In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Hume Studies Volume 29, Number 1, April 2003, pp. 125-141 Dr. George Cheyne, Chevalier Ramsay, and Hume's Letter to a Physician JOHN P. WRIGHT The publication of a new intellectual biography of George Cheyne1 provides a "propitious" occasion for "a thoroughly skeptical review"2 of the question which has long exercised Hume scholars, whether Cheyne was the intended recipient of David Hume's fascinating pie-Treatise Letter to a Physician,3 the letter which describes his own hypochondriacal physical and mental symptoms and gives an account of his early philosophical development.4 Hume's nineteenth-century biographer, John Hill Burton, argued that Hume was probably writing to Cheyne,5 while Ernest Mossner claimed to definitively refute that hypothesis in an article entitled "Hume's Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot," published in 1944.6 Anita Guerrini's intellectual biography does not discuss Cheyne as a possible recipient of Hume's letter, but she does present a well-rounded picture of this interesting eighteenth-century physician from which we can judge his appropriateness as its addressee. In the following discussion I will make use of the biographical material found in this new biography of Cheyne, as well as other sources, to show that Mossner's arguments are less than definitive, and that it would be wrong to dismiss the possibility that the letter was sent to George Cheyne.7 This is a possibility that, for reasons that I will make clear, makes good biographical and philosophical sense. At the same time, it is important to keep a proper suspense of judgment as Burton did, for the evidence that the letter was either intended for or actually sent to Cheyne is not definitive. John P. Wright is Professor of Philosophy, Central Michigan University, Mt. Pleasant, MI 48859, USA. e-mail: 126 John P. Wright Burton, who first published the autobiographical letter of the 22-yearold Hume in 1846, narrowed down the possible addressees of Hume's letter to either Cheyne or John Arbuthnot. He also pointed out that it is possible that the letter was never sent, and that the ten and a half page manuscript is only a neatly written draft, rather than a fair copy of an actual letter. Nevertheless , Burton thought he could identify the unnamed addressee on the basis of the internal evidence of the manuscript and the records of Scottish physicians practicing in England at the time. In the letter, Hume refers to the intended recipient as his "Countryman, a Scotchman [,]... a skilful Physician , a man of Letters, of Wit, of Good Sense, & of great Humanity."8 Further he writes that he is consulting him because he is a person "of great Learning beyond [his]... own Profession" who is acquainted with the "Motions of the Mind" he has described in his letter, and that "Fame pointed [him] ... out as the properest person to resolve my Doubts ..." about the cure of his disorder .9 Burton tells us that "the first name that suggested itself . . . was Arbuthnot, whose fine genius was just then flickering in the socket."10 (John Arbuthnot had been ill for some time, and died a year later.) But he then added that "a more full consideration showed to my satisfaction that it must have been destined for Dr. George Cheyne." His main reason for settling on Cheyne was that Cheyne's immensely popular The English Malady (1733) had recently been published, and that "there is a certain unison of tone between Hume's letter and this book." Burton quotes a portion of Cheyne's own long autobiographical account of his own disease in The English Malady. Cheyne's autobiography begins with the claim that "I passed my Youth in close study, and almost constant Application to the abstracted Sciences, (wherein my chief pleasure consisted) and consequently in great Temperance and a Sedentary Life"; it is followed by the reflection that any overindulgence in food or drink led to physical and psychological problems.11 He goes on to describe these in great detail for 39 pages, along with a history of his life. Burton also quotes a section of the book in which Cheyne describes how a studious and sedentary life causes the symptoms...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 125-141
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.