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  • “Politics May Be Reduced To a Science”?Between Politics and Economics in Hume’s Concepts of Convention1
  • Ryu Susato (bio)

Many Hume scholars have partially anticipated the essential links between his magnum opus—the History of England—and other writings, but we lacked an appropriate theoretical framework. According to Andrew Sabl,2 the key to the breakthrough is provided by “coordination theory.” The approach to Hume’s work through the lens of twentieth-century political theories has been preceded, to take one example, by Russell Hardin, who envisions Hume’s notion of convention as a prototype of game theory. Hardin also mentions coordination theory in relation to game theory,3 but it is Sabl who elucidates its comprehensiveness and significance, and successfully grasps the essential features of Hume as a political theorist. The most interesting aspect of Sabl’s Hume’s Politics is that he does so not through A Treatise of Human Nature, the Essays, Moral and Political, or the Political Discourses, but mainly through the History of England.

Sabl’s approach is analytical as well as constructive, which is basically different from my own historiographical, or what Sabl calls “humanistic” (18), method. This partly accounts for the author’s attention to Hume’s political theory rather than his political philosophy, a distinction of which the author is conscious. According to the author, some previous studies of Hume in the field of political philosophy have been “badly posed” (8, 17). In contrast, the focus here on Hume’s political theory serves to elucidate Hume’s excellence in delineating the mechanisms of various types of conventions, without naively extracting conclusions about Hume’s [End Page 81] conservative leanings from it. The pioneering approach that Sabl takes to Hume as a political theorist can also be helpful for understanding why previous evaluations of Hume’s political philosophy have been so divided among Hume scholars, as well as among his contemporaries.

One of the biggest merits of Hume’s Politics lies in the author’s analytical sorting of Hume’s rich but often opaque ideas. To take some examples, the distinctions Sabl makes—between “ordinary,” “fundamental,” “pseudo-,” or “negative” conventions (34–35, 44–45);4 between “science (1)” (a science of broad, society-wide social and political forces) and “science (2)” (a microscience of explaining individual human actions and choices) (12–16); and between vertical and horizontal inequality (188–90)—are all useful clarifications. I have insufficient space here to examine all of them, but these theoretical distinctions (or reconstructions) are very effective for deepening our understanding of Hume as a political theorist. Furthermore, Hume’s reticence about employing the phrase “natural rights” in his political vocabulary has long served to disconnect him from other political philosophers. However, Sabl’s focus on the reciprocal relationship between authority and allegiance (chapters 3 and 4) enables us to examine his politics in a new light, theoretically as well as historically.

Not despite, but rather because of these significant merits, there are some points that I would like to raise with Sabl that I hope would serve to clarify his argument further: 1) the nature of what the author calls Humean liberalism; 2) the distinction between the theory of spontaneous order and the coordination theory; 3) the distinction between fundamental conventions and pseudo-conventions; and 4) the issue of public credit. Let me address these issues one by one.

1. Humean Liberalism: Conscious or Unconscious?

Notwithstanding some reservations, Sabl generally admits that, for Hume, the fundamental convention of authority is a product of “unintended” or “unconscious” consequences: “Humean liberalism need not be conscious. It does not matter whether we affirm it as long as we live by the conventions it describes and (via moments of conscious statesmanship) aim to bring about” (89, emphases added).5 His wording “need not be conscious” should be heeded here: he does not say “need be unconscious.” Elsewhere, he uses phrases like “Hume’s account of micromotives, their contexts, and their collective (often unintended) effects” (16, emphases added). These seem to indicate that these coordinating processes are mostly unconscious, at the same time partly conscious.6 Then, who should be conscious of this process? The author apparently claims that...


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