorthodox in his opinions. Nobody wanted to put him in a position of authority over impressionable young men. He claimed, with an air of indifference that sounded suspiciously like sour grapes, that he never really wanted the jobs anyway. Then, at the age of 33, he finally landed a position as a private tutor, only to resign one year later when his pupil went completely insane. Hume himself was prone to fits of melancholy and often complained that his works were poorly received or unjustly ignored. He was convinced that his first work, the classic A Treatise of Human Nature, “fell dead-born from the press”, despite evidence that it was a moderate success.

In sum, the young Hume was overweight, he was depressive, he was a little bit paranoid, he lived with his mum, and he was unable to get either a job or a girl – hardly the stuff of superhero legends.

Nevertheless, it is difficult not to like – and to admire – the mature Hume of Harris’ biography. From early adulthood, we are told, Hume devoted himself to becoming a “man of letters”: to shaping a career in polite literature rather than abstract philosophical speculation. Through sheer strength of character, despite various setbacks and obstacles, he overcame the “distemper” of his youth and steadfastly pursued his life’s ruling passion. By 1776, Hume had fulfilled all his dreams. He could approach death cheerfully, he told Adam Smith, knowing that he had “done everything that he had ever intended to do”. He was living proof that if you wanted to pursue your ambitions, it was best not to have a back-up plan (lest the back-up become all that you ever did) and that if you wanted to say what you really thought, it was best to retain some independence from institutional ties. He enjoyed a literary fame that was unrivalled in his day and became extremely wealthy (“opulent” was his own adjective). At one point, he also found himself a job that perfectly complemented his aspirations as a genteel man of letters: the librarianship at Edinburgh’s Faculty of Advocates.

Far from being hard-hearted, this older, more self-assured Hume was disposed to be warm, cheerful and funny (or at least he tried to be – his jokes always fell a bit flat) and he was well liked by his small group of close and loyal friends. This was the Hume who could write that: “A perfect solitude is, perhaps, the greatest punishment we can suffer. Every pleasure languishes when enjoyed a-part from company, and every pain becomes more cruel and intolerable.” While in Paris in the 1760s, he also enjoyed the attentions of the women of the salons, and of one woman in particular, the Comtesse de Boufflers, with whom he had an “intense friendship” until his death.

Hume’s sociable nature was aptly reflected in his approach to philosophical writing. “It mattered immensely to him”, Harris says, “that he find the best possible way of communicating his arguments to the reader.” By today’s standards, when philosophy is all too often a complex theoretical game, with precise rules and obscure jargon serving to keep out the non-elite, Hume’s approach seems refreshingly egalitarian. Whether his topic was politics, economics, metaphysics or aesthetics, Hume wrote for the common educated reader and not for the academic philosopher. He sought to unite accessibility of style with profundity of ideas – to be entertaining and enjoyable as well as edifying and illuminating.

Harris’ own narrative admirably lives up to these Humean ideals. At more than 600 pages, the book is in the style of Hume the prolix historian rather than Hume the concise essayist, but it is engaging nevertheless. Readers will not find long disquisitions on competing interpretations of Hume’s philosophical arguments, or on the finer conceptual points of Humean epistemology, but rather a lucid, well-organised and readable narrative, carefully informed by nuanced historical-intellectual scholarship. Like Hume himself, Harris engages in a careful observation of his subject, and avoids making dogmatic pronouncements whenever he can.

Above all, the Hume of Harris’ book is a champion of common sense. This Hume did not think that scepticism gave anyone a reason to abandon the ordinary business of practical life, and nor did it warrant the complete and final destruction of the Christian religion. His scepticism was, rather, a way of weaning his readers off their arrogant dogmatic beliefs and extreme prejudices. He was not deeply antagonistic toward theism as such, but rather vulgar superstition and enthusiasm. He aspired to draw a clear demarcation between what reasoned argument could and could not establish in religious matters. On the whole, his predominant attitude appears to have been one of goodwill and kindness towards his fellow human beings, not ridicule and mockery of their unfortunate predicament. He was not the monster who intended to leave us all mired in a hell of uncertainty and self-doubt. In reality, I think it’s fair to say, he would have dismissed his enemies with a sympathetic smile and not a sneering retort.

Jacqueline Broad is a senior research fellow in philosophy, Monash University, Australia, and author of The Philosophy of Mary Astell: An Early Modern Theory of Virtue (2015).

Hume: An Intellectual Biography
By James A. Harris
Cambridge University Press, 575pp, £35.00
ISBN 9780521837255
Published 30 September 2015

The author

Author James A. Harris“I began working on Hume’s intellectual biography as a historian of philosophy and finished as an intellectual historian,” says James Harris, reader in the history of philosophy at the University of St Andrews.

Harris was raised in rural Hampshire – “my father was a dairy farmer, and I’ve never had a problem getting up early” – and now lives in the New Town in Edinburgh, “just down the hill from where Hume lived in his final years. I share a flat with my wife Jennifer Brown, who is a clarinettist, and our two small children.”

He owes much to his paternal grandmother, he says, for his early interest in scholarship. “She bought me Ladybird books on everyone from Robert the Bruce to Marie Curie, and also a weekly magazine called Look and Learn. I doubt it still exists.”

As an undergraduate at Balliol College, Oxford, Harris “wanted to be less solitary than I was. Balliol was going through a pretty leftwing phase; it was hard for someone from a private school to feel like they fitted in, regardless of what their political views happened to be. I remember candle-lit meetings of the Socialist Workers Party in the bar. It can’t have been as hard for me, though, as it was for my exact contemporary Jacob Rees-Mogg.”

Was moving to the New School in New York for his MA a culture shock? “Of course! I went straight from dreamy Oxford to a tiny room in the West Village with a window on to a ventilation shaft for a Chinese restaurant, and from tutorials on Chaucer and Milton to classes on Adorno and Heidegger.”

Asked if he sees any commonalities among the scholars in his field, in terms of personality or temperament, he replies firmly, “No. I have many friends who work on 18th-century philosophy and political thought, and they do not share a single temperament. Far from it.”  

This book, he says, has been transformative for his own scholarship.

“I began working on Hume’s intellectual biography as a historian of philosophy and finished as an intellectual historian. I’ve become very interested in how philosophy – what philosophers think of themselves as doing, and their place in the wider culture – has changed through time. Philosophers today struggle to understand how someone who could have written a book as obviously ‘philosophical’ as A Treatise of Human Nature could also have written essays on politics and economics, and a history of England. I myself struggled to make sense of this as I worked on the book.

“But it now seems to me that the problem is that philosophy today is quite different from what it was in Hume’s time. And I find the 18th-century conception of philosophy very attractive, in so far as then philosophy was not a purely academic discipline, and there were no sharp distinctions between philosophy on the one hand, and things like politics, history, economics and literary criticism on the other.” 

What would most disappoint Hume about 2015? “There is no doubt that he would be disappointed that the Union is now under threat. He regarded the Union as nothing but a good thing for Scotland – partly, it’s true, because Scotland was for him the Lowlands, and the Highlands was another country.”

Hume would  be “disappointed also by the size of our national debt. But he would be glad that Britain no longer has an empire. He would not be surprised that religion remains a potent and sometimes harmful force in human affairs,” he observes.

Like all Scottish universities, Harris’ institution, the University of St Andrews, does not charge tuition fees to Scottish undergraduates, or to those EU citizens who do not come from England, Wales or Northern Ireland. Does he believe that tuition should be free across the UK, as it is in Scotland? 

“Tuition should be free for across the UK if people across the UK are willing to accept taxation at a level that would enable universities to rely entirely upon funding from the public purse,” he replies.

What gives Harris hope?

“My children.”

Karen Shook


Print headline: Champion of common sense

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