- Reflecting Subjects: Passion, Sympathy, and Society in Hume's Philosophy by Jacqueline A. Taylor
In this entry to David Hume scholarship, Jacqueline Taylor brings together a line of interpretation she has been developing over several years, connecting Hume's theory of the passions to what she calls Hume's "social theory." Through a concise, well-organized argument, the book offers insights into how one of the Enlightenment's most famous and gifted thinkers conceptualized social roles and institutions, the ways we navigate these roles and institutions, and how all this connects to the kind of creature we are. It is a rewarding read for anyone interested in Hume's moral project.
The book begins with a lively, historicized defense of Hume's "experimental" method against readers who have thought his approach fails to rise to the level of legitimate science by dint of its armchair origins. I doubt that what Taylor says here will convince entrenched antagonists—though I do not think this is a problem for her, as I will explain in a moment. In part, this is because Taylor misses some opportunities to bolster her case, on the one hand. For example, she might have noted that introspection, which plays a crucial role in Hume's method, was part and parcel of early psychology all the way through its academic codification in the late nineteenth-century laboratories of the German "experimenter," Wilhem Wundt. On the other hand, Taylor sometimes buries in footnotes important contrasting evidence, such as the fact that Ephraim Chamber's Cyclopedia schematized experimental philosophy in a way that clearly cut against Hume's method of investigation. Instead, in text, Taylor points to the earlier, and far less influential (especially in Britain) Lexicon Philosophicum, to support her claim that the meaning of 'experiment' was loose enough to accommodate Hume's "natural historical approach" (11). Ultimately, however, I think her argument wins in its ability to convey a sense of the historical moment Hume was working in, during which the concept of experiment was in flux. At any rate, Taylor convinced me that there was not some consensus concept of experiment that clearly militated against Hume's taking himself to be legitimately engaged in an experimental method. And that is all she needs.
From here, Taylor connects Hume's experimental method to his "social theory," which she defines as, "an explanation of the indirect passions in relation to the distribution of wealth and property, and other forms of social power … as well as styles of living, learning, and working, and the commitment to various values" (34). Crucial to Hume's examination in this respect is his notion of sympathy. And Taylor's analysis rightly moves through a consideration of the various dynamics of sympathy. It should be noted, however, that Taylor does not offer a rigorous examination of Hume's account of sympathy, barely touching on some of its more controversial elements. This might raise some eyebrows. In particular, one might worry about how she glosses over Hume's Treatise claim that sympathy hinges on a transference of vivacity, namely, from the "impression we have of ourselves" to the [End Page 567] "idea" we have of another's passion. This claim has struck many as both a contentious and mysterious psychological claim: contentious in its claim that there is such an impression, and, even if there is, that it really is "at all times intimately conscious" (as Hume puts it later in the Treatise 188.8.131.52); mysterious in its mechanics, that is, of there being any such "energy transfer." There is also the problem that Hume's account of "self" changed over time.
In any event, all this sets up the real gem of the book—Taylor's reconstruction of Hume's social theory. Her analysis is rich and ranging. Most important, in my opinion, are Taylor's substantive accounts of the nature and import of pride and humanity to Hume's philosophy, and the ways she connects these two elements back to concrete social issues about...