2018-04-23

Book Review: "Hume" by James Harris

I've recently been able to read the book Hume: An Intellectual Biography by James Harris. This is an "intellectual biography" in the sense that rather than focusing on the particular details or daily life of the Scottish philosopher and essayist David Hume, it delves into his philosophy and writing in the context of what he read, the people with whom he corresponded, and the political history of the Great Britain in which he lived. This is extensively sourced from Hume's very brief autobiography, his more extensive works, and correspondence with and writings by other people; Hume's own will requested that his personal papers and unpublished works (apart from those he wished to see published posthumously) dating prior to the 5 years leading up to his death be destroyed, and this seems to have happened, and Hume's autobiography is far too brief and sparse to serve as the primary resource.

I am not in the humanities, so I come at this book as a layperson. This being an intellectual biography makes it a longer and weightier book than a biography that would focus on Hume's personality and daily life. Moreover, the author feels free to introduce contemporaries of Hume, often by last name only, without much more context to their own lives and thoughts. However, to the author's great credit, the prose is clear and engaging even to a layperson like myself, and the author takes care to outline the philosophies of Hume's contemporaries to the full extent that they relate to Hume's readings, correspondence, and overall philosophical development. Additionally, the author makes clear the historical and political circumstances surrounding Hume's life, so that even someone like myself without that background can reasonably follow.
The author's main goal in this work is to show how Hume approached all of his work and interests with an eye toward philosophical examination of the broad principles governing them, without trying to claim that all of Hume's work sprang from a single unified moral philosophy, nor that Hume turned away from moral philosophical treatises toward essays on politics and religion purely in pursuit of fame. The latter refutation is made clear enough by Hume's avowed disdain for histories that were written in a very superficial way purely for mass popularity. The former refutation comes out over the course of the book: the author points out, where appropriate, and respects Hume's own wishes that his essays be read as independent entities from each other and from his other work, and the author further seems (from my rudimentary perspective) to follow Hume's own moral philosophy of interpretation via human experience. It's clear that other philosophers will use their own perspectives to try to ascribe a broad unified philosophical foundation to all of Hume's work, but I think this author does a good job of making and justifying his overall goal in this biography. It is a fairly long book, but I think anyone who is interested in philosophy and is ready for a work that is a bit more densely packed with history and politics would enjoy this book. Follow the jump to see a few more musings that are not directly related to this book.

I had a conversation with a friend in my department a few weeks ago regarding whether it is better to learn about influential philosophical, religious, or historical texts by reading the original versions or by reading or listening to outlines of those texts made by other scholars. There are certain texts which I feel I may already know too much about or am too biased about to find commentary by other scholars immediately useful, in which case I would rather read the original versions of those texts. In this case, I came into this book knowing essentially nothing of David Hume and his philosophy, and I felt like that philosophy would be too abstruse or arcane for me to make much sense of it upon encountering the original texts, so I felt that it would be useful to have another author serve as a guide for me to learn of Hume's life and work. It remains for me to see whether I continue to use this principle more broadly.

The author frequently references Hume's description of himself as a "man of letters" and desire to be financially independent of constraints on his readings and writings. On a personal note, I identify with that sentiment in that after graduate school, I would love to continue doing basic theoretical science research in a city of my choice without worrying so much about finances or transportation, though I also wonder whether my career interests will become more worldly as I age, just as Hume turned from treatises on moral philosophy to essays on politics, history, and religion. More broadly, the desire to be a man of letters, learning, writing, and conversing with others of similar interests entirely at his leisure, seems to be something close to the utopian ideal of those who push a universal basic income, so I wonder if with more funding for education, more people would become more philosophically inclined if the need for regular work were to be removed.

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