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HumeReview - Hume
An Intellectual Biography
by James A. Harris
Cambridge University Press, 2015
Review by Gregory F.W. Todd, J.D., MSc
Aug 27th 2019 (Volume 23, Issue 35)

James Harris's impressive Hume: An Intellectual Biography was published in hardback in late 2015.  As of January 2019, it has been issued as well in paperback, making the work easily affordable to any reader with a serious interest in Hume.  Harris is Professor in the History of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, with a long association not only with Hume's epistemology and ethics (as taught today, his "philosophy"), but also Hume's six-volume History of England, for which Hume was best known during his lifetime, and his extensive writings on economics and politics.  Harris's undertaking is comprehensive, and he has accomplished it with a depth of focus, thoroughness, and rigor that are quite remarkable.   The result is a work of scholarship that will be useful for a long time to come.

We should understand what Harris means by an "intellectual biography".    It is not a standard biography, with a primary focus on the life, times, character, and motivations of Hume, the man (viii).   Rather, it is a thorough review and analysis of Hume's works, set in the matrix of the unfolding events of Hume's life, in which the background, and intellectual content of each of such works is taken on its own terms, without characterizing any work as derivative of another or part of a system or a "unified whole" (25).  Harris sets aside two earlier frameworks by which the totality of Hume's works has been considered.  An early view held that Hume had written all he had to say on "philosophy" by his late 20s, and with the realization that it led nowhere, as well perhaps as being "greedy of fame", he abandoned philosophy in favor of a miscellany of unrelated empirical works.  (7,8).  A later (still widely held) view found to the contrary that Hume's works after the Treatise of Human Naturerepresent the working-out of his project for a 'science of man' referenced in the preface to the Treatise.  (9).   Rejecting both conceptions, Harris sees Hume as a eighteenth-century "man of letters", whose works are united not by a unified content but by the "disengaged, skeptical, philosophical frame of mind of their author" (viii), whose goal is to abstract from particulars, and to identify underlying general principles.  "This is philosophy understood not as a body of doctrine or a subject matter, but rather as a habit of mind, a style of thinking, and of writing, such as could in principle be applied to any subject whatsoever."  (18).

There are important advantages to Harris's project in doing so.  Treating each work as a standalone project permits Harris to investigate and describe fully the intellectual background of the issues Hume addressed in each work, and to locate Hume in the narrative tradition of each of the many streams of discourse with which Hume engaged.   In the early chapters on the Treatise, Harris provides a rich and detailed background on the influences of Shaftesbury, Mandeville, Bayle, and Hutcheson, synthesizing much current Hume scholarship.  In the chapters on Hume's History of England, we learn a great deal about the historians who preceded Hume, both Whig and Tory - more, perhaps, some readers may feel they need to know, but a valuable historiographical resource.   

The result is a masterful piece of scholarship that will hold an important place for Hume studies for a long time.  This is not to say however that it represents the final word in the intellectual history of Hume's works; how could it be?   While Harris is understandably reluctant to speculate about possible (thought not certain) influences, more attention might be given to Edinburgh's early, but important, Rankenian Club (mentioned by footnote, though not in the text); although too early directly to influence Hume, its concerns characterized Edinburgh intellectual circles in Hume's early years.   Something more could be said as well about writers that Hume may have read in France.   And while Harris offers much about the development of Hume's approach to his subjects, and his strategies for engaging his readership, Harris has less to say about the development of Hume's thought per se: shifts (or not) in his conceptions of the outside world; modifications of (or adherence to) his secularism; his belief in the unity of human nature; or his antipathy to institutional religion, as examples.   I do not wish to overstate this point, for Harris has much to say about changes in Hume's outlook, and it may well be that Hume's works do not constitute a purposefully systematic body; but some Hume scholars will feel that there is more substantive connective tissue between Hume's works than Harris's methodological commitments give full room to explore.   

A few words about my reading experience of Hume.   An eBook version is available on the Cambridge University Press website, and for reasons of curiosity, convenience, and cost, I opted for that.   After a couple of glitches (promptly solved by the third-party distributor), I found this a very handy format for reading, on both my regular and my mini-iPads.  I made notes either by highlighting or, once I learned a quirk or two, by making comments on pages.  Since I expect to refer again to Harris's work, the eBook's search capability will be useful.   On the Cambridge website, the paperback Hume lists at $34.99, the hardcover at $60, and the eBook at $28.  

Hume will be of most value to serious students of Hume; indeed, its scope and detailed information may overwhelm a beginning or casual reader.  As other reviews have uniformly noted, Hume is meticulously compiled.  (I found just one typo – "born" on 27 should be "borne" -- while another reviewer found a single missing word.  This is a minuscule number of misprints for a work of this length.)  Whatever criticisms we may have fade to the vanishing point given the tremendous value of the research presented.  Hume is, in summary, a tremendous resource, which either in the new paperback edition or by eBook, is now available at very modest cost.   For anyone with a serious in Hume, this is a compelling book for purchase.

 

© 2019 Gregory Todd

 

Gregory F.W. Todd, J.D., MSc History, New York City


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