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  • Humes Moralphilosophie unter chinesischem Einfluss by Reinhard May
  • Asher Jiang
Humes Moralphilosophie unter chinesischem Einfluss (Hume’s moral philosophy under Chinese influence). By Reinhard May. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2012. Pp. 122. Paper €26.00, isbn 978-3-515-10044-1.

In Humes Moralphilosophie unter chinesischem Einfluss, author Reinhard May is mainly concerned with a comparison between David Hume’s moral philosophy and Mencius’ theory of human nature, or rather with the historical influence of the latter upon the former. David Hume belongs to those philosophers whose names are mentioned in even the sketchiest histories of Western philosophy. The same also applies to Mencius: any historian who does not assign an irreplaceable position to Mencius (as a great master second only to Confucius) in Chinese intellectual history will be regarded as either careless or hopelessly ignorant. Especially in view of the immense spatial and temporal distance between the two very different cultural settings, a comparison of these two figures will, prima facie, be confronted with the accusation of being superficial—“as long as we are ready to think imprecisely enough, we can discover alleged connections everywhere.” However, such an accusation, if directed against this book, would be unfair. On the contrary, May has provided a most profound analysis, excellent in terms of both its solid historicism and its systematic precision.

May’s study is divided into five chapters. The first deals with the general background concerning the reception of ancient Chinese political and philosophical ideas (with emphasis on Mencius’ texts) in European countries during the early eighteenth century. Based on numerous well-chosen passages in Hume’s writings from that period, the author argues that Hume, as a well-educated scholar, was not totally unfamiliar with Chinese culture and thought in general. In the second chapter, May [End Page 673] concentrates on a reconstruction of certain central theses of Hume’s moral philosophy. The center of attention is Hume’s statement that sympathy is the origin of moral sentiments. Chapter 3 consists of a historical study of two influential translations of Mencius’ works in Europe in the early eighteenth century, which May assumes were probably known to Hume. For the purpose of a comparison of Hume’s central moral philosophical positions with the content of Mencius’ writings, certain relevant passages are carefully selected from these two translations.

After the preparation presented in the first three chapters, the author finally carries out his main program in chapters 4 and 5. He notices remarkable similarities between Hume and Mencius concerning their fundamental views on moral sentiments. Both treat sympathy as the origin of benevolence. Based on empirical observations, both were trying to justify the thesis that we have a natural tendency to pity even strangers. In view of Hume’s curriculum vitae, May feels that it is a plausible assumption that Hume was familiar with Mencius’ ideas. Based on their similarities, May draws the conclusion that Hume’s moral philosophy was strongly influenced by Mencius, although Hume himself was perhaps not aware of that. May confesses that he is not able to provide any proof in the strict sense for his conclusion (after all, no single reference on Mencius can be found in Hume’s own writings). He himself tends to consider his conclusions as only a best guess. In my opinion, the guess is not a bad one. The author has handled all relevant resources competently, and nothing more can be done with the historical evidence in this case.

It is a well-known and provable fact that Hume’s moral philosophy had two sources of inspiration: Isaac Newton’s success in natural science and Francis Hutcheson’s view of moral judgment. Newton’s influence on Hume was essentially methodological: impressed by Newton’s works, Hume attempted to apply the scientific methods of observation and formulating hypotheses to his study of human nature, and this included not only his studies in moral philosophy, but his epistemological and metaphysical projects as well.1 Hutcheson’s theory was that any attempt to find rational justification for our moral statements would be in vain, because they are founded on psychological interactions between feelings or affects, not on a rational thought process.2...