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A Dialogic Interpretation of Hume's Dialogues William Lad Sessions For all ofits prominence in contemporary Anglo-American philosophy of religion, Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion continues to provoke divergent readings, especially as regards its author's intentions and beliefs. Most writers today, following Norman Kemp Smith's masterful analysis, accept some version ofwhat I will call "the standard interpretation": Hume aimed to discredit religion—natural and revealed religion alike, but especially the "experimental theism" represented by Cleanthes' so-called "design argument." Hence, the sceptic "Philo represents Hume's views onreligiousbelief,"even though Cleanthes (occasionally) and Demea(rarely) also speakfor Hume.1 But a significant minority have given divergentinterpretations: some have held that Pamphilus, the narrator of the Dialogues, is Hume;2 some have given credence to Hume's remark in a letter that "I make Cleanthes the Hero of the Dialogue";3 others think that none of the characters represent Hume, at least not consistently, either because the characters represent types, not individuals,4 or because none are "wholly consistent, completely clear-headed, and unmuddled throughout,"5 or because "it is the whole of the dialogue which represents Hume."6 One interpreter has even gone so far as to declare that "I shall take it that Hume in the Dialogues is any speaker who appears tobe makingagood philosophical point,"7 whichis tantamount to identifying Hume with any self-assured philosophical reader of the Dialogues] My chief purpose in this essay is not to take issue with these interpretations, nor to propose a novel interpretation of the text—though I will do both—but rather to promote a different kind of interpretation altogether: what I will call a "dialogic" interpretation, since it views the literary form as contributory and indeed essential to the philosophical message.8 Still, the particular dialogic interpretation I propose may be of interest. On it, the Dialogues are not chiefly a diatribe against theism, much less a polemic against all (theistic or Christian) religion. Rather, the book at its most searching level is a careful rational examination of"true" vs. "false" religion, with the virtues ofthe former commended even as the vices ofthe latter are condemned. In short, Hume gives us an eighteenth century discussion ofreligiousfaith in relation to human Volume XVII Number 1 15 WILLIAM LAD SESSIONS reason, a discussion wherein reason is not automatically the enemy of faith (in all its guises). More specifically, Philo's and Cleanthes' apparent disagreements on the results and utility ofnatural theology mask a more fundamental and considerably more important harmony in their views concerning "the proper office ofreligion."9 Contrary to the standardinterpretation, they fundamentally agree on the nature and value of natural piety, which is the other component of natural religion besides natural theology.10 In the end, then, Pamphilus is not wrong to judge that Cleanthes' principles "approach still nearer to the truth" than Philo's, and not merely for reasons of filial piety (he is, after all, Cleanthes' house-guest, his loyal student, and his "adopted son"). No doubt Philo does tend to "win" his skirmishes in natural theology with Cleanthes (not to mention those with Demea!), but though Philo triumphs tactically, Cleanthes is the victor in the wider war for Pamphilus' heart and mind: critical scepticism may be a useful safeguard for careful thinkers against the "superstition" endemic to "false" and harmful piety, butitsutilityislimited; Philo's prophylaxisis muchless effective than Cleanthes' empirical theism at the vitally important task of inculcating and nurturing "true" natural piety in a young person such as Pamphilus. However, before supporting this controversial view of the Dialogues, I need to make clearer the nature, limits and value of a dialogic interpretation, by way of contrast with the more common approaches. I. Standard Hermenéutica Most philosophical interpretations of the Dialogues share several assumptions—or perhaps one should say "presumptions." First, they all focus on the propositions, beliefs, and arguments expressed by characters in the Dialogues—their claims, assertions, speculations, suggestions, rejections, replies, reasons, rebuttals, and the like—and they seek to extract from the discussion those expressed or implied beliefs and arguments which current interpreters believe most worthy of continuing philosophical adherence, development, demolition, or at least discussion. Literary...


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