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Hume Studies Volume XXI, Number 2, November 1995, pp. 255-274 Hume's Natural History of Religion MICHEL MALHERBE Even though The Natural History of Religion has been said to be one of the first books in the history of religions, it is not much studied for interpreting Hume's philosophy taken as a whole. Nevertheless, its structure is quite clear: after specifying the purpose of the work by distinguishing between the question of the foundation of religion in reason and the question of its origin in human nature, Hume goes over the story of the evolution of religion, from polytheism—its primitive form—to theism (sections I-VIII). He then develops a comparison between these two kinds of religion, evaluating them from several points of view, and closes with a rather whimsical conclusion emphasizing the necessity of scepticism in these matters. The Natural History is written in an easy style and the reader enjoys its progression. Hume uses the same method of composition as the one he had tested with success in several of his Essays: a claim is put forth; then the proof is provided, which mixes some historical material with more abstract arguments ; finally, several general considerations are stated, which are supposed to be profitable to the public. But if we try to understand the text more systematically and attempt to rationalize its composition or its argumentation, we cannot help feeling at a loss to determine Hume's real intentions and to precisely evaluate the Natural History's general import. Of course, it could be said that we ought not overestimate the meaning of the Natural History nor look for more than what could be appreciated by an eighteenth century reader, i.e., look for more than what can be expected from Michel Malherbe is at the Département de Philosophie, Université de Nantes, 44036 Nantes, Cedex 1, France. 256 Michel Malherbe an essay which tries to catch the attention of the public, borrows a large part of its content,1 and follows lines of argument which were not uncommon at that time. But we are twentieth century commentators: we have read the Dialogues, and we can consider Hume's philosophy as a whole. Besides, the subject is religion, and nobody is indifferent to religion, and, we should add, nobody in the eighteenth century was dispassionate concerning religion. Several questions about the work arise at once: What is the scope of the preliminary foundation/origin distinction? Why does Hume associate a doctrine bearing on historical facts with a comparative evaluation? How are we going to understand a conclusion so little consonant with the rather dogmatic development of the work? I do not intend to provide a systematic analysis of the Natural History, but rather to catch some of its difficulties by concentrating on its title, which not only tells us the object (religion), but also designates a certain scientific or philosophical genre, and thus should reflect Hume's method, if not his intention. How can such a text qualify as a natural history? Can we not, by commenting upon this appellation, define the method employed by Hume? And since method is the way towards some end, could we not thus try to delineate the real aims of the text? Except for the foundation/origin distinction, a distinction that he also does not comment upon, Hume offers no clue to the understanding or to the justification of his method.2 The reader is committed to his own appreciation. Therefore, I would like to take up an indirect line of proceeding: using a comparative method, I will offer three definitions of natural history, or rather, three main meanings which are more or less consistent parts of this rather intricate and plainly polysémie concept3 in the eighteenth century. I will then assess the applicability of each of these definitions to Hume's work. The oldest meaning of "natural history" is the one derived from Aristotle and renewed by Bacon; it is still valid and viable in 1750, even if its epistemological import and its philosophical sense are changing. The second meaning takes into account one of those invisible, but real, changes: we are at a time when a historical...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 255-274
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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