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  • Reflecting Subjects: Passion, Sympathy, and Society in Hume's Philosophy by Jacqueline Taylor
  • Karl Schafer
Jacqueline Taylor. Reflecting Subjects: Passion, Sympathy, and Society in Hume's Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. 240, ISBN 9780198729525, cloth, $60.00.

Reflecting Subjects is an important and timely book, both as a piece of Hume interpretation and as a work of philosophy more generally. Let me begin with the first. It has increasingly become a commonplace in Hume interpretation that the passionate and social dimensions of human life play an unusually fundamental role in Hume's philosophy. But we are only beginning to appreciate the significance of this side of Hume in a systematic way. (Indeed, Taylor's book may be the first piece of Hume scholarship focused primarily on the passions since Páll Árdal's—although the centrality of the passions is also a major theme of Annette Baier's work.) It is precisely here that Taylor focuses her attention, providing us with a new perspective on why the passions stand at the center, not just of the books like the Treatise, but also of the philosophy they expound.

For Taylor, the heart of Hume's social philosophy lies in his account of the passions and, in particular, in the manner in which they reciprocally inform and are informed by our social context and relations. In this way, Taylor finds in Hume's account of the passions the foundations of a truly social psychology, as well as a theory of social relations and power that has surprising critical potential. It is here that the broader philosophical relevance of Taylor's book is perhaps most obvious. A signal development in recent "analytic philosophy" is a renewed interest in the social dimensions of human life. Topics like race and gender—and [End Page 289] the forms of social oppression associated with them—are finally returning to the center of contemporary philosophical discussion. One of the main themes of Taylor's book is that Hume is a worthy contributor to the renewal of interest in these topics. Indeed, if Taylor is right, is was precisely Hume's concern for these issues that explains some of the major developments in Hume's philosophical view over his career.

Thus, the time is doubly ripe for Taylor's book. Despite its relatively short length, Taylor's discussion is extremely rich, so there is no possibility of doing justice to it here. Instead, I will simply try to present a few of the main themes of her discussion, while raising a few questions along the way. As should already be clear, I am very sympathetic to the story Taylor has to tell, although, of course, as a professional picker of nits, I will do my best to find some details to bicker over.

Taylor begins Reflecting Subjects by situating Hume's account of the passions within his larger project of developing a "science of man." In doing so, Taylor takes aim at the popular perception of Hume as a philosopher whose methodology falls far short of his own experimental ambitions. Here Taylor makes two important points. First, she convincingly argues that the conception of "experimental method" operative among Hume's contemporaries was importantly different from our own. Thus, if we are to fairly evaluate Hume's methodological claims, we must read them as expressing a commitment to "experimental method" in Hume's sense of these words.

This might seem to save Hume from the charge of methodological inconsistency at the cost of allowing that his methodology is in fact naive and simplistic by present standards. But Taylor goes on to argue that while Hume's experimental method differs from our current conception of experimental practice, it nonetheless represents a serious and systematic approach to the nature of the human mind.

With this background in place, Taylor moves on to discuss the details of Hume's theory of the passions—focusing on the key passion of pride. Taylor's discussion here is too rich to summarize, but a central theme is again the links between Hume's account of the passions and his social philosophy. As noted before, this connection is twofold. First, Taylor convincingly argues...


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