- Skepticism about Garrett’s Hume: Faculties, Concepts, and Imposed Coherence
Hume, Don Garrett’s new book—long anticipated and well worth the wait—is a tour de force. Garrett’s impressive ability to weave a coherent philosophical account of Hume’s ideas, even when they seem most muddled or contradictory, is here fully displayed, linking together Hume’s thought as a whole and finding systematic themes within it whose potential richness has escaped other commentators. As a great admirer of Garrett’s work, from which I have learned so much over the years, I found it fascinating to see how his overall interpretation of Hume pulls together a variety of strands that are by now very familiar to me, but whose potential close interconnections I had not fully appreciated. Although the book aims to be “accessible to readers who have no specialized training in philosophy and little prior knowledge of Hume”—and mostly achieves this—it will undoubtedly prove to be, as Garrett hopes, “of substantial interest to historians of philosophy and to other philosophers grappling with questions like those that animated Hume” (Hume, xix). Indeed I would judge it to be one of those relatively few secondary works that ought to be read by all serious scholars of Hume, given the sweep of its discussions and insights and the way in which it can help us understand familiar passages in new ways, not least by highlighting some of those general themes and connections that Garrett sees as unifying Hume’s philosophy. Even scholars who disagree with these unifying analyses will learn a great deal through critical engagement with Garrett’s thought-provoking and often ingenious arguments. [End Page 205]
1. Teaching and Tone
Garrett’s book will also provide a valuable resource for teaching, providing coverage of all the main areas of Hume’s philosophy (including aesthetics, morals, and religion) and nicely framing the principal discussions between a first chapter that presents an excellent potted history of Hume’s life and works and an interesting final chapter that discusses Hume’s legacy. In the main body of the book, however, Garrett’s enthusiastic commitment to his distinctive and highly systematic understanding of Hume’s philosophy as a whole—which makes his work so interesting and challenging for other scholars—also brings some corresponding drawbacks for its use as a teaching resource. For in the process of presenting this vision, Garrett makes many general claims about Hume’s usage of terms and how his philosophy is to be understood, but most of these are not backed up in detail here, so they must be taken on trust. Garrett’s general avoidance of detailed scholarly debate is deliberate (see Hume, xx), and for many students this approach might indeed be very suitable, giving them one clear, overall picture of Hume’s thought, without having to worry too much about either scholarly disagreements or inconvenient exceptions, changes of mind, ambiguities, and apparent confusions in Hume’s own texts. But for those who need to get seriously engaged in the scholarly literature and grapple with interpretative debates, it is a shame to see so little distinction drawn between claims that are uncontroversial or very widely accepted and those that are Garrett’s own. He knows the texts very well and weaves a plausible narrative, so most of his controversial claims are hard to assess in a brief discussion. But some prove to be straightforwardly false. For example, Garrett claims that “[Hume] employs the term ‘justified’ only for persons, never for beliefs, and he applies the term ‘just’ only to reasonings and the drawing of conclusions” (Hume, 170). This claim—from which Garrett draws further interpretative conclusions—can easily be tested using electronic resources such as Hume Texts at www.davidhume.org, where a search for “justified” pulls up eight paragraphs, of which the first, in Letter to a Gentleman, applies it to a proposition (31), the fourth to a “verdict” (“Standard of Taste,” 235), the fifth to an assertion (“Original Contract,” 471), the sixth to disputes (“Coalition of Parties,” 494), the seventh to actions (EPM 1.5; SBN 171),1 and the eighth to a comparison (DNR 12.5).2...