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Critical Review of Recent Introductory Works on Hume

From: Hume Studies
Volume 36, Number 2, 2010
pp. 215-223 | 10.1353/hms.2010.0014

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Critical Review of Recent Introductory Works on Hume
Simon Blackburn. How to Read Hume. London: Granta, 2008. Pp. ix + 118. ISBN 978-1847080332, Paperback, $12.95.
Robert J. Fogelin. Hume’s Skeptical Crisis: A Textual Study. Oxford / New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. xvii + 174. ISBN 978-0-19-538739-1, Hardback, $45.00
John P. Wright. Hume’s ‘A Treatise of Human Nature’: An Introduction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xx + 316, ISBN 9780521833769, Hardback, $100.00, ISBN 9780521541589, Paperback, $31.00.

Simon Blackburn’s How to Read Hume, Robert Fogelin’s Hume’s Skeptical Crisis: A Textual Study and John P. Wright’s Hume’s ‘A Treatise of Human Nature’: An Introduction are all clear and highly readable works directed at audiences of students and other non-specialists. Given that all three of the authors are prominent and distinguished Hume scholars, I suspect these works will be of great interest to Hume specialists as well. This piece first summarizes the aims and methods of each book and next, by way of evaluation, compares and contrasts each author’s work on four features that contribute to the general character of an introductory work devoted to Hume’s philosophy. These features include selection of topics, situation of his philosophy in historical context, treatment of his significance in contemporary [End Page 215] philosophy, and use of scholarly literature. This comparative approach reveals what I think are the strengths and weaknesses of each work.

Blackburn’s book How to Read Hume is part of Granta’s “How to Read” series.1 The How to Read series, according to Series Editor Simon Critchley, are “beginners’ guides to great thinkers” based on a “simple, but novel idea [that] to get close to what a writer is all about, you have to get close to the words they actually use and be shown how to read those words . . . in the company of an expert guide” (vii). Each author chooses ten or so short extracts from a writer’s work and “looks at them in detail as a way of revealing their central ideas” (vii). Blackburn selects extracts from A Treatise of Human Nature for the first seven chapters to support his exploration of the science of human nature, empiricism, causation, the external world, personal identity, the principles of morals, and convention, in addition to extracts from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and from ‘Of the Standard of Taste’ for the final three chapters on miracles, natural religion and taste.

Blackburn claims that Hume is “the greatest” and “most perplexing” British philosopher (1). He intends “to help the reader to understand how both these things can be true, for it is only when we work through the things that make Hume perplexing that we discover the things that make him great” (1). What makes Hume great, on Blackburn’s account, is “the clarity of his vision, the fact that time and time again he sees so exactly how things stand with us,” and to appreciate his greatness Blackburn situates Hume as one of the earliest evolutionary psychologists. Hume, he says, is a “Darwinian before his time” (13). For this reason, Blackburn stresses, for instance, “Hume’s evolutionary story” of convention and how conventions “require a special . . . evolutionary story explaining how they might get going” (70, 66), noting that “modern day theories about the evolution of cooperation tread in exactly the same footsteps” (67). In matters of taste, Blackburn says that Hume, “like subsequent evolutionary psychologists . . . believes we are adapted to take pleasure in what is ‘commodious’ and ‘useful’” (95). This “Darwinian perspective” also “gives Hume a relaxed attitude to ordinary mechanisms of living” as human beings are endowed with “natural faculties that enable our lives to go forward in the environment in which we find ourselves” (6). Nature “forces our minds and our motives into the shapes they have” to ensure that “we are minded to think that every event has a cause; we find it natural to believe in an objective order of events in space and time” and “we expect the future to resemble the past” (7). This emphasis on nature “sets the...