- “Hume Sweet Hume”:Skepticism, Idealism, and Burial in Finnegans Wake
What is the relationship between the Irish modernist writings of James Joyce and the Scottish empirical philosophy of David Hume? Here I discuss Joyce’s conception of Hume as a philosopher and explore the presence of Hume’s work in Joyce’s final masterpiece, Finnegans Wake. How then did Joyce conceive of Hume’s thought, and to what extent did he engage with it? Well, in his lecture “Realism and Idealism in English Literature,” given at Trieste in 1912, Joyce denounces the interest in the sanity (or otherwise) of artistic and philosophical geniuses, before offering the following comments:
If we were to lay a charge of madness against every great genius who does not share the science undergraduate’s fatuous belief in headlong materialism now held in such high regard, little would remain of world art and history. Such a slaughter of the innocents would include most of the peripatetic system, all medieval metaphysics, an entire wing in the immense, symmetrical edifice built by the angelic doctor, St Thomas Aquinas, the idealism of Berkeley and (note the coincidence) the very scepticism that leads us to Hume.1
Crucially for our understanding of Hume’s role in Finnegans Wake, Joyce regards Hume as the end of a process of philosophical development.
Joyce seems to have been reasonably well acquainted with Hume’s work and also keen to discuss it. In his Trieste library, the collection gathered during the period from 1910 to 1920, Joyce kept copies of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, An Enquiry Concerning the [End Page 266] Principles of Morals, and The History of England.2 These works must have interested him, as Joyce is known to have talked about the most famous and celebrated philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment with his associates. As Richard Ellmann notes in his biography, Joyce explored Hume’s theories and writings in conversation. The following passage reports a rather awkward-sounding conversation between Joyce and Samuel Beckett on the subject of Hume:
Beckett was addicted to silences, and so was Joyce; they engaged in conversations which consisted often of silences directed towards each other . . . Joyce suddenly asked some such question as, “How could the idealist Hume write a history?” Beckett replied, “A history of representation.” Joyce said nothing . . . Later, “For me,” he said, “there is only one alternative to scholasticism, scepticism.”3
Joyce now refers to Hume as an idealist rather than a sceptic. According to Ellmann, Joyce probably saw Hume as a mixture of the two. Skepticism, “the view that nothing can be known with certainty; that at best, there can only be some private probable opinion,” is compatible with idealism in that “only minds and mental representations exist; there is no independently existing external material world.”4 Idealism and skepticism are similar positions insofar as value is placed on the individual, internal, and private functions of the mind as opposed to the external world, which is either unknowable or does not exist independently. Presumably Joyce saw a contradiction here in that an idealist philosopher such as Hume could write about history while also holding the view that the existence of an exterior reality could not be verified.
Beckett’s clever answer seems to gain Joyce’s silent approval in this discussion. Joyce’s further comment on skepticism as an alternative to scholasticism perhaps indicates that his earlier attachment to Thomas Aquinas had diminished somewhat. These fragments of evidence reveal that Joyce maintained an enthusiasm for Hume from his time in Trieste, through to the period of the composition of Finnegans Wake in Paris. Joyce’s notes also indicate his conception of Scottish philosophy as part of a Celtic school of skepticism, as Ellmann has discussed:
Joyce’s notes preliminary to Exiles, composed about November 1913, indicate a fellow-feeling towards Hume as a Celt: “All Celtic philosophers seem to have inclined towards incertitude or scepticism—Hume, Berkeley, Balfour...”5 [End Page 267]
Instead of associating Scotland with any particular value, system, or creed, Joyce sees Scottish thinkers as sharing in a Celtic tradition of “incertitude or scepticism.” Joyce views Scottish and Irish thought as being almost part of...