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David Hume’s Political Economy (review)

From: Hume Studies
Volume 37, Number 1, April 2011
pp. 123-127 | 10.1353/hms.2011.0646

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This collection of papers is as welcome as it is overdue. As its editors observe in their introduction, the reference point for studies of Hume’s economic thinking has remained Eugene Rotwein’s “Introduction” to his volume David Hume: Writings on Economics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press) since its publication in 1955. The conference from which these papers derive was convened forty-eight years later, in 2003, and the volume was another five years in preparation (while this review, in turn, has taken its own time). But David Hume’s Political Economy is not a random collection of conference papers: editorial direction has ensured a substantial publication, and an important contribution to Hume studies. The individual contributions fall into four broad categories, with fruitful overlaps between them. These are: (1) Hume’s biography and his immediate Scottish context; (2) the philosophical framework of Hume’s economic thinking provided by his account of human nature; (3) Hume’s treatment of money; and (4) the reception of Hume’s economic writings in France, as a starting-point for exploring his contribution to the wider European Enlightenment debate over the prospects of the modern commercial economy.

Two established scholars of the Scottish Enlightenment open the volume. Roger Emerson identifies “Scottish contexts for David Hume’s political-economic thinking” (10), and Ian Simpson Ross traces “the emergence of David Hume as a political economist” (31) in a more strictly biographical perspective. Emerson draws on his knowledge of Scottish improvers, most notably Lord Ilay, third duke of Argyll, and explores the several ways in which Hume could have been aware of their activities and the issues they had to confront. Ross directs attention to specific episodes in Hume’s life that may have stimulated Hume’s interest in economic affairs. By their use of the conditional and the subjunctive, both contributors acknowledge that the suggested connections are speculative: for reasons which he left to be inferred, Hume was reluctant to apply his arguments explicitly to local, Scottish circumstances. But as Ross demonstrates in the case of Hume’s friendship with Isaac Pinto, and later in the volume Robert Dimand documents in the matter of Hume’s memorandum on Canadian paper money, there are still details of Hume’s biography to be filled out. As more Hume letters become available, it is likely that further such episodes may come to light: Hume’s biography is not an exhausted subject.

A fine essay by Christopher Berry on “Hume and Superfluous Value” (49) opens the second set of contributions. Re-visiting Hume’s intervention in the Luxury Debate, Berry argues that Hume rejected the Stoic ideal of poverty embodied in Epictetus’s view that slippers were simply for the protection of the foot indoors, and any ornamentation was superfluous “luxury.” Instead, Hume deliberately attached value to the superfluous. It was precisely the indulgence of luxury, the enjoyment of a more beautiful slipper, which aroused and sustained the “industry” of men, whence derived the enrichment of society and the strengthening of the power of the sovereign. Other contributions in this group are less successful. Till Grüne-Yanoff and Edward McClennen target Albert Hirschman’s thesis that in a commercial society the passions are tamed by the increasing importance attached to the particular passion of “interest.” Instead of relying solely on “interest,” Hume envisages an evolution or “refinement” of the passions, in which reason “serves” the passions by helping individuals to determine how to achieve their ends (86). Quite why this process should be termed a “natural history of the passions” (86) is, however, unclear, as is the extent to which the authors wish to rehabilitate “reason” in Hume’s explanation of action. Richard Boyd seeks to extrapolate from Hume’s writings a concept of “civility” adequate to the pluralism of modern commercial society. Working hard with exiguous evidence—“civility” is mentioned in passing on only a few occasions in the Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals and barely at all in the Treatise of Human Nature—Boyd reaches the conclusion that civility is “a virtue deeply implicated in democratic ideals of social mobility, inclusivity, equal respect, and mutual recognition” (83). Many of us might like to think that...



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