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Hume's Liberal Mind*

  • Dario Castiglione (a1)


Thirty years ago, Duncan Forbes published a short review, which, amongst other things, challenged the view that towards the end of his life David Hume turned Tory. Forbes's subsequent study of Hume's politics showed that, when strictly applied, ‘Tory’ and ‘Whig’ failed to capture the philosophical import of Hume's writings about politics and even of his semi-detached involvement with the politics of his time. If one took Hume at his own word, “sceptical whiggism”—a kind of moderate and scientific-minded appreciation of the relative superiority of modern commercial polities, and, in Britain, of the Hanoverian régime—was a more appropriate description of what Hume's political writings were about. It also avoided the invidious problem of whether Hume should be regarded as a liberal or a conservative.



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1 Forbes, D., “Politics and History in David Hume,” Historical Journal, 6 (1963): 280–95. The book reviewed was Giuseppe Giarrizzo, Hume politico e storico (Turin: Einaudi, 1962), the first full-length monograph to deal with Hume's more directly political and historical writings. Cf. Stewart, Opinion and Reform, pp. 302–10 and n.53.

2 CfForbes, D., Hume's Philosophical Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), passim; “Sceptical Whiggism, Commerce, and Liberty,” in Essays on Adam Smith, edited by Skinner, A. S. and Wilson, T. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975); and “Hume's Science of Politics,” in DavidHume: Bicentenary Papers, edited by Morice, G. P. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1977).

3 David, Miller, Philosophy and Ideology in Hume's Political Thought (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981); Donald, W. Livingston, Hume's Philosophy of Common Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984); and Frederick, G. Whelan, Order and Artifice in Hume's Political Philosophy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985). Admittedly, both Miller's and Whelan's interpretations of Hume's political thought as conservative are qualified.

4 Hume, D., A Treatise of Human Nature, edited by Selby-Bigge, L. A., 2nd ed., revised by P. H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), p. xvii.

5 The point is noted by Stewart himself (pp. 211 -12, n. 16) in commenting on Christopher J. Berry's use of 'conservative' in the chapter on “Social Cohesiveness” in Berry's Hume, Hegel and Human Nature (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1982).

6 See, for instance, Brian Barry's suggestion that “Hume's conservatism might be regarded as analogous to that of Hobbes,” in that both believed that certain social forms were better than others, but no radical attempt at changing them should be made (Theories of Justice [London: Harvester-Wheatsheaf, 1989], pp. 172–73). Notice, however, that other contentions about Hume's conservatism made by Barry in the same volume are more controversial: cf. ibid., p. 172 on Hume's toryism, and p. 341 on his social and political conservatism as opposite to his intellectual radicalism.

7 In Chapter 3, Stewart makes an interesting distinction between two senses of society to be found in Hume–one, more general, meaning social relationships and another, more specific, meaning the kind of economic and political relationships developing in complex societies. In Chapter 4, he introduces five different levels, from the narrow circle of people to whom we are linked by natural sentiments, to a complex civil society, bound together by economic, political, hierarchical and broadly behavioural rules. However, Stewart does not show how clear such a distinction was to Hume himself; nor does he explore systematically the connection among the last four.

8 An example of this attitude is Stewart's lack of consideration of the disputes that, on some central questions relating to natural jurisprudence, divided the Scottish moralists. Notice also that by describing Hume as an ideological and political liberal, Stewart tends also to endorse a more radical view of Hume and of his whiggism than the one offered, for instance, by John Pocock, who has comparatively described the Northern and Protestant Enlightenment as “conservative.” J. G. A. Pocock, “Clergy and Commerce: the Conservative Enlightenment in England,” in L'Eta dei Lumi: Studi storici sul settecento europeo in onore di Franco Venturi, edited by Ajello, R., Firpo, L., Guerci, L. and Recuperati, R. (Napoli, Italy: Jovene Editore, 1985), Vol. 1, pp. 523–68; and “Conservative Enlightenment and Democractic Revolutions: The American and French Cases in British Perspective,” Government and Opposition, 24 (1989): 81105, where he says that “among the phenomena which ‘Enlightenment’ connotes for us there are some whose effect may be termed ‘conservative’ in the sense that it was to strengthen existing elites–some of them clerical–in their capacity for civil control” (p. 82).

9 Jonathan, Harrison, Hume's Theory of Justice (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), p. ix.

* Stewart, John B., Opinion and Reform in Hume's Political Philosophy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), x + 325 pp., $45.00. Page and chapter references are to this work.

Hume's Liberal Mind*

  • Dario Castiglione (a1)


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