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  • The Philosopher’s Seduction: Hume and the Fair Sex
  • Vicki J. Sapp

Following the failed reception of his Treatise David Hume turned to writing essays and published these in various editions throughout his career. Among the first offerings were essays addressing “the female reader,” “the ladies,” or “the fair sex” in that current habit which Jonathan Swift labelled “fair-sexing it.” Hume’s Victorian editors T. H. Green and T. H. Grose classified and commented upon these woman-appeal essays “apparently designed to attract the attention of ladies, and marked by the mannerisms of what was then a fashionable literature,” concluding that these “can hardly have been much to their writer’s taste, and . . . mingle strangely with a series of discussions on the British Constitution.” 1 Green and Grose refer to the fact that Hume gradually eliminated his woman-appeal essays from the editions; today, we find these “literary” texts safely removed from the “moral and political” frame and anthologized as “Essays Withdrawn and Unpublished” in the two modern editions of Hume’s essays. 2

Following Hume’s apparent cue, the critical tradition has paid little heed to the woman-appeal essays except in those cases where kind neglect has given over to insult or factionalism. From the former category we find contemporary readers such as M. A. Box who in his rhetorical analysis of Hume’s opus echoes earlier judgments of these essays as frivolous, mercenary, essentially devoid of substantive or stylistic worth—and most certainly unphilosophical. In the latter case, scattered commentators from the 1970s and 1980s reflecting those decades’ gynocritical trend built cases for Hume’s “sexism” (primarily) or “feminism” (most notably the philosopher Annette Baier). And Jerome Christensen has attended to Hume’s female reader in his [End Page 1] elaborate theoretical play with Hume’s gender as a metaphor for his literary ambitions. 3

What is curious is that each of the above readers has passed over the woman-appeal essays in favor of Hume’s “serious” writing (for example, Treatise, Book III, Part II, sect. xii, “Of Chastity and Modesty”) or his letters, even though the rejected woman-appeal essays are obviously rich sources for a study of Hume’s gender perspectives. It is true that in “Of Chastity and Modesty” Hume offers what is perhaps his best evidence of society’s conventional as opposed to metaphysical foundations, in his argument that the laws of chastity governing female education and behavior are certainly “notions . . . founded on the public interest,” that is, patriarchal property interest. In the woman-appeal essays Hume actually works out, by illustration, the gender-biased foundational intricacies of his social contract philosophy, especially the importance of education to the regulation of society: “As publick praise and blame encrease our esteem for justice; so private education and instruction contribute to the same effect . . . . For these reasons [parents] are induc’d to inculcate on their children, from the earliest infancy, the principles of probity, and teach them to regard the observance of these rules, by which society is maintain’d, as worthy and honourable, and their violation as base and infamous.” 4

The rejected woman-appeal essays include titles that bespeak a focus on gender, education, and social formation (“Of Love and Marriage,” “Of Moral Prejudice”), as well as titles that appear more public or scholarly: “Of Essay Writing,” “Of the Study of History.” In spite of their topical neutrality or marginally “political” tone, these latter two I identify as Hume’s core woman-appeal essays. In them Hume brings the female reader into the spotlight, inviting her into a dialogue with the male philosopher-essayist; she is to share in a sort of Humean Utopia of gender-mixed educated, genteel company servicing the ends of true philosophy in the marriage of intellection and experience. As overt appeals to “women of Sense and Education” featuring some gestures towards gender equality, these essays, one suspects, were doomed to eventual rejection by both Hume and a subsequent critical tradition prone to the kneejerk devaluation of woman-appeal.

I offer here evidence that the rejected essays do have “philosophical” merit as they take up or dramatize core ideas of Treatise philosophy. These essays also feature some...

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