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Hume Studies Volume XXI, Number 2, November 1995, pp. 151-164 On Hume's Conservatism DONALD W. LIVINGSTON In Opinion and Reform in Hume's Political Philosophy,1 John Stewart seeks to establish two theses. The first is that Hume's philosophical skepticism does not entail political conservatism as many commentators have argued, and the second is that central to all of Hume's writings, but especially to the History and the Essays, is a program of major reforms. These include an ethic of individualism and cosmopolitanism, protection of private property, representative government under the rule of law, free trade, anti-imperialism, and moderate secularization. Stewart is right, I think, that these reforms are central to Hume's philosophic project, and he explores them with historical depth and subtlety. What is not so convincing, however, at least in the form presented, is the thesis that Hume is a liberal and not a conservative. And it is this thesis that I wish to explore. The first thing to appreciate is the sense in which Hume is neither a liberal nor a conservative. These are early nineteenth century terms framed to characterize a political and intellectual response to the French Revolution and to the Industrial Revolution. Liberalism and conservatism were not and could not have been a part of Hume's own self-understanding. That understanding is revealed clearly enough in Hume's remark that he was a whig in respect to "things" and a tory in respect to "persons" (HL II237). That is, he admired the moral character of Charles I and leading royalists more than the characters of Cromwell and the Puritan fanatics. But he was happy about the unintended consequences of the Puritan rebellion which led to the constitution of liberty Donald W. Livingston is at the Philosophy Department, Emory University, 214 Bowden Hall, Atlanta GA 30322 USA. 152 Donald W. Livingston of 1689 (the whig order of "things," namely liberty and the rule of law). But though Hume could not have thought of himself as a liberal or a conservative, it is possible to find intimated in his philosophy a pattern of thought significantly similar to a later structure of thought which may properly be called liberal or conservative as the case may be. Such retrospective judgments are legitimate as long as there is sufficient evidence to support the appropriate historical claim about what Hume did and thought he had done and an adequate philosophical theory of what liberalism and conservatism are. But if Hume is to be recruited as part of a liberal or conservative political tradition, we must be clear about what is meant by the terms 'liberal' or 'conservative '. And this is no easy matter; for these terms have not only changed their meanings over time, they are highly contested terms, being in their very nature partisan expressions the explication of which cannot entirely escape a political commitment. What I find unsatisfactory about Stewart's thesis that Hume should not be thought of as part of the conservative political tradition is not so much what he says about the critical and reforming character of Hume's thought (in that he is essentially correct) as that he does not offer a philosophical theory of conservatism or liberalism. The result is that much of the liberalism he finds in Hume would be embraced by self-professed conservatives , and some of what he characterizes as conservatism would be denied. One must gather Stewart's meaning for these terms from various contexts. In some places a conservative is thought of as a philosophical skeptic who has nothing to cling to but the raft of custom and is, consequently, incapable of making judgments of truth. Or, a conservative may be one who can indeed make judgments but is uncritical and perhaps even bigoted in doing so. Or finally, a conservative may be one whose character is informed by an ungenerous disposition to defend the status quo regardless of the oppression of others.2 Stewart argues that Hume is not a conservative in these senses but is a critical political theorist whose philosophical skepticism not only did not prohibit, but positively legitimated the formulation of truths about political things. In his...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 151-164
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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