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  • Dewey's Darwin and Darwin's Hume
  • Catherine Kemp

In "The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy" (1910), John Dewey characterizes his subject as an intellectual revolution in which a new way of thinking overthrows the traditional prejudice in favor of the "fixed and final," to make way for philosophies of "change and origin," of "originating and passing away."1 In the preface to the collection in which he republishes the essay, Dewey identifies the immediate opponents of the "the new logical outlook" (IDP 8) as "the orthodox British empiricism of two generations ago and the orthodox Neo-Kantian idealism of the last generation" (IDP 3). Unsurprisingly, Dewey includes Hume in the orthodox empiricist camp. The essay is the locus classicus of a consensus in American pragmatism that Darwin and Darwinism are, among other things, a cure for the errors of traditional empiricism. This paper argues that the traditional interpretation of Hume as an orthodox empiricist of this kind is mistaken, and that Hume is closer to Darwin, and thus to Dewey, than is generally known.

To begin to see why, consider for a moment this passage from Erasmus Darwin's Zoonomia (1794):

The late Mr. David Hume, in his posthumous works, places the powers of generation much above those of our boasted reason. . . . [H]e concludes, that the world itself might have been generated, rather than created; that is, it might have been gradually produced from very small beginnings, increasing by the activity of its inherent principles, rather than by a sudden evolution of the whole by the Almighty fiat.2

In 1839 Erasmus's grandson Charles Darwin writes in the margin of the family copy of the Zoonomia: "Aided by endless attempts which only few are preserved. Vide Hume's Works."3 In the Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1779), Hume, like Darwin, rejects theistic assertions of the necessity of form [End Page 1] and order in the world, and, like Darwin, he was charged with destroying causation and assigning the world (among other things) to chance, but he was in fact, like Darwin, asserting instead another kind of order, one that emerges gradually over time, in history and in experience. We shall see that Darwin recognized this in Hume at a crucial point in the development of his species theory. This is, however, a Hume unfamiliar to most Anglo-American philosophers, including the classical American pragmatists, even today. Dewey's "The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy" is an especially poignant example, because, there, Dewey paints side-by-side portraits of the bad-boy Hume of traditional empiricism and the Darwinism that overthrows empiricism and idealism both. But Hume is in fact himself a philosopher of "transition" for the "phenomena of life" before Darwin. While Dewey champions Darwin's historical-developmental approach to (organic) natural phenomena as a vital precedent for the new developmentalist approaches to "morals, politics and religion" (IDP 5), Darwin, when he was working out his own theory, repeatedly cited the importance of Hume's historical-developmental accounts of moral phenomena.

The first section of this paper provides an overview of the Darwinism and "orthodox British empiricism" of the 1910 collection (IDP) and its lead essay, and notes especially Dewey's emphasis on the role of the "touchstone" problem of "design versus chance" in understanding the influence of Darwin on philosophy. The second section reviews primary materials and historical scholarship that demonstrate that Hume is an explicit and essential antecedent for Darwin's own Darwinism. In the final section of the paper I reintroduce Hume in light of his importance for Darwin, and suggest that Dewey's "touchstone problem" may illuminate the origins of the traditional misreading of Hume as an "orthodox British empiricist."


Writing fifty years after publication of the Origin, Dewey sets out the terms of the Darwinian revolution in the first paragraph of "The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy":

The conceptions that had reigned in the philosophy of nature and knowledge for two thousand years . . . rested on the assumption of the superiority of the fixed and final; they rested upon treating change and origin as signs of defect and unreality. In laying hands upon the sacred ark of absolute permanency, in treating the...


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