To appreciate David Hume as an essayist, he must be understood as a philosopher, for it was to better communicate his reconstruction of philosophy that he turned to the essay.
Philosophy, as traditionally conceived, has its source in pure reason independent of prereflective custom and tradition. But Hume argued that the notion of pure reason is incoherent and that the true source of belief and conduct is custom. Reason, properly conceived, is a matter of methodizing and correcting the prejudices and customs of common life. The “true philosopher” is not a spectator of common life but a loyal and critical participant in it. This radical reform of philosophy was presented in Hume’s first published work, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–40), written in his twenties. This was a systematic and abstruse work designed for a philosophical audience, which, in Hume’s time, it failed to impress. But even during its preparation, Hume was writing essays.
Essays, Moral and Political appeared in 1741, with a second volume in 1742. Hume worked on essays throughout his career until his death in 1776, when he arranged for the posthumous publication of Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary (1777). Overall he published 49 essays. Of these, 27 appeared in the first two volumes. Over the years Hume dropped eight and added others, publishing 11 editions of essays. They were warmly received in Britain, America, and on the continent, where they went through numerous translations in French, German, and Italian.
It was through the essay that Hume’s philosophy was made known to his contemporaries. And it was as a writer of essays that he first signed his name, the Treatise of Human Nature having been published anonymously and later publicly rejected by Hume as a “juvenile” work, embarrassing not because of its matter but for its form. Even the other main sources of Hume’s philosophy, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1758) and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751) should be viewed as eclectic extended essays or as collections of essays. In fact the former, in its first version, was published as Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding (1748). No other philosopher of Hume’s range, depth, and stature has endeavored to philosophize through the essay form. It is also remarkable that Hume is the only great philosopher who is also a great historian. His monumental History of Great Britain went through over 100 posthumous editions. That Hume was both essayist and historian is explained by his reconstruction of philosophy.
The “true philosopher” is a rooted participant in common life. To think critically about this order one must develop a connoisseur’s knowledge of the habits, prejudices, and traditions of common life. The connoisseur is a master of the particular, which requires a knowledge of history. The philosopher seeks the universal meaning of the particular, but the true philosopher knows that the universal is revealed through a metaphor made by the imagination and not merely by a concept. The universal, so conceived, is best exhibited in the form of conversation in common life. In “Of Essay-Writing” (1742), Hume explains why the essay is the proper medium of “true philosophy.” He distinguishes between two worlds: that of conversation and that of learning. The essayist is an “Ambassador from the Dominion of Learning to those of Conversation.” In the past, learning was “shut up in Colleges and Cells,” and “Philosophy went to Wrack by this moaping recluse Method of Study, and became as Chimerical in her Conclusions as she was unintelligible in her Stile and Manner of Delivery.” Philosophy is a maker of universals, but these are rooted in metaphorical identities framed in pre-reflective common life. “The Materials of this Commerce must chiefly be furnish’d by Conversation and common Life: The manufacturing of them alone belongs to Learning.”
For Hume, the essay was an extension of the philosophical societies that had flourished in Edinburgh from the late 17th century and had a more serious purpose in “learning” than the French salons. He hoped to extend the conversation of these societies, through the essay form, to a more general audience that included women, whom he identified as “the Sovereigns of the Empire of Conversation.”
Few philosophers have experimented with so many different literary forms in order to find the proper voice for philosophy. Hume wrote systematic treatises, essays, dialogues, narratives, and eclectic combinations of these forms. The essays also exhibit considerable experimentation. Some of the early ones from Essays, Moral and Political address serious themes to the ladies in a gallant and playful idiom, e.g. “Of the Study of History,” “Of Love and Marriage,” “Of Essay-Writing.” Allegory appears in “Of Avarice,” “Of Impudence and Modesty,” and “Of the Middle Station of Life.” Parable is to be found in “Of Moral Prejudices.”
Some essays are to be read as a set. “The Epicurean,” “The Stoic,” “The Platonist,” and “The Sceptic” (from Essays, Moral and Political, vol. 2) together explore the question of what constitutes human happiness. The first three are speeches of wisdom and employ the familiar “Thee” and “Thou.” The “Sceptic” is not itself a speech about happiness so much as a reflection of the meaning of the question and speaks in the voice of “I” and “We.” But this voice is not necessarily Hume’s, for the author appears in footnotes to query the skeptic. In this way, the essays become orations on the good life addressed to the author and reader. In most of the essays, Hume speaks as the maker of universals, giving the complete speech on the topic at hand. All the essays are rich in references to classical authors as sources of wisdom and as evidence for historical theses in a debate between the Ancients and the Moderns that runs throughout the essays. Though Hume held that classical moral philosophy is superior to the modern, he insisted that modern moral, political, and economic practice is superior to the ancient. In “Of Eloquence” (1742), he argued that eloquence is the only art in which the Moderns have not surpassed the Ancients, and he urges revival of the art.
Over half the essays are attempts to gain a connoisseur’s understanding of the vices and virtues of modern political institutions and practices. Hume explores with great subtlety the often strange and contingent origin of the modern practices of liberty, how good is interwoven with evil, and how some good drives out other good. “Of Some Remarkable Customs” (1752) demonstrates how political traditions are ingenious, reconciling opposites that political theory had declared to be impossible. But political theorizing, though limited, can provide insight into the dialectical ferment of practice. In “Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth” (1752), Hume finds intimated in modern politics a new and superior form of political association, namely, an extensive republic, thereby subverting the traditional wisdom that republics can exist only in a small territory. This essay, entering the political conversation of common life in America, influenced, among others, James Madison, who argued in the “Tenth Federalist” that, despite the vast territory of America, the states could and should unify into a republic. This is one of many episodes in which Hume’s philosophical essays effected a fruitful commerce between the world of conversation and the world of learning.
Born 26 April 1711 in Edinburgh. Studied at the University of Edinburgh, 1723–25 (?); studied law and philosophy privately; worked briefly for a merchant in Bristol, then studied in France, 1734–37. Lived in London, 1737–39, 1740–44, and on Ninewells family estate, eastern Scotland, 1739–40, 1744–45. Tutor to George, Marquess of Annandale, 1745–46; secretary to General James St. Clair, 1746–47, and accompanied him to Port l’Orient, 1747, and to Vienna and Turin, 1748. Lived in Edinburgh, 1751–63 (except for a year in London, 1758–59); librarian to the Faculty of Advocates, Edinburgh, 1752–57. Personal secretary to the Ambassador of the British Embassy in Paris, 1763–66; undersecretary of state for the Northern Department, 1767–68. Returned to live in Edinburgh, 1769–76. Died in Edinburgh, 25 August 1776.
Essays and Related Prose
Essays, Moral and Political, 2 vols., 1741–42; enlarged edition, 1748; in Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects, vol. 1, 1753; as Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, in revised edition of Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects, vol. 1, 1758, and in its definitive edition, 1777; edited by Thomas Hill Green and Thomas Hodge Grose, 2 vols., 1875, and Eugene F.Miller, 1987 Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding, 1748, reprinted 1986; revised edition, 1750; in Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects, vol. 2, 1756; as An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, in revised edition of Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects, vol. 2, 1758, and in its definitive edition, 1777; edited by L.A.Selby- Bigge, 1902 (revised by P.H.Nidditch, 1975), Charles W.Hendel, 1955, Antony Flew, 1962, Ernest Campbell Mossner, 1963, and Eric Steinberg, 1993
An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 1751; in Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects, vol. 3, 1753, and in its definitive edition, 1777; edited by Charles W.Hendel, 1957
Political Discourses, 1752; in Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects, vol. 4, 1754, and in its definitive edition, 1777
Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects, 4 vols., 1753–56; several subsequent revised editions, 1758–70; definitive edition, 1777; edited by L.A.Selby-Bigge, 1894; as The Philosophical Works, edited by Thomas Hill Green and Thomas Hodge Grose, 4 vols., 1886, reprinted 1992
Four Dissertations, 1757
Two Essays, 1777; as Essays on Suicide, and the Immortality of the Soul, 1783
Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 1779; edited by Norman Kemp Smith, 1935, Henry D.Aiken, 1948, Stanley Tweyman, 1991, and in Principal Writings on Religion, edited by J.C.A. Gaskin, 1993
Political Essays, edited by Charles W.Hendel, 1953
Of the Standard of Taste, and Other Essays, edited by John W. Lenz, 1965
Writings on Religion, edited by Antony Flew, 1992
Selected Essays, edited by Stephen Copley and Andrew Edgar, 1993
Political Writings, edited by Stuart D.Warner and Donald W. Livingston, 1994
Political Essays, edited by Knud Haakonssen, 1994
Other writings: the philosophical work A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–40), the multi-volume History of Great Britain, other works on politics and history, and correspondence.
Hall, Roland, Fifty Years of Hume Scholarship: A Bibliographical Guide, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1978; supplements in the November issues of Hume
Studies, 1977– Jessop, T.E., A Bibliography of David Hume and of Scottish Philosophy from Francis Hutcheson to Lord Balfour, New York: Garland, 1983 (original edition, 1938)
Todd, William B., “David Hume, a Preliminary Bibliography,” in Hume and the Enlightenment: Essays Presented to Ernest Campbell Mossner, edited by Todd, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, and Austin: University of Texas Humanities Research Center, 1974
Bongie, Laurence L., David Hume, Prophet of the CounterRevolution, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965
Box, M.A., The Suasive Art of David Hume, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990
Capaldi, Nicholas, Hume’s Place in Moral Philosophy, New York: Lang, 1989
Forbes, Duncan, Hume’s Philosophical Politics, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975
Gaskin, J.C.A., Hume’s Philosophy of Religion, London: Macmillan, and Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1988 (original edition, 1978)
Jones, Peter, Hume’s Sentiments, Their Ciceronian and French Context, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1982
Livingston, Donald W., Hume’s Philosophy of Common Life, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984
Miller, David, Philosophy and Ideology in Hume’s Political Thought, Oxford: Clarendon Press, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1981
Norton, David Fate, David Hume, Common-Sense Moralist, Sceptical Metaphysician, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982
Penelhum, Terence, Hutne, London: Macmillan, and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1975
Siebert, Donald T., The Moral Animus of David Hutne, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1990
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