Historical Thinker, Historical Writer
Edited by Mark G. Spencer
Historical Thinker, Historical Writer
Edited by Mark G. Spencer
“David Hume: Historical Thinker, Historical Writer is a timely and wide-ranging reevaluation of a major facet of Hume’s writing. This collection shows how ‘Hume the historian’ was evolving through his philosophical works and essays, both before and during the period of his great historical writing.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
Aside from the editor, the contributors are David Allan, M. A. Box, Timothy M. Costelloe, Roger L. Emerson, Jennifer Herdt, Philip Hicks, Douglas Long, Claudia M. Schmidt, Michael Silverthorne, Jeffrey M. Suderman, Mark R. M. Towsey, and F. L. van Holthoon.
“David Hume: Historical Thinker, Historical Writer is a timely and wide-ranging reevaluation of a major facet of Hume’s writing. This collection shows how ‘Hume the historian’ was evolving through his philosophical works and essays, both before and during the period of his great historical writing.”
“David Hume was both a philosopher and a historian, and unlike some practitioners of the two crafts, his thinking in each area deeply influenced his thinking in the other. The chapters in this thought-provoking volume explore the mutual implications from many different angles. The upshot is a sense that in Hume’s world all of philosophy and history take place within a history of human habit and custom, not Providence or Reason. But that does not mean that Hume is merely a ‘conservative,’ as so many have said, nor that he was simply a supporter of the aristocracy. Rather, both his historical and his philosophical thinking were complex, critical, skeptical, occasionally contradictory, but ultimately profoundly illuminating and hopeful.”
“Hume the historian and Hume the philosopher are not distinct thinkers, and to understand the whole Hume, even the truer Hume, his thought must be understood comprehensively. Mark Spencer offers readers an invaluable book-length set of investigations to help us do just that. The volume therefore not only fills a rather massive lacuna in Hume scholarship by plumbing the philosophical depths of Hume the historian; it also rounds out and adds nuance to our understanding of Hume the philosopher.”
“A wide-ranging collection of new studies that cannot fail to be of interest to Hume scholars and students of historiography and eighteenth-century thought. The essays range from studies of the historical imagination, the limits of sympathy, and historical causation to essays on ecclesiastical history, medieval kingship, and the end of history to the reception of Hume’s History of England in England and Scotland. The volume concludes with an erudite and engaging study of Hume on the populousness of ancient nations.”
“In his own day Hume was better known as an historian than as a philosopher. The opposite is the case today. This collection of eleven essays forwards the rebalancing of the study of Hume’s thought as a whole, and helps to set out his true place in the history of ideas. David Hume: Historical Thinker, Historical Writer will do much to nourish a holistic conception of Hume’s thought.”
“Offering essays that consistently are of high quality, this collection is an excellent contribution to Hume scholarship.”
“For the past century, David Hume’s philosophy has been extensively studied. But in his own time and for more than a century thereafter, he was best known as a historian. His six-volume History of England set the standard for secular history in the late eighteenth century. Hume’s History fell from scholarly grace in the late nineteenth century and is now largely ignored. Mark Spencer’s book promises to resurrect interest in Hume’s historical writings, which should result ina more balanced understanding of Hume’s thought.
“. . . David Hume: Historical Thinker, Historical Writer recognizes a scholarly lacuna, makes initial strides toward filling it, and promises to inspire additional work in the area.”
“The essays in this excellent volume tend to praise Hume’s endeavours as a philosophical historian and historical philosopher. Nevertheless, a little more skepticism as to the limits of Hume’s historical vision — confined to Whig and Tory, and British and European perspectives — would further elucidate Hume’s strengths and weaknesses as a historical thinker.”
Mark G. Spencer is Associate Professor of History at Brock University.
Method of Citation
Introduction: Hume as Historian (Mark G. Spencer)
1 Hume and Ecclesiastical History: Aims and Contexts (Roger L. Emerson)
2 Artificial Lives, Providential History, and the Apparent Limits of Sympathetic Understanding (Jennifer A. Herdt)
3 “The Spirit of Liberty”: Historical Causation and Political Rhetoric in the Age of Hume (Philip Hicks)
4 “The Book Seemed to Sink into Oblivion”: Reading Hume’s History in Eighteenth-Century Scotland (Mark Towsey)
5 Reading Hume’s History of England: Audience and Authority in Georgian England (David Allan)
6 Medieval Kingship and the Making of Modern Civility: Hume’s Assessment of Governance in The History of England (Jeffrey M. Suderman)
7 Hume and the End of History (F. L. van Holthoon)
8 David Hume as a Philosopher of History (Claudia M. Schmidt)
9 Fact and Fiction: Memory and Imagination in Hume’s Approach to History and Literature (Timothy M. Costelloe)
10 Hume’s Historiographical Imagination (Douglas Long)
11 The “Most Curious & Important of All Questions of Erudition”: Hume’s Assessment of the Populousness of Ancient Nations (M. A. Box and Michael Silverthorne)
List of Contributors
Hume as Historian
Mark G. Spencer
David Hume (1711–1776) appreciated the centrality of historical thinking and writing to the enlightened world within which he lived. As the aging scholar put it reflectively in 1770 in a letter to his London publisher, William Strahan, “I believe this is the historical Age and this the historical Nation” (L 2:230). By then, of course, Hume had done much to contribute to that state of affairs in Britain and beyond. All six volumes of his The History of England, from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution in 1688 (1754–62) had been published and were circulating far and wide throughout the British Atlantic world. Hume’s History would continue to attract large numbers of readers for the remainder of the author’s lifetime and remained a best seller well into the nineteenth century. Little wonder that the card for Hume in the catalogue of the British Library differentiated him then (as it still does) as “David Hume, the historian.” The records left by the earliest readers of Hume’s History—even its noisiest critics—provide telling evidence of how influential Hume’s account was and also of just how much history mattered to Hume and his contemporaries.
If we want to recapture the essence of Hume’s place in the eighteenth-century history of ideas, then surely his historical thinking and writing ought to inform our understandings to a significant degree. But modern scholars have been far less interested in Hume as historical thinker and writer than were Hume’s contemporaries. It is Hume the philosopher, and especially Hume the philosopher of book 1 of A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–40), whom scholars of Hume and general readers alike now know best. The Treatise—the work that Hume lamented “fell dead-born from the press”—rose to become standard reading in undergraduate philosophy courses around the world, while the History had died a slow death by the early twentieth century, so that now few besides specialists know its contents well. The number of book-length studies on Hume as historian published in the past hundred years are few, and there have been even fewer attempts to consider Hume as historical thinker and writer in a broader sense than as a historian of England. The chapters that follow cannot hope to right this historiographical imbalance, but each is an outstanding contribution toward that end, and together they provide a solid foundation on which future work may build.
The aim, of course, should not be to replace a misguided concentration on only Hume’s philosophical writings with a misguided concentration on only the historical ones. Indeed, each of the chapters in this volume shows that the relationship between Hume’s “historical” works and his “philosophical” works is more intimate than scholars have often assumed. Gone for good are the days when one can offhandedly assert, as R. G. Collingwood once did, that Hume “deserted philosophical studies in favour of historical” ones. Taken together, though, the following chapters offer much greater insight than that.
Casting their individual beams of light on various nooks and crannies of Hume’s historical thought and writing, these chapters illuminate the whole in a way that would not be possible from the perspective of a single-authored study. Their transdisciplinary and international perspectives are complementary, while at the same time they complicate our understanding of Hume’s intentions, texts, and impact. The approaches to Hume in this volume vary, sometimes considerably. A number of chapters offer close readings of themes in Hume’s History of England. Others approach Hume the historical thinker and writer through his Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary (in which many of the essays have historical leanings or are informed by historical dimensions), through his Natural History of Religion, or through the ecclesiastical history Hume contemplated but did not write. Clearly, none of those works was divorced from Hume’s broader and long-developing philosophical concerns as the chapters below so aptly demonstrate. Other contributors to this volume fill in essential parts of the context in which Hume’s historical thought developed or flesh out the reception his historical writings received. Others still tease out the historical features of Hume’s more seemingly philosophical writings, his Treatise of Human Nature, and his later recasting of that work in An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748) and An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals (1751). In short, it is not just that it is wrongheaded to pigeonhole Hume as “philosopher” at one point in his literary career and as “historian” at another; history and philosophy are commensurate in Hume’s thought and works from the beginning to the end. Only by recognizing this can we begin to make sense of Hume’s canon as a whole. Only then are we able to see clearly his many contributions to fields we now recognize as the distinct disciplines of history, philosophy, political science, economics, literature, religious studies, and much else besides.
In chapter 1, “Hume and Ecclesiastical History: Aims and Contexts,” Roger L. Emerson asks why Hume “might have wanted to write an ecclesiastical history and what sort of a history he would have written had he done one.” Starting with the surviving textual evidence, Emerson establishes Hume’s interest in the topic of ecclesiastical history and, drawing on a plethora of printed and manuscript sources, situates Hume’s aims in the contexts of his own life, the Scottish Enlightenment, and larger trends in European history. Emerson notes that “to write ecclesiastical history as Hume had seen it in The History of England would be to destroy the field in the interests of more enlightened ways of thinking.” Moreover, that was “where lasting fame and real money were to be found and perhaps where some contribution might be made to what he called at the end of this life ‘the downfall of some of the prevailing systems of superstition.’” Hume would have been tempted by all of this. Emerson fleshes out Hume’s Scottish context with extended accounts of Patrick Cuming, Charles Mackie, and William Rouet, among others whom Emerson knows well but who are not often referred to in the Hume literature, as vast as it is. By 1720, long before Hume turned his critical gaze in that direction, practitioners found it increasingly “difficult to see ecclesiastical history in the blinkered way that had previously prevailed.” But Hume’s ecclesiastical history, had he written one, may not have been the sort that enlightened contemporaries such as Voltaire and other philosophes wanted Hume to write. After all, Hume the historian always “sought to play a moderating and evenhanded role.” So when Hume “said he did not want to write an ecclesiastical history because he prized his peace, he may not have been referring only to attacks by the orthodox.” Emerson concludes that the “peace [Hume] was loath to forego” toward the close of his life “would have been disturbed by Catholics and Protestants but also by infidels and philosophes who wanted to écraser l’infâme” in a way that was not Hume’s.
Chapter 2 is also concerned with the intersection between Hume’s historical thought and his religious concerns. In “Artificial Lives, Providential History, and the Apparent Limits of Sympathetic Understanding,” Jennifer A. Herdt considers Hume as “a proponent of a hermeneutic philosophy of history,” maintaining that Hume considered religious lives a breed apart. Moreover, it “remains the case in contemporary historiography that religion is often subjected to reductionistic analysis in scholarship otherwise devoted to the task of understanding people on their own terms.” Herdt provides a historiographical overview, giving attention to seminal works by David Fate Norton and Richard Popkin, and especially Donald W. Livingston, whose account of Hume’s limits of moral explanation she challenges head on. With reference to the Essays but also the Treatise and “A Dialogue,” which was appended to Hume’s Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, Herdt pieces together Hume’s historical perspective, seeing clearly what many twentieth-century commentators did not, that “Hume was optimistic about the possibility of achieving sympathetic understanding of foreign points of view, and insistent that this understanding did not imply moral relativism.” The key for Hume in understanding any historical situation was what Herdt here and elsewhere helpfully names “thicker description.” Hume saw “a limit to the scope of sympathetic understanding” because such a perspective was “possible only where people are governed by ‘maxims of common life and ordinary conduct’; not where they live artificial lives, governed by speculative beliefs that contradict the maxims of ordinary life.” Drawing on a key passage in the second Enquiry—one that figures in important ways in other chapters in this collection—where Hume derides monkish virtues, Herdt argues that Hume does not succeed “in drawing a sharp boundary between natural and artificial lives, maxims, and practices.” Rather, he “illegitimately excuses himself from the task of sympathetic understanding by suggesting that lives dedicated to the pursuit of ends that do not conform to his own substantive understanding of what is truly ‘useful’ or ‘agreeable’ are in fact pursuing no goods at all and undermine the conditions of the possibility of human life and flourishing.” She hints—with a nod to Hume’s method of “thick description”—that a fuller appreciation of the providential histories available to eighteenth-century thinkers will show “that Hume’s own grand story line of the improvement of the human mind will no longer appear sharply distinct from at least some forms of providential history.” “If religious belief is utterly incoherent and religious lives utterly self-defeating, sympathetic understanding is inherently impossible,” Herdt writes; “so why attempt it at all?” In her critical reading, Hume did not show “that in theistic convictions or monkish virtues sympathetic understanding comes up against its limits.” This she finds unfortunate, for “the historian’s first task”—whether in the eighteenth century or now—“remains that of seeking sympathetic understanding.”
Emerson and Herdt both complicate our understanding of Hume’s historical approach to religious topics; and so too does Philip Hicks, in his chapter, “‘The Spirit of Liberty’: Historical Causation and Political Rhetoric in the Age of Hume.” Hicks writes that “one of Hume’s goals was to write an utterly secular account of the English past,” but using the phrase “the spirit of liberty” was ironic, as it “actually made it resemble providence to a startling degree.” What is up here? Before turning to Hume’s text for an answer, Hicks traces the history of the phrase as employed by Machiavelli and others, and especially as it was used by Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, and, following him, James Thompson. Hicks reminds us that “Hume first cut his teeth as a political thinker observing the titanic struggle between Bolingbroke and Walpole,” and in his political essays and then in the History of England, Hume distilled the British civil wars down to a battle between Charles I and “the spirit of liberty.” Reading Hume’s History as a unified whole in the light cast by his Essays, Hicks shows Hume to be a master of historical summary. The Essays also give us a better context for understanding the close relationship between “liberty” and “enthusiasm” in Hume’s historical narrative. Quoting an important passage from the History in which Hume had argued that the spirit of enthusiasm “strongly disposed [the Puritans’] minds to adopt republican tenets; and inclined them to arrogate, in their actions and conduct, the same liberty, which they assumed, in their rapturous flights and ecstasies,” Hicks rightly sees that for Hume, “the spirit of enthusiasm and the spirit of liberty more or less worked in tandem, mutually reinforcing one another’s influence.” Thus, “the overall effect of using this bare phrase in the way Hume did was to minimize or ignore liberty’s religious connotations and play up its positive, civic qualities.” Hicks began with the historical use of the phrase “the spirit of liberty” before Hume, and he concludes by investigating the phrase in writings after Hume, including writings by British authors such as John Brown, William Robertson, and Catharine Macaulay. Tracing the phrase to American shores, Hicks teases out its meaning for American revolutionaries such as John and Abigail Adams, Josiah Quincy Jr., and Mercy Otis Warren, thereby masterfully illuminating Hume’s place in connecting the “revolutionary politics” of the seventeenth century with that of the eighteenth century.
Several other chapters in this volume also contribute to our understanding of Hume by elucidating the different contexts in which Hume wrote and was read. In chapter 4, “‘The Book Seemed to Sink into Oblivion’: Reading Hume’s History in Eighteenth-Century Scotland,” Mark Towsey explores known readers of The History of England to see what they can tell us about Hume the historian. In particular, Towsey attempts “to explain the extraordinarily widespread consumption of Hume’s History of England, in spite of readers’ serious (and very widely documented) reservations about its political and religious shortcomings.” Towsey discusses the assessments of Hume in prominent reviews—such as Roger Flexman’s in the Monthly Review and Tobias Smollett’s in the Critical Review—but the real charm of this chapter is the attention given to lesser-known readers of Hume, who range from David Boyle of Sherralton to Hanna Hume, from the Jacobite Sir James Steuart of Coltness to the Duchess of Atholl, and even to the Church of Scotland minister the Reverend William Cameron. Towsey finds that “Hume’s History was standard issue for polite libraries and genteel drawing rooms across the country, eagerly acquired by dukes, MPs, and lairds; transatlantic merchants and enterprising industrialists; lawyers, physicians, and clergymen; as well as more modest consumers such as William Munro, a Highland cattle dealer; Duncan Chisholm, a leather merchant in Inverness; and John Surtees, an iron founder in Markinch.” Delving into the borrowing records of the charitable Gray Library in Haddington, we find that “Hume’s borrowers included a tanner, a tailor, a haberdasher, and a shoemaker, alongside the more usual clergymen, lawyers, bankers, customs officials, and town magistrates.” Towsey finds that “there are strong grounds for regarding Hume’s History as one of the most influential pedagogical texts of the Georgian period. It was consistently recommended by professional reviewers, literary critics, conduct writers, and didactic novelists as the best guide to English history yet written, while amateur readers embraced its canonical status by including it in their autodidactic commonplace books, abridgements, and abstracts.” We can see much more clearly than we could have without assembling this evidence that Hume’s History of England “forced contemporary readers to negotiate for themselves Hume’s various critics, the ‘English, Scotch, and Irish, Whig and Tory, churchman and sectary, freethinker and religionist, patriot and courtier [who] united in their rage’ against him.” In coaching his readers in his light-handed way, Hume “helped to fashion in them the sense of moderation, tolerance, and fair-mindedness that was crucial to polite readers in the Age of Enlightenment.”
In chapter 5, we turn from Towsey’s eighteenth-century Scottish readers of Hume to “Reading Hume’s History of England: Audience and Authority in Georgian England.” Here, David Allan aims to go a step beyond recent research into the printed reception accorded Hume, asking “how those who did not feel compelled—or who simply lacked the opportunity—to cast their experiences as readers in published form responded” to Hume. We find that there were many readers indeed of Hume’s History in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England: Anglican clergymen, middling-sort professionals, merchants, industrialists, and men (and women) of the landed elite are all known to have had Hume’s History on their bookshelves. Those who did not own the History personally often had access to Hume’s text through its place on the shelves of library societies, circulating libraries, and other collections of books that were accumulated during this period. What did these various readers make of Hume’s text? Allan souses out surveying evidence in the form of annotations in surviving copies of Hume’s History while also exploring more extended encounters with Hume found in the pages of various commonplace books. It is here that Allan makes his most substantial findings. Commonplace books offer us a window on “sophisticated reflections upon people’s experiences with texts.” Allan brings to light several key commonplace reflections of Hume. William Constable, a Catholic gentleman from Yorkshire, kept a volume entitled “Notebook of Extracts from Works of David Hume,” in which he appeared to be particularly interested in passages that “were capable of being read as comparatively well-disposed towards the traditional Catholic position.” Others who commonplaced Hume include Charles Lee, who considered Hume a “Monarchical Writer;” the Reverend James Gambier in Kent, who recorded in one passage that the “Spirit of Philosophy which animates his Work gives it a manifest Superiority over most of the English Histories by which it is preceeded”; and James Smith, “a Unitarian wool merchant from Norwich.” Hume’s History, Allan justifiably concludes, “is a rare example of a text with which it is possible to make meaningful progress” in our efforts to document the responses recorded by “long-lost early readers.”
Towsey and Allan show us a range of contemporary British responses to Hume’s History of England, and in chapter 6, Jeffrey M. Suderman explains why it was that Hume’s early readers were often baffled by his narrative. In “Medieval Kingship and the Making of Modern Civility: Hume’s Assessment of Governance in The History of England,” Suderman argues that the “modern reader, already inclined to ignore Hume’s History in favor of his more overtly philosophical works, is tempted to pass lightly over the assessments of England’s kings scattered throughout the medieval volumes.” But Suderman rightly reminds us that these volumes “constituted the last major production of [Hume’s] literary career” and that it is here that we have “Hume’s most seasoned judgments on the nature of executive government.” This approach also allows Suderman to see “civility” as an overarching concern of Hume’s—one that encompassed “liberty,” a topic that scholars have given much attention to, but not in this context. Surveying Hume’s assessment of kings worthy (Alfred is the prime example) and reprehensible (John I, and to a lesser degree Richard III and Edward II, for instance), Suderman finds a story line centered on themes of liberty and tyranny. Hume seems to be saying, “If the want of liberty was the consequence of weak governance, then perhaps liberty itself, at least that which can be found in the medieval world, depended upon the efforts of bold and powerful monarchs.” Moreover, the “term ‘tyranny,’ if applied equally to innocent but powerless kings and to vigorous and innovative monarchs, can have little meaning.” Hume knew well that these terms had been “thrown about incautiously by party apologists”; as a philosophical historian, he would be more cautious and measured. Still, Hume’s assessment of those, like Edward, who fall between these extremes contains other lessons. Suderman’s reading makes good sense of several passages from the History that commentators have had difficulty interpreting; he finds that for Hume, “the most admirable monarchs in English history are to be found” in “barbarous ages,” when there was an “absence of a continuous rule of law.” “In a remarkable piece of philosophical detachment,” Hume “chastises Edward only for the unnecessary severity of his administrative style and the counterproductive assaults upon Scottish customs.” Suderman’s nuanced reading shows that “Hume seldom made direct comparisons of good and bad monarchs, effective and ineffective reigns.” Here, like in so much else that he wrote, Hume expected his readers to be active participants. Hume’s heroes “were not kings who bent tamely before a timeless constitution, but instead powerful, innovative, and aggressive kings who created the rule of law out of chaos.” What baffled his contemporary audience was that “Hume was retelling a Whig story with a Tory cast of characters.” Moreover, “Hume hoped that, by showing his audience how its modern freedoms had really been won, it would be spared the absolutism that had made them possible.”
Like Suderman, F. L. van Holthoon sees Hume as a historian who aimed “to judge persons and events” in an effort to “learn from the past so that we do not become its prisoner.” In chapter 7, “Hume and the End of History,” van Holthoon identifies three ways in which scholars have interpreted the historical lessons of Hume’s History of England: “Hume as neoclassical historian, the History as the product of a scientific Whig, and reason in history as the leading theme of Hume’s History.” Van Holthoon sketches the historiography related to each of those approaches, finding they have things to offer but suggesting an alternative approach in their stead. Drawing on his vast research into Hume’s revisions to the History, van Holthoon points our attention to a key change that Hume made at the conclusion to the history of the Stuarts. In the edition of 1757, Hume had first “presented his story as an antidote against Whig propaganda,” but by 1770, it had become “a cautionary tale against the risks of liberty to authority and the need to keep a balance between the two.” Another noteworthy passage informing van Holthoon’s assessment is Hume’s conclusion to the second volume on the Middle Ages, one also quoted by Suderman. Like Suderman, van Holthoon cautions that Hume scholars have too often looked to Hume’s History for its story of liberty. We are better served to think of it as “A Study of Authority,” with a prominent part being played by Elizabeth I, “Hume’s heroine.” When we approach the History from this perspective and in its entirety rather than piecemeal, seemingly troublesome passages fall into place. For instance, the “four appendices are like slides in a magic lantern,” each offering “a stock-taking of the functioning of authority in English history at certain moments in time.” We also see that although Hume “earned his reputation as a Tory historian because of his defense of Charles I,” like the other Stuarts, Charles did not have “the prudence and the skill to ensure stability,” and that is what led to 1688, “the end of history” for the English. These themes van Holthoon traces through Hume’s political and economic essays, showing that as a historical thinker and writer, “Hume had a remarkable unity of purpose,” and this is partly why “his History has stood the test of time.”
Both van Holthoon and Suderman emphasize the importance of historical context in Hume’s scheme of historical judgment. In chapter 8, the late Claudia M. Schmidt has added to that developing image in her broad-ranging considerations in “David Hume as a Philosopher of History.” Providing a survey of the origins and development of the “philosophy of history,” Schmidt argues this historiography lends itself to a “twofold typology” aligned with “two divergent conceptions of philosophy in general: the ‘speculative’ or ‘substantive’ and the ‘analytic’ or ‘critical.’” Schmidt recommends a third possibility, one that comes out of her reading of Emil Falkenheim and David Carr and which she describes as the “existential philosophy of history,” an “approach to the philosophical study of history and human nature that examines the influence of historical existence on human consciousness.” Viewing Hume’s corpus in light of these three divisions, Schmidt finds that “a sequence of seemingly disparate passages” might advantageously be linked to reveal Hume’s coherent philosophy of history. A speculative and analytic philosopher of history, Schmidt’s Hume offers “a tentative theory . . . of progress” and recommends a causal understanding of human actions and historical testimony. But Schmidt also argues that Hume’s existential philosophy of history “is an underlying principle in his philosophical system.” Here she emphasizes Hume’s attentiveness to historical context, a theme others touch on to good effect in this volume as well. Hume presents to his readers “an account of the influence of historical existence over human consciousness, which directs us to consider the historical context of human thought, emotion, and action.” In a final section, Schmidt traces Hume’s subsequent impact as a philosopher of history in the works of Auguste Comte, Hegel, John Herschel, J. S. Mill, Carl Hempel, Johann Gottfried Herder, and J. G. Hamann, among others.
Several of the contributors to this volume, including Schmidt, note that there are interesting links to be worked out between Hume’s comments on aesthetics and his study of history. Timothy M. Costelloe takes up part of that challenge in chapter 9, “Fact and Fiction: Memory and Imagination in Hume’s Approach to History and Literature.” Noting that Hume both “juxtaposes” and “compares” what he artfully refers to as “the craft of the historian to the art of the poet,” Costelloe investigates further to see what this reveals about Hume’s understanding of the rules for literary and historical composition. Starting with the poet and drawing heavily on Hume’s sections on memory and imagination in book 1 of the Treatise of Human Nature, Costelloe shows how for Hume there are “three general rules of criticism that are tantamount to techniques, which if followed can guide the creation of successful poetry, and if ignored would produce the opposite.” Turning with that knowledge to Hume as historian, Costelloe argues that for Hume “history is a true copy, a veridical depiction, in contrast to the speculation of narratives that from error, fancy, or dogmatism, depart from matter of fact.” Or, as he puts it later: “Historians, in short, distinguish fact from fiction, as ideas of memory can be separated from those of imagination; they discern the real shape of events under the clutter with which contemporary reports and time have effectively masked them.” But that is not to say there is no role for the imagination—far from it. Hume perceives that there is “a chain . . . which leads from the present into remote regions of the past, but the links are images of events and the connections between them shadows to be illuminated.” Important choices must be made about what facts are to be included in any narrative and how those facts are to be relayed. For Hume, “history still involves manipulating the reader” in an effort “to effect the easy transition of ideas in the imagination.” Costelloe constructs from Hume’s text a number of “rules of historical criticism”: historical accounts must “carry conviction,” have a “plan and design,” and aim to “imitate nature.” Compositions that followed those rules, Hume thought, might live up to history’s essential role as an instructor in morals.
Chapter 10, Douglas Long’s “Hume’s Historiographical Imagination,” shares some ground with Costelloe and Schmidt but recommends an even more central place for the imagination in Hume’s thought and writings. Long argues that it is “by means of our imagination that we construct the context in which we situate our direct experiences of the world.” In the first part of his essay, Long pursues his theme by looking closely at two important qualities of the imagination: its “sympathetic character” and “constructive power.” In part II, Long differentiates Hume’s thought from that of Adam Smith, Thomas Hobbes, and Michel de Montaigne. Bringing Smith’s understanding of sympathy into the mix, Long differentiates Hume’s thought from that of his close friend. This allows us to see more clearly that the History of England “is philosophical history—it is a conventional historical narrative transformed and enlivened by the unprecedented application to historical narrative of Hume’s sympathetic imagination.” Long also maps the “universe of the imagination,” by comparing Hume to Hobbes and Montaigne, two thinkers with whom Hume engaged. In a third section, Long turns to Hume’s discussions of space and time in the Treatise for “insights into the nature and value of the historian’s activities.” He shows that “Hume’s image of a ‘universe of the imagination,’ centered on and bounded by the self, yet paradoxically conveying a vivid sense of the isolation of the self in a vast sea of spatial and temporal phenomena, deserves to be carefully examined as one of the seminal metaphors of modern social, historical, and political thought.” Approaching Hume’s History from this vantage point, Long draws several conclusions, including that the History is “a Herculean attempt to overcome the resistance of historical data to narrative ordering—a sort of fling at cleaning out the Augean stables of historicity.” It is, then, Hume’s effort to map the imagination that so closely links the goals of the Treatise with the History of England and much else that Hume wrote in between. Long reminds us, in his intriguing essay “Of the Study of History,” that Hume tellingly remarked, “we should be for ever children in understanding, were it not for this invention, which extends our experience to all past ages, and to the most distant nations; making them contribute as much to our improvement in wisdom, as if they had actually lain under our observation.”
In chapter 11, “The ‘Most Curious & Important of All Questions of Erudition’: Hume’s Assessment of the Populousness of Ancient Nations,” M. A. Box and Michael Silverthorne turn our attention to Hume’s essay on that topic. This essay—which has received relatively little scholarly attention—has penetrating light to cast on Hume’s dimensions as historian. Box and Silverthorne note at the outset that Hume here seems to have had two goals in mind: “In its curious aspect, the essay is a virtuoso examination of a historical question about comparative populations; in its implications, it is a polemic about police, manners, and constitutions.” Moreover, “the thesis of the curious examination is expressly skeptical, prescribing suspension of judgment. That of the polemic is an endorsement of modernism and a condemnation of the ancients’ ways.” Box and Silverthorne provide a schematic outline of “Hume’s Skeptical Argument,” whereby Hume offers a critique of Isaac Vossius, Montesquieu, and Robert Wallace. Hume’s arguments related to physical and moral causes are outlined and seen in the context of other essays he wrote as well as the Treatise. But Hume’s “skeptical argument is only as good as Hume’s scholarship.” A real strength of this chapter is its masterful account of Hume’s sources, of which there are dozens, including many classical historians. Plutarch is cited most; Polybius is a “favored source”; Thucydides and Xenophon are “trusted,” as is Xenophon, whose “reliability as a historian rests for Hume on his being a contemporary of the events he narrates.” Less trusted are Herodotus and Livy. Hume’s assessments of Tacitus, Strabo, and Pliny the Elder are more complicated, and extended attention goes to Hume’s critique of Athenaeus’s account of the population of Athens. Several other topics—slavery and infanticide included—are also dissected from the perspective of Hume’s use of sources. Box and Silverthorne conclude that “Hume accumulated from his reading over of ‘almost all the Classics both Greek and Latin’ an astonishing amount of evidence, much of it on the topics that scholars of population in antiquity still use today, and deployed it relentlessly to question, and in many cases, to invalidate definitively, the overconfident generalizations of those admirers of antiquity who had uncritically exaggerated its populousness.” That survey is brought to bear on Hume’s account of “ancient virtue” and “modern luxury.” So what are we to make of Hume’s account? More than anything else, Hume’s “Of the Populousness of Antient Nations” was “a work of history,” but it was also one with ample room for Hume’s skepticism. Hume appears to lead his readers to a rather ambiguous conclusion: “Though we cannot prove that population was lower amongst the ancients, it would be enthusiasm to attempt to fashion society on the supposition that it was higher.”
Far from presenting the final word on Hume as historical thinker and historical writer, the chapters in this book offer fresh and insightful points of departure for further research. Some readers may wish to dip in to particular chapters only, and of course each can be read as a stand-alone piece. But their real power—or so it seems to the volume’s editor—comes in reading them as a connected whole. Historical thinking and historical writing were clearly at the core of Hume’s being. Together, these chapters provide an exceptionally rich account of David Hume as historian.
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