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Practicing Enlightenment, by Jerome Christensen; xii & 284 pp. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987, $40.00 cloth, $19.75 paper. Discussed by Alfred Louch Yeats wrote of the choice between "perfection of the life or of the work." One can polish a performance and yet it will be all the same a skiUed deception. The perfection of the life, on the other hand, excludes representation. It has to do with authenticity; style goes unnoticed , the mode of representation is transparent. The irony is, poets sing, deceptively, of the perfect life. In Practicing Enlightenment Jerome Christensen takes another view. The choice of perfections is not as it were between artifice and nature, but between two forms of artifice. The life is as much a literary or artistic production as the work. In the case of the creative life this allows him to ask whether (for example) the life is consistent with the work, or an adumbration of it, just as one might compare two works from the same hand and marvel at their striking differences, or their satisfying similarities. It also allows him to appraise and to explain a life by the standards of style and representation, consequences of the technique, which come across somehow as unsatisfactorily derived moral judgments . The theme of Practicing Enlightenment is not Hume, but Hume. The author of the Treatise, Enquiries, the essays on taste, politics and economics and religion, and the History of England is not so much the corpulent person who wrote these works, the Scot who enjoyed the plaudits and the affections of French Society, the skeptic who disap163 164Philosophy and Literature pointed Boswell when lying at death's door, but another text into which the books claiming Hume's authorship are sandwiched as chapters, or sometimes footnotes. I will return to what appear to be general problems with this strategy. But it is first worth noting how agreeable a subject Hume is for such treatment. The best picture of Hume's character is his autobiography, and the most prominent thing about that short work is his candid admission that his life was driven by a passion for literary fame. Here is justification of sorts, I suppose, for substituting Hume-as-text for Hume as the portly author of texts: Hume wrote, therefore he was. A biography of Hume without the books would be no biography at all. Still, a good intellectual biography should not be indifferent to the gossip of Hume's contemporaries about his party manners, his friendships and his amorous adventures, his various employments and employers . They stand as conjectured influences on his choice of phrase or topic, the puzzles he addressed and those he ignored. There is no reason why influences on writing are necessarily, or obviously, other writings. Those so addicted to reading habits as to delight in Christensen 's imaginative embroidery of the texts of the Treatise and of Hume (the text) will on the other hand welcome the long-forgotten volume of Popular Mechanics, Henry Pemberton's A View of Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophy, where they will find the source for Hume's addiction to the mechanics of the mind and its trinity of laws. Carrying on in that vein textualists will seek the uninterrupted pagination of Hume's life in the influence of Locke, Montesquieu, or Descartes. But one's life of Hume becomes stretched, tattered, and conjectural in consequence. To weave a seamless web of his life out of a deep reading of, say, Descartes, requires an anachronistic conception ofreading. It presumes not merely an acquaintance with a book—something Hume once held in his hand and leafed through—but a style of reading which eighteenth-century authors surely never expected or their readers seldom practiced. How carefuUy could people read, sitting by their candles? And remember, Hume is almost the last philosopher—certainly the last of the apostolic dozen we suppose it the duty of all philosophy students to know—who wrote as a public man rather than as a professor. (I don't mean to say that philosophy is captured by the academy with the publication of The CritiqueofPureReason. Indeed, to hear the roll-call ofnineteenth-century savants—Bentham, Mill, Kierkegaard, or...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 163-171
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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