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Hume Studies Volume XXI, Number 2, November 1995, pp. 189-192 Commentary on John B. Stewart DOUGLAS LONG One's interpretation of the main thrust of John B. Stewart's admirable work Opinion and Reform in Hume's Political Philosophy seems to me to depend upon one's understanding (and of course Hume's understanding) of the three key terms in Stewart's title. To wit: Opinion For Hume, Stewart argues, opinion is the expression of belief, and belief is the foundation of moral and political motivation and commitment. Conservatives, not liberals—and not Hume—reduce opinion and belief to expressions of mere custom, habit and prejudice. Hume is committed to the use of reason to improve the quality (which is to say, roughly, the appropriateness and utility) of opinion and belief. Reasoned opinion and belief are in turn essential to that sociable refinement of the "interested affection" which is a prerequisite of fidelity, property, justice and government, which last is of course famously said by Hume to be founded on opinion. Reform Stewart sees Hume's scepticism, his moderation, his stinging critiques of abstraction and dogmatism, and his enthusiasm (after the fashion of Montesquieu) for "le doux commerce" as systematic underpinnings for a Douglas Long is at the Political Science Department, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario N6A 5C2 Canada, e-mail: long@sscl.uwo.ca 190 Douglas Long program of dynamic reform: reform of opinion and belief, reform of systematic or scientific thinking about society, and wide-ranging reform of political practices and policies. The Burkian maxim that a state without the means of its modification is without the means of its improvement is not enough for Stewart's "Hume: the Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth," far from being a mere "jeu d'esprit," sets forth an ideal meant to be seriously perused. Progressive change of a "Fabian"1 nature—an adjective which I found a little worrisome—is not too much for Stewart's reforming Hume to contemplate. There is much in Stewart's reconstruction of Hume's views on economics, society and the rule of law that is consonant with the appreciation of Hume's legal and political ideas expressed by F. A. Hayek,2 though Hayek's name does not appear in Stewart's index. Comparison of the form(s) of liberalism attributed to Hume by Hayek and Stewart reveals, I think, a certain ambivalence in Stewart's attitude to reform and perhaps even in his interpretation of Hume's attitude to it. For "reform" can be an ambiguous term. In the spirit of what we might call, vulgarizing Duncan Forbes in the process, "scientific" liberalism, "reform" is essentially, though never dogmatically, programmatic. Alternatively, the spirit of a more "sceptical" liberalism is captured in "reform" as re-thinking, as reconstitution, with implications not of programmatic transformation but instead of moral and political restraint and caution. Stewart is not unaware of these tensions within the concept of reform, but I sense in his work an implicit partiality to programmatic reform which makes it difficult for him to resist injecting more of the enthusiast than of the sceptic into his construction of Hume's liberalism. Hayek's Hume differs from Stewart's in this respect. Hayek's Hume possesses few if any transformative ambitions, where Stewart's participates, albeit pragmatically, in a movement which Stewart sees as spanning many generations and working transformative wonders. The tension between Hayekian and Fabian interpretations of reform continually percolates under the surface of Stewart's argument and is never resolved. Stewart has done a great service to a potentially broad and varied audience by insisting quite rightly on the subtlety and complexity of Hume's attitude to reform. Some of the most novel, enjoyable and persuasive sections of the book deal with such matters. But in the end Hume continues, to my great pleasure, to defy conclusive ideological characterization. The commitment of the sceptic to the experimental method is not the commitment of an ideologue to a reforming process. Philosophy Although many of the interesting and substantial footnotes in Stewart's book address the question of whether Hume was/is a conservative or a liberal, even those passages dealing with David...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 189-192
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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