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Hume Studies Volume 33, Number 2, November 2007, pp. 345-347 Christopher J. Finlay. Hume's Social Philosophy: Human Nature and Commercial Sociability in A Treatise of Human Nature. New York: Continuum, 2007. Pp. 202. ISBN 978-0-8264-9162-6, Hardback, $88.10. Christopher Finlay aims to show the importance of "the social" in Hume's philosophy, and this in several respects. First, Finlay embeds and contextualizes Hume in the social context and intellectual disputes of eighteenth-century Britain. Hume's Britain experienced a period of transition from feudal status and class rigidity to modern commercial consumerism, class mobility, bourgeois, middleclass life. Hume's accounts of morality and human understanding are intended to make sense of this transition in terms that the emerging middling element would understand. For example, Hume's emphasis on pride and self-esteem are intelligible against the backdrop of a society in which "conspicuous consumption of goods was used to identify members of a group whose social status was grounded in economic factors" (29). To Finlay's credit, he does not rest satisfied with such contextualizing. Hume was not concerned merely to describe his contemporaries, but rather, in Finlay's words, Hume saw "human nature was most fully instantiated in the eighteenth-century contexts of polite British and French society" (7). This forces Finlay to climb with Hume up the ladders of context toward Hume's truest philosophic claims about human nature. This brings us to the second way in which Finlay understands "the social." For Hume, philosophy necessarily begins with the reflections on social life or, in Hume's words, "common life." Against the excessively abstruse concerns characteristic of early modern thinkers, Hume shows that philosophers could address the practical concerns of common life (e.g., morality, causality) and communicate these findings to a broader, practically-oriented public. It is probably a stretch to contend that the Treatise accomplished this goal (and Finlay implicitly concedes as much by discussing Hume's other, more accessible books in this context), but it was just as clearly Hume's aim. This reformation in how philosophers write constituted an important change in how philosophers think. A philosophy grounded in the concerns and nature of common life is necessarily more cautious, honest, humble, and modest than a philosophy promising demonstrative certainty or access to "ultimate principles " (46). When we think about human understanding, we come up immediately against its limits, and this should make philosophers less willing to offer what Hume elsewhere calls "abstract, speculative principles" to guide life. Not only do principles such as the right to revolution or social contract theory admit of too many exceptions , but they also cultivate a dangerous, Utopian cast of mind dangerous to the gentle, humane modern republicanism that revealed human nature. Volume 33, Number 2, November 2007 346 Book Reviews With an eye to showing that philosophy can be of a piece with human understanding in common life, Finlay offers an account of Hume's Treatise, in which its moral teaching follows from an anatomy of human understanding. Because Hume failed to draw this connection between Books 1 and 3 of the Treatise and between the Treatise generally and his later activity as an essayist and historian with sufficient clarity, it is necessary for Finlay to connect the dots. Finlay's argument proceeds as follows. The human understanding is put into motion by desires and aversions, and these are mediated by the indirect passions, which are shaped by a range of objects and qualities valued by society. What is valued in modern society is the acquisition of goods and the qualities of character that allow for the future acquisition. This must not be understood as merely a manifestation of self-love; rather, human desire and pride depend on mechanisms of sympathy and social concern uniquely available in the modern world. When we find that others love us for our wealth or character (both of which also flatter our self-worth), we find greater joy in ownership and seek to accumulate more and to perfect our character. When we see that others have similar tastes, ways, and sentiments, it increases the sympathy that is the basis for the social bond. The selfish...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 345-347
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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