- The Riddle of Hume's Treatise :Skepticism, Naturalism, and Irreligion
Paul Russell begins his book by rightly noting, "almost all commentators over the past two and a half centuries have agreed that Hume's intentions in the Treatise should be interpreted in terms of two general themes: skepticism and naturalism" (vii). The skeptical reading interprets Hume's principal aim as showing that "our 'common sense beliefs' (e.g. belief in causality, independent existence of bodies, in the self, etc.) lack any foundation in reason" (4). The naturalist reading interprets Hume's aims according to the "science of man," derived from experience and observation. As described in the Introduction to the Treatise, this science is meant to explain the "principles of human nature" and thereby put the other sciences "on a foundation entirely new, and the only one upon which they can stand with any security."
The "riddle" of the Treatise is how to understand the relationship between the skeptical and naturalistic dimensions of the work—dimensions that "seem to be equally essential to what [Hume] is trying to achieve," but which nevertheless appear "inherently opposed and irreconcilable" (7). Russell puts forward a novel and challenging solution. He argues that the relationship of the skepticism and naturalism in the Treatise can be made intelligible when we see that "it is problems of religion broadly conceived, that hold the contents of the Treatise together as a unified work" (viii). "More specifically," he goes on, "the direction and structure of Hume's thought in the Treatise is shaped on one side by his attack on the Christian metaphysics and morals and on the other by his efforts to construct in its place a secular, scientific account of morality."
Russell makes his case by situating Hume's epistemological, metaphysical, and moral arguments principally within debates between "religious philosophers" and "speculative atheists." The religious philosophers include, most centrally, Cudworth, Clarke, and "the school of Newtonian philosophers and theologians" (34), with Hobbes and "freethinkers" like Toland, Collins, and Tindal arrayed against them.
In the main part of the book, Russell demonstrates in great detail how Hume's most well-known arguments and themes from Book I of the Treatise—the theory of ideas, space and time, causation, the material world, induction—are motivated by "irreligious objectives" (129). He does this by providing very strong evidence that Hume knew the relevant (mostly British) debates, references the arguments, and offers intentionally irreligious solutions (as noticed by Hume's contemporaries and critics) to a variety of problems in epistemology and metaphysics.
It is difficult to do justice in such a short review to the sophistication of Russell's analyses. To take one of many examples, Russell explains how Hume's theory of ideas, rather than something simply adopted from Locke and Berkeley, instead follows Hobbes and expresses irreligious intentions by defending skepticism about our knowledge of God. Russell shows how religious thinkers tried to respond to the claim made by Hobbes that we have no idea of God. Either they insisted that we have knowledge of God through reason rather than through the senses, or they defended the view that our idea of God comes from analogy with ideas of ourselves and of nature. Hume is largely silent about our idea of God, but it is clear, as Russell argues, that he is aware of these debates and that his theory knowingly undermines claims by religious thinkers to possess knowledge of God. We have no simple impressions from which we can derive the idea of God, nor do we have ideas of the divine attributes (power, unity, intelligence, etc.) sufficient to provide us with a clear idea of the divinity.
One reservation: though it is generally true that many commentators have situated Hume's philosophy within the most rudimentary of historical contexts, exceptions abound in treatments of his moral (and political) thought. Here, we find a number of historically sophisticated and philosophically astute accounts of Hume—often written by scholars in disciplines other than philosophy. But Russell's analysis either...