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Too much ink has been spilled detecting a multitude of ingeniously hidden, and therefore questionable, philosophical influences in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. To increase the signal-to-noise ratio, I study the novel in connection with the philosopher it mentions most frequently, David Hume. I justify his presence on literary grounds in two ways. First, the oft-repeated Hume anecdote clarifies Mr. Ramsay's character and Woolf's character-building technique. Second, Hume's atheism, skepticism, and empirical psychology resonate with those same themes in the novel. Ultimately, his presence validates the tendency, albeit not all the details, of reading the book as a philosophical novel.


Imagine a reader expert in the scholarship on To the Lighthouse and yet ignorant of the novel itself. What would such a person, when finally sitting down to read it for the first time, know—or think they know—about its relationship to philosophy? Based solely on the reams of articles, book chapters, and monographs that place the novel in dialogue with one or more philosophers, the first-time reader of To the Lighthouse would predict with confidence and precision which thinkers are most overtly relevant to the text. "Without question," he or she might say, "the three primary candidates, based on the frequency and depth with which Woolf scholars have treated them, are the English analytic philosophers G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell, as well as painter, art critic, and aesthetician Roger Fry.1 But even the less frequently treated [End Page 376] (and mostly continental) candidates, such as Henri Bergson, Edmund Husserl, J. M. E. McTaggart, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Plato, also merit consideration."2 In any case, expecting some or all of these philosophers to appear in To the Lighthouse in an explicitly significant way, the first-time reader would be shocked to realize that none of them appear by name even once. It would come as a further surprise that, of all the nonfictional philosophers named in the novel, the one mentioned most frequently is David Hume. The final surprise would come with the realization that no systematic account of why his name appears so often exists in the secondary literature.

What, then, are the reasons behind the several appearances of David Hume in To the Lighthouse? What significance does the presence of this particular philosopher have for this particular novel? In addition to identifying the likeliest sources of Woolf's knowledge about Hume as he appears in the text, I propose two main literary reasons that explain the frequency and aptness of his presence. First, Mr. Ramsay's repeated thoughts about Hume illuminate both his own character and Woolf's character-building technique. Second, Hume's atheism, skepticism, and empirical psychology resonate with those same themes in To the Lighthouse. By reading the novel in a Humean way, I do not mean to imply that it contains a hidden philosophical agenda, a definable list of propositions that its narrator, or its implied author, or that Woolf herself, would necessarily affirm. Nevertheless, by securely anchoring To the Lighthouse to a fixed point in the history of philosophy, it becomes more than a modernist novel with latent philosophical tendencies, however sophisticated they may be. It becomes something that Woolf scholars have, despite the tendency of their arguments, typically hesitated to call it: an explicitly philosophical novel.

Before explaining my own literary reasons why Hume is an important figure in this novel, my account would not be complete without acknowledging the best extratextual reason for his presence. I have in mind a point made by Gillian Beer, the only scholar so far to have discussed Hume in the novel at any length, in her valuable 1984 piece "Hume, Stephen, and Elegy in To the Lighthouse."3 She reminds us that Woolf modeled Mr. Ramsay after her father, Leslie Stephen ("HSE," p. 39); and that for Stephen, especially as a historian of eighteenth-century philosophy, "the philosopher he most admired" was Hume (p. 33). Consequently, it was perfectly natural for Woolf to make Hume a constant preoccupation for Mr. Ramsay, just as he was of central concern for her father. So far, I am in complete agreement with Beer's position. I hesitate, however, to [End Page 377] affirm her further contention that Woolf was familiar enough with her father's treatment of Hume in History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1876) to have deliberately echoed some of his points in the novel (p. 42). My own argument does not depend on Woolf's supposed familiarity with this particular work of her father's.


Let us now turn to the novel itself. David Hume is mentioned four times in To the Lighthouse, all in part 1, "The Window," and all in connection with Mr. Ramsay's thoughts. The first time Hume appears is when Mr. Ramsay, contemplating his lot, acknowledges that "he was for the most part happy; he had his wife; he had his children; he had promised in six weeks' time to talk 'some nonsense' to the young men of Cardiff about Locke, Hume, and Berkeley, and the causes of the French Revolution."4 Second, Mr. Ramsay passes by Mrs. Ramsay, who wears such a look of concentration that, "though he was chuckling at the thought that Hume, the philosopher, grown enormously fat, had stuck in a bog, he could not help noting, as he passed, the sternness at the heart of her beauty" (TTL, p. 64). Third, Mr. Ramsay mentally returns to the Hume anecdote after an uncomfortable exchange with his wife: "Well, if he could not share her thoughts, Mr. Ramsay said to himself, he would be off, then, on his own. He wanted to go on thinking, telling himself the story how Hume was stuck in a bog; he wanted to laugh" (p. 68). Fourth, we finally learn the end of the same comic anecdote, now in its third iteration, as Mr. Ramsay thinks to himself while standing with his wife as they watch their children play catch: "Prue ran full tilt into them and caught the ball brilliantly high up in her left hand, and her mother said, 'Haven't they come back yet?' whereupon the spell was broken. Mr. Ramsay felt free now to laugh out loud at the thought that Hume had stuck in a bog and an old woman rescued him on condition he said the Lord's prayer, and chuckling to himself he strolled off to his study" (p. 73).

The most conspicuous feature of this collection of passages is that three of the four repeat, with varying degrees of detail, the same story about Hume, together with Mr. Ramsay's similar reactions to it. What we have here is a typical example of Woolf's technique of often repeating certain thoughts of a character's consciousness. The device functions much like a Homeric epithet or a refrain in lyric poetry, insofar as it becomes a fixed point in the reader's mind, something familiar and [End Page 378] stable in the ocean of details that surround it. In a narrative that switches perspectives so frequently, dives so deeply into the winding streams of each character's consciousness, and lacks any consistent and clearly recognizable narrative voice, such fixity is most welcome. The literary result of this technique, again functioning like a Homeric epithet, is that these recurring thoughts become character defining. Just as we remember Zeus as "cloud-gathering" or Hera as "white-armed," so we remember Charles Tansley as the man who thinks that "women can't paint, women can't write" (p. 48; see also pp. 86, 91, 159, 197) or James Ramsay as the boy who is murderously angry with his father (pp. 4, 184, 186). Tansley's superficial misogyny, James's paternally directed rage, and Mr. Ramsay's enjoyment of Hume's predicament, become almost as familiar and character defining as Athena's grey eyes or Poseidon's earth-shaking powers. Of course, in Woolf the technique of repetitive familiarization is not limited to persons, as evidenced by the many appearances of Mrs. Ramsay's knit stocking, or indeed the ubiquity of the phrase "to the Lighthouse," reinforcing its looming presence, just as Homer's "wine-dark sea" is never quite forgotten in the Odyssey. But what interests me here is the way in which these thought patterns reveal character, and specifically how the Hume anecdote defines Mr. Ramsay.

In order to understand how the Hume anecdote functions in relation to Mr. Ramsay, we must first understand the anecdote itself. A simple version of the story was almost certainly known to Woolf through her father's work on the Dictionary of National Biography (RE, p. 162),5 of which he was the first editor.6 The entry on Hume is signed "L.S.," identified in the list of writers in the front matter as Leslie Stephen. It includes the following description of the philosopher: "Some trifling anecdotes are preserved of his good nature to women and children, and of humorous allusions to his opinions. He had grown very fat, and was once rescued by an old woman from a bog into which he had fallen on condition of repeating the Creed and the Lord's Prayer."7 The structure, brevity, and verbal similarity of this story to its appearances in Woolf, combined with Stephen's authorship, academic interest in Hume, and connection with Mr. Ramsay, confirm it as her main source.

Andre Gerard has recently pointed out a second possible source of the Hume anecdote in To the Lighthouse: the lengthier, more narratively robust version in Edward Bannerman Ramsay's popular book Reminiscences of Scottish Life and Character (1858).8 I agree with Gerard that, given the extraordinary popularity of this volume, which reached its twenty-second and final edition in 1874, its detailed rendition of [End Page 379] the anecdote was almost certainly known to Stephen as a collector of biographical material on Hume ("B," par. 3). At the very least, then, Ramsay's fuller story, mediated through Stephen's abridged version, is an indirect source of the one that appears in To the Lighthouse. But was it also a direct source? The name of its author does increase the probability that Woolf herself was aware of it. On the other hand, I can discern no unmistakable trace of the Reminiscences in To the Lighthouse. In terms of small-scale detail—for example, Hume's rotundity, the elderliness of his rescuer, the reference to the incident's location as a "bog" instead of a "swamp"—and in terms of overall narrative structure, Woolf modeled her own account on that of her father. Hence, if the author Mr. Ramsay9 was indeed a namesake for the Mr. Ramsay of To the Lighthouse, it may be that his name and his knowledge of the full Hume anecdote are the only elements they have in common.

I am uncertain whether Woolf was aware of the Hume anecdote as it appears in Ramsay's Reminiscences. But if she was, that knowledge would be a plausible and convenient way of explaining the most prominent, yet underappreciated, feature of the narrative as it appears in To the Lighthouse. In the novel the Hume story functions primarily as comic relief for Mr. Ramsay. But what is so amusing about this anecdote, making him constantly chuckle and laugh at it? The full version of the Hume story in the Reminiscences is useful because it emphasizes what are, in my view, the two principal sources of its humor, both of which have their own significance for Mr. Ramsay's character. The story as Edward Bannerman Ramsay renders it runs as follows:

Amongst a people so deeply impressed with the great truths of religion, and so earnest in their religious profession, any persons whose principles were known to be of an infidel character would naturally be looked on with abhorrence and suspicion. There is a story traditionary [sic] in Edinburgh regarding David Hume, which illustrates this feeling in a very amusing manner, and which, I have heard it said, Hume himself often narrated. The philosopher had fallen from the path into the swamp at the back of the Castle, the existence of which I recollect hearing of from old persons forty years ago. He fairly stuck fast, and called to a woman who was passing, and begged her assistance. She passed on apparently without attending to the request; at his earnest entreaty, however, she came where he was, and asked him, "Are na ye Hume the Atheist?" "Well, well, no matter," said Hume; "Christian charity commands you to do good to every one." "Christian charity here, or Christian charity there," replied the woman, "I'll do naething for you till ye turn a Christian yoursell'—ye [End Page 380] maun repeat the Lord's Prayer and the Creed, or faith I'll let ye grafel there as I fand ye." The historian, really afraid for his life, rehearsed the required formulas.10

The first and most noticeable source of humor is the embarrassing contrast between Hume's supposed denial of God and the woman's requirement that he profess belief in God. He is driven, by an unfortunate accident, to become a religious hypocrite. A second source of humor is the related contrast between Hume's physical predicament and his philosophical reputation. On the one hand, he is a famous philosopher, an independent thinker, a gifted intellect in control of his ideas and their expression; but on the other, he's impotently stuck in a swamp. Hume is, then, presented as ridiculous for two reasons: he is an atheist, stymied by a theist; and he is a philosopher, stymied by his physical condition. Both aspects of the Hume anecdote have particular significance for Mr. Ramsay. I will take them each in turn.

Mr. Ramsay has been identified as an implicitly atheistic character by, among others, Martin Corner and Michael Lackey.11 If he is indeed an atheist, two parallels emerge between Hume in the anecdote and Mr. Ramsay in the novel. First, just as the Woolf/Stephen version of the Hume story alludes to his atheism but does not state it explicitly, so the novel associates Mr. Ramsay with atheism (e.g., TTL, p. 207) but does not state his position explicitly. Second, just as Hume was forced to profess belief in God despite his convictions, so Mr. Ramsay may have felt pressured by his own society into affirming belief in God despite his misgivings, or at least to remain silent on the matter. His own children, for instance, have no qualms about mocking Charles Tansley for being an atheist (p. 5), and Mr. Ramsay may wish to avoid similar conflicts with them and with others.

Hume's atheistic quandary, however, remains in the background of the novel, which emphasizes the other source of the bog anecdote's comic value—the contrast between his mental and physical life—much more strongly. Of the three iterations of the story, only the final one elliptically refers to his religious opinions (by mentioning "the Lord's prayer," TTL, p. 73), whereas all three repeat the phrase "stuck in a bog," drawing attention directly to his physical predicament. Once again, a significant parallel emerges between Hume and Mr. Ramsay.

Consider the context of the appearances of the Hume anecdote, as far as Mr. Ramsay's thoughts and actions are concerned. To begin with, his contemplation of the story's comic value always isolates him from other [End Page 381] people. Whenever it occurs in the text, one of two things is happening. First, he may already be absorbed in his own train of thought, as when he passes Mrs. Ramsay and notes her sternness (TTL, p. 64) or when, after Prue's mood-breaking collision with Mrs. Ramsay, he feels free to laugh out loud at the joke that he has, apparently, been thinking about for some time (p. 73). Second, he also chooses the bog anecdote to begin his solitary reflections anew (p. 68). Mr. Ramsay's use of the story is in fact a typical instance of his philosophical isolation, his habit of preoccupied intellectual abstraction, so well captured by Mrs. Ramsay:

Indeed he seemed to her sometimes made differently from other people, born blind, deaf, and dumb, to the ordinary things, but to the extraordinary things, with an eye like an eagle's. His understanding often astonished her. But did he notice the flowers? No. Did he notice the view? No. Did he even notice his own daughter's beauty, or whether there was pudding on his plate or roast beef? He would sit at table with them like a person in a dream.

(TTL, p. 70)

The novel exhibits a great deal of irony, then, in the fact that a constant cause of mental abstraction and separation from practical life on Mr. Ramsay's part is a story about that very same conflict in Hume's life. And yet Mr. Ramsay, as a distracted philosopher, is so oblivious to himself that he spends a great deal of mental energy considering and laughing at Hume's situation, apparently not realizing its resemblance to his own.12

The discrepancy between a philosopher's mental life and the more practical, physical considerations to which he is oblivious has been an occasion of comment and ridicule since the birth of philosophy in ancient Greece. Its locus classicus is Plato's Theaetetus 174a, which relates that Thales, the first ancient Greek philosopher, once stumbled into a well while distractedly looking at the stars. A nearby servant girl laughed at him for paying attention to lofty things while not seeing what was at his own feet. It is as lighthearted a joke as the story of Hume stuck in a bog, who was also caught (like Thales and Mr. Ramsay) between his philosophizing and the exigencies of practical life.13 Is Woolf, then, providing us with a humorous picture of a philosopher's ironic obliviousness to be placed alongside other examples of the same kind, namely the Hume and Thales anecdotes? Perhaps she is; but I do not think that this habit of Mr. Ramsay's is meant to cause amusement in the reader, as those stories do, but rather frustration or melancholy. Considering Mr. Ramsay's habit of mental abstraction from his wife's perspective, we can see its potentially damaging, and hence not ridiculous, effect. Its [End Page 382] toll in terms of human relationships has already been well described by Lackey ("MAP," pp. 82–83, 87–91). At the very least, the time Mr. Ramsay spends in his own private world is time spent away from his wife and family, a potential cause of estrangement. In view of this, Woolf may instead be subverting the tradition of the philosopher parody from comedy to tragedy. But regardless of Woolf's original intentions, it is an entirely appropriate literary move to have Mr. Ramsay dwell on this story so often, given the tension in him and in Hume between practical engagement and philosophical preoccupation.


The significance of David Hume in To the Lighthouse is by no means limited to the way in which the bog anecdote defines Mr. Ramsay, or adds to the tradition of the philosopher parody, or clarifies Woolf's technique of developing characters by their recurring thoughts. Three central themes in the novel are reinforced and illuminated by some of Hume's most famous ideas, one of which even helps to explain part of the novel's structure as well as its basic narrative technique. The bog anecdote foregrounds his supposed atheism (a position, despite its publicity, that he never explicitly admitted); but when we also factor in his despairing skepticism and his interest in empirical psychology, we may begin to observe their relevance to the corresponding theological, epistemological, and psychological themes, respectively, of To the Lighthouse.

Taking them in order, we find that atheism is critical not just for understanding Mr. Ramsay but for several other characters as well. In the first few pages of the novel we are introduced to "the atheist Tansley," whom several of the children tease precisely for his position on God: "'The atheist,' they called him; 'the little atheist.' Rose mocked him; Prue mocked him; Andrew, Jasper, Roger mocked him," and even the dog bites him (TTL, pp. 5–6). And though Mrs. Ramsay "would not let them laugh at him," she herself agrees with his position. In part 1, chapter 11, she reflects on having unthinkingly invoked God aloud: "What brought her to say that: 'We are in the hands of the Lord?' she wondered. The insincerity slipping in among the truths roused her, annoyed her. She returned to her knitting again. How could any Lord have made the world? she asked. With her mind she had always seized the fact that there is no reason, order, justice" (p. 64; see also p. 60). Hence three main adult characters—Tansley, Mrs. Ramsay, and probably Mr. Ramsay—are all atheists. [End Page 383]

The children's theological ideas, so far as they are shown, are equally hostile to God, though in a different fashion. In "The Window" we observe Nancy playing in a pool at the seashore:

Brooding, she changed the pool into the sea, and made the minnows into sharks and whales, and cast vast clouds over this tiny world by holding her hand against the sun, and so brought darkness and desolation, like God himself, to millions of ignorant and innocent creatures, and then took her hand away suddenly and let the sun stream down. … She became with all that power sweeping savagely in and inevitably withdrawing, hypnotised.

(TTL, p. 75)

Thus, even when the novel does conceive of God as he would be if he existed, it is as a capricious tyrant—the very sort of being that atheism gladly negates. Finally, we may observe James Ramsay's favorable attitude to atheism at the end of the novel. He watches how his father "rose and stood in the bow of the boat, very straight and tall, for all the world, James thought, as if he were saying, 'There is no God,' and Cam thought, as if he were leaping into space, and they both rose to follow him as he sprang, lightly like a young man, holding his parcel, on to the rock" (p. 207). James thinks of disbelief in God as something heroic, something that a leader, a man who stands "straight and tall," masterfully positioned at the prow of a boat, would embrace. I am reminded of Bertrand Russell's nobly despairing atheism in his 1903 essay, "A Free Man's Worship." Perhaps the essay was also on Woolf's mind as she wrote this passage—but perhaps not. What can be said with more certainty is that, of the canonical antireligious or irreligious philosophers actually named in the text, only Hume appears four times (Carlyle is mentioned three times [p. 46]; Voltaire once [p. 106]). Indeed, only Hume, the most famous Scottish atheist, could appropriately reinforce the atheistic elements of a novel set in Scotland. Thus the repetition of his name may suggest that the theme of atheism, as expressed in so many of the novel's characters, is being underscored by his philosophical authority, at least to some extent.

I turn now to Hume's skepticism. If Woolf ever did read her father's History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, she would have come across the following passage on its second page:

Yet, as we study the remarkable change in the whole tone and substance of our literature which synchronised with the appearance of Hume's writings, it is difficult to resist the impression that there is some causal [End Page 384] relation. A cold blast of scepticism seems to have chilled the very marrow of speculative activity. Men have lost their interest in the deepest problems, or write as though paralysed by a half-suppressed consciousness of the presence of a great doubter.14

Yet even without having read this passage, Woolf probably knew of Hume not only as a denier of the existence of God but also as a denier of the possibility of knowledge—his second-most-famous position. Having read her father's entry on Hume in the Dictionary of National Biography, for instance, she would have come across Stephen's description of Hume as "a sceptic in philosophy" (DNB, p. 219) in addition to his discussion of Hume's "theological scepticism" (p. 220). But regardless of the extent of her familiarity with Hume's reputation (or writings), the problems of knowledge raised, and never definitively answered, in To the Lighthouse happily justify his frequent presence. The skeptical tone of the novel is consonant with the repetition of his name, whether Woolf intended it or not.

Just how skeptical is To the Lighthouse? I begin with a minimal claim, later augmenting it by degrees as more evidence arises. At the very least, the novel is vulnerable to the charge of skepticism. Martha Nussbaum, for instance, has devoted an entire article to the problem of "Knowledge of Other Minds in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse." Though Nussbaum arrives at a partial solution to that problem ("TW," pp. 750–52), she admits in analyzing a passage involving Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay that "none of the knowledge either has of the other is immune to doubt, based as it all is on reading and interpretation. They get from coherence to knowledge not by any extra step of grasping or processing, but simply by trusting, by waiving the skeptical questions that could arise even about such a complex and carefully sorted fabric of data" (p. 747). But of course, being vulnerable to skepticism is not the same as embracing it. As Nussbaum also argues, the novel does not wholly espouse skepticism; on the contrary, in her view it maintains a mildly optimistic position with regard to the possibility of knowledge. For instance, as she points out, "Woolf's image of the window suggests that people are not completely sealed to one another. There is an opening, one can see through or see in, even if one cannot enter. Part I of the novel ends with a knowledge claim: 'She had not said it: yet he knew'" (p. 743).

I agree that the novel does not embrace skepticism fully; but I disagree that its overall position on the question of knowledge is optimistic. When the novel raises epistemological questions, it tends to suggest that [End Page 385] failure to answer them is the norm, creating a pessimistic tone more than congenial to Hume. Lily Briscoe explicitly articulates the relevant philosophical problem while she hugs Mrs. Ramsay's knees, seeking some form of intimacy with or knowledge of her: "How then, she had asked herself, did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were?" (TTL, p. 51). How, indeed, can we know others' minds? According to Lily's immediately prior reflections in the same passage, such knowledge is an impossible dream; we are ultimately doomed to skepticism about the inner lives of others. The pessimistically skeptical tone of Lily's reflections resonates with the rest of the novel, despite certain rare instances of genuine, even wordless, communication—such as when Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay fire questions and answers across the dinner table to each other by facial expressions, "each knowing exactly what the other felt" (p. 96).

Much more typical are the thoughts of the narrator in part 2 "(Time Passes"), who remarks that, at a certain point in the history of the house's decay from exposure to the elements, it is as if "divine goodness" had withdrawn his favor from any potential observer: "He covers his treasures in a drench of hail, and so breaks them, so confuses them that it seems impossible that their calm should ever return or that we should ever compose from their fragments a perfect whole or read in the littered pieces the clear words of truth" (TTL, p. 128). A clear, truthful, nonskeptical grasp of external reality (in this case, of the house and its surroundings) seems, in the end, beyond us.

This pessimism is maintained in the novel with regard to most interpersonal relationships as well. For instance, the characters desire genuine interaction with and knowledge of one another at least some of the time, yet the recurring contrast between their inner thoughts and their outward expressions of those thoughts make misunderstandings inevitable. Often characters will publicly react to their own private thoughts in a way that precludes accurate interpretation, as when Mr. Ramsay laughs aloud, not because Prue has collided with Mrs. Ramsay (as any spectator would naturally suppose), but because he is thinking of Hume stuck in a bog again (TTL, p. 73). How could anyone have known what he was really laughing at? After seeing such opportunities for misunderstanding occur again and again in the novel, the overall literary effect is the casting of doubt upon the possibility of reliably accurate communication. And who could better reinforce this pessimistic, skeptical effect than the most famous modern skeptic, David Hume? [End Page 386]

The final thematic resemblance between Hume and To the Lighthouse centers around what I have called his empirical psychology: that is to say, his notion that the mental experience of persons is built up entirely out of physical impressions and their aftereffects in consciousness. Hume takes this position at the very beginning of his Treatise of Human Nature, claiming, "All the perceptions of the human mind resolve themselves into two distinct kinds, which I shall call Impressions and Ideas."15 Impressions include "all our sensations, passions and emotions, as they make their first appearance in the soul," whereas by "ideas I mean the faint images of these in thinking and reasoning" (THN, p. 1; emphasis in the original). Beyond these, Hume says, there is nothing else in our minds. As a result, human mental life excludes direct contact with external objects. External objects, if they exist (as every skeptic must hesitate to affirm), are inferred based on what is directly present to our minds, namely impressions and ideas.

But it is just such a system, or something very much like it, upon which the experimental narrative technique of To the Lighthouse is based. It, too, focuses almost exclusively on the conscious mental experience of its characters—on their "sensations, passions and emotions" and "the faint images of these in thinking and reasoning." Nearly every line of the text could be classified as belonging to one of these two categories. Almost everything is presented solely through the medium of the various characters' impressions and ideas: hence the extraordinary rarity of direct, i.e., unmediated, discourse in the novel—and its somewhat skeptical literary effect, the reader's sense that all external, physical events are muffled and hazy. With the sole exception of the abandoned house in "Time Passes"—an important case to which I will return—all the objects presented are filtered entirely through the perceptions of the dramatis personae. There is no consistently recognizable, omniscient narrator to delineate authoritatively what does, and what does not, lie outside of their minds (or even, in some ambiguous cases, to determine which perceptions belong to which minds). In fact, there seems to be no independent narrative voice at all, at least as we tend to find in earlier British novelists like Jane Austen, George Eliot, and William Makepeace Thackeray; and this is because To the Lighthouse, like A Treatise of Human Nature, has restricted itself from the outset to consider only the empirical psychology of its subjects.16

So far, what I have outlined is not yet a thematic resemblance but only a formal similarity between the basic doctrine of Hume's Treatise of Human Nature and the basic principle of the narrative technique in To [End Page 387] the Lighthouse.17 In what way, then, does this particular similarity manifest itself in the novel thematically? The answer lies in the novel's struggle with the Humean (or at least, British empiricist) problem of external existence. What is the relationship between what is presented to our minds and what may or may not exist independently of them? What, if anything, justifies our leap from what we perceive to what really is? This philosophical problem, however it is formulated, has three elements: a perceiving subject, the directly perceived mental object, and the supposedly real object "behind" or "grounding" the perception. Early in To the Lighthouse, Andrew Ramsay presents Lily Briscoe with a version of the problem of external existence, dividing it into just these three elements before stating it more fully: "She asked him what his father's books were about. 'Subject and object and the nature of reality,' Andrew had said. And when she said Heavens, she had no notion what that meant. 'Think of a kitchen table then,' he told her, 'when you're not there'" (TTL, p. 23). Afterwards, in part 2, Lily's struggle with the problem becomes the novel's own. Can an object be conceived as not being the object of any perception, and thus as independently existing? For Hume, the answer is no (THN, pp. 67–68).

Hume's skepticism, which is thoroughgoing and consistent, extends to all external objects. But just as To the Lighthouse pushes back against Hume's skepticism about other minds to some extent, so it pushes back against his skepticism about external, physical objects to some extent. The entirety of part 2 of the novel, in fact, thematizes the problem of external existence in a way that Hume would have disapproved by attempting to describe at length the Ramsays' house, which goes largely unobserved and unperceived (except on occasion by cleaning staff) for ten years. The importance of "Time Passes" for the problem of external existence has been insightfully discussed by Gillian Beer and Harvena Richter.18 For my purposes, all that remains to be said is that the prolonged attempt to describe the unperceived house in "Time Passes," in addition to Lily's explicit struggle with the problem of external existence, demonstrates the way in which empirical psychology is thematic in To the Lighthouse.


So far my aim has been to show that Hume's presence in To the Lighthouse substantially contributes to its literary effects in several distinct, artistically fitting, and centrally important ways. His empirical psychology reinforces, and even helps to explain, the novel's basic [End Page 388] narrative technique. His skeptical position on the problem of external existence, and the doubt he casts upon the knowledge of other minds, is a conscious struggle for several of its main characters as well as a naturally occurring element in the experience of the novel's readers. His atheism authorizes and validates the hostility to God so frequently expressed or implied in the narrative. One central character obsesses over Hume in such a way that he is almost defined by that obsession. The bog anecdote is referenced again and again and again, illustrating Woolf's habit of defining characters based on their recurring thoughts. And that anecdote, seen in light of a tradition that stretches all the way back to Plato, reveals Mr. Ramsay's failure to balance his philosophical temperament with family life as the ironic, subversive, and even tragic phenomenon that it is. If Hume were wiped out of the novel, each of these literary effects would lose at least some significant portion of its force, and in other cases be eliminated altogether.

What, then, are we to make of all this? How does acknowledging the importance of Hume's presence in To the Lighthouse change the way we read it and think about its nature? In my view, there is simply too much Hume in the novel to limit his significance to its literary or aesthetic dimension. If my analysis is correct, it suggests that the novel is not simply using Hume as a conveniently obvious representative of atheism or skepticism or any other idea. It does not treat him as a particularly famous relic in the museum of philosophical history to be paraded out for realism's sake and then locked away into oblivion. Far from it. To the Lighthouse is in dialogue with Hume. It accepts some of his views, like hostility to God, but modifies others, like his skepticism about communicating with other minds; it absorbs his distinction between ideas and impressions into its stream-of-consciousness technique, or at least it is unusually congenial to that epistemological system; it structures some of its parts, especially "Time Passes," as if it were a challenge to his position on external existence; and, most of all, it invites readers to think about, perhaps even to philosophize about, the Humean problems that its characters grapple with, from God's existence, to the knowledge of other minds, to "subject and object and the nature of reality." Hume's importance to the novel is more than just literary. It is philosophical. His presence in the text compels, or at least invites, reading To the Lighthouse as a philosophical novel.

S. P. Rosenbaum wrote in 1971: "During the past thirty or forty years a number of studies have found the fiction of Virginia Woolf to be philosophically significant, though she has seldom been called outright [End Page 389] a philosophical novelist" ("PR," p. 316). In the nearly fifty years since Rosenbaum's retrospective judgment, scholars have continued to treat To the Lighthouse as if it were "philosophically significant" and yet still hesitated to call it, as he does, "Virginia Woolf's most overtly philosophical novel" (p. 338). Perhaps now is the time to overcome that reluctance. The elusive quality in the book that has called forth so many philosophically inclined studies deserves a greater degree of recognition, and therefore a name. By calling To the Lighthouse a philosophical novel I do not mean that the book, in Jaakko Hintikka's phrase, is really "fictionalized epistemology" ("VW," p. 6). Nor do I mean that every treatment of it as influenced by, or comparable to, Moore, Russell, Fry, Bergson, Husserl, McTaggart, Nietzsche, or Plato, is correct in all or even most of its details. But I do mean that these studies have done the novel the courtesy of treating it for what it is: a work that calls for both literary analysis and philosophical engagement; a work that treats philosophical ideas with care and with interest, privileging philosophy as a central theme and placing it at the forefront of its characters' minds; a work that suggests philosophical thoughts by explicitly raising the pertinent questions and considering possible answers; and, I contend, a work anchored to a specific moment in the history of philosophy by its secure and inescapable link with David Hume.

Justin W. Keena
The Catholic University of America


1. Scholars who have discussed the possible influence of G. E. Moore on To The Lighthouse include, in chronological order, Irma Rantavaara, Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury (Helsinki: Folcroft, 1953); Gabriel Franks, "Virginia Woolf and the Philosophy of G. E. Moore," The Personalist 1 (1969): 222–40; S. P. Rosenbaum, "The Philosophical Realism of Virginia Woolf," English Literature and British Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), pp. 316–56, hereafter abbreviated "PR"; and Erwin Steinberg, "G. E. Moore's Table and Chair in To the Lighthouse," Journal of Modern Literature 15, no. 1 (1988): 161–68.

Those who have discussed Bertrand Russell include Jaakko Hintikka, "Virginia Woolf and Our Knowledge of the External World," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 38, no. 1 (1979): 5–14, hereafter abbreviated "VW"; and Ann Banfield, The Phantom Table: Woolf, Fry, Russell, and the Epistemology of Modernism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Those who have discussed Roger Fry include J. K. Johnstone, The Bloomsbury Group: A Study of E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf, and Their Circle (London: Secker and Warburg, 1954); Allen McLaurin, Virginia Woolf: The Echoes Enslaved (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973); Thomas Matro, "Only Relations: Vision and Achievement in To the Lighthouse," PMLA 99, no. 2 (1984): 212–24; David Dowling, Bloomsbury Aesthetics and the Novels of Forster and Woolf (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985); Jonathan Quick, "Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry and Post-Impressionism," The Massachusetts Review 26, no. 4 (1985): 547–70; Alice van Buren Kelley, "To the Lighthouse": The Marriage of Life and Art (Boston: Twayne, 1987); and Banfield, The Phantom Table.

2. Scholars who have discussed the possible influence of Henri Bergson on To The Lighthouse include, in chronological order, Floris Delattre, Le Roman Psychologique de Virginia Woolf (Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 1932), esp. pp. 127–42; Harvena Richter, Virginia Woolf: The Inward Voyage (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970); and Jan Heinemann, "The Revolt against Language: A Critical Note on Twentieth-century Irrationalism with Special Reference to the Aesthetico-philosophical Views of Virginia Woolf and Clive Bell," Orbis Litterarum 32, no. 3 (1977): 212–28.

Edmund Husserl is discussed by Rebecca Rauve-Davis, "Whole Like a Wave: Woolf's Husserlian Materiality," Virginia Woolf Miscellany 85 (2014): 23–26.

J. M. E. McTaggart is discussed by Avrom Fleishman, "Woolf and McTaggart," ELF 36, no. 4 (1969): 719–38.

Friedrich Nietzsche is discussed by Graham Parkes, "Imagining Reality in To the Lighthouse," Philosophy and Literature 6, no. 1 (1982): 33–44; and Martha Nussbaum, "The Window: Knowledge of Other Minds in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse," New Literary History 26, no. 4 (1995): 731–53, hereafter abbreviated "TW."

Plato is discussed by A. C. Hoffmann, "Subject and Object and the Nature of Reality: The Dialectic of To the Lighthouse," Texas Studies in Literature and Language 13, no. 4 (1972): 691–703; Jean Wyatt, "The Celebration of Eros: Greek Concepts of Love and Beauty in To the Lighthouse," Philosophy and Literature 2, no. 2 (1978): 160–75; and Parkes, "Imagining Reality."

3. Gillian Beer, "Hume, Stephen, and Elegy in To the Lighthouse," Essays in Criticism 34, no. 1 (1984): 33–55; hereafter abbreviated "HSE." Several other scholars do mention Hume in To the Lighthouse, but not systematically, including Richter, Virginia Woolf: The Inward Voyage, p. 67; Nussbaum, "TW," p. 746; Banfield, The Phantom Table, pp. 66, 193, 233, 366–68, 377; Michael Lackey, "Modernist Anti-Philosophicalism and Virginia Woolf's Critique of Philosophy," Journal of Modern Literature 29, no. 4 (2006), p. 86, hereafter abbreviated "MAP"; and Pericles Lewis, Religious Experience and the Modern Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 162, hereafter abbreviated RE.

4. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (San Diego: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1989), pp. 44–45; hereafter abbreviated TTL.

5. Banfield (in The Phantom Table, p. 193) points out that the story also appears in Lytton Strachey's essay "Hume," which can be found in The Shorter Strachey, ed. Michael Holroyd and Paul Levy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 84. However, Strachey's essay was originally published on January 7, 1928, the year after To the Lighthouse.

6. Leonard Woolf, Sowing: An Autobiography of the Years 1880–1904 (London: The Hogarth Press, 1960), p. 156.

7. Leslie Stephen, "Hume, David (1711–1776)" in Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 28, Howard–Inglethorp, ed. Sidney Lee (New York: Macmillan and Co., 1891), p. 223; hereafter abbreviated DNB.

8. Andre Gerard, "Bog #169: David Hume, Dean Ramsay, and Leslie Stephen," Andre's Blog: Patremoir Press, posted March 2, 2015; hereafter abbreviated "B."

9. In addition to Edward Bannerman Ramsay, there was also Frank Ramsey, the Cambridge mathematician and member of the Cambridge Apostles who knew Russell and Wittgenstein. He died at 26, and was an atheist. Woolf knew him through the Apostles. In her diary entry of February 7, 1923, she recounts a dinner party at John Maynard Keynes's house: "Ramsay [sic], the unknown guest, was something like a Darwin, broad, thick, powerful, & a great mathematician, & clumsy to boot." The Diary of Virginia Woolf, vol. 2, ed. Anne Olivier Bell (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), p. 231. Note Woolf's misspelling of Frank Ramsey's name. Note, also, what Keynes himself wrote in "F. P. Ramsey" in Essays and Sketches in Biography (New York: Meridian Books, 1956): "Ramsey reminds one of Hume more than of anyone else, particularly, in his common sense and a sort of hard-headed practicality towards the whole business" of philosophy (p. 118).

10. Edward Bannerman Ramsay, Reminiscences of Scottish Life and Character, 22nd ed. (Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1874), pp. 96–97 (emphasis in the original).

11. Martin Corner, "Mysticism and Atheism in To the Lighthouse," Studies in the Novel 13, no. 4 (1981): 416; Michael Lackey, "The Gender of Atheism in Virginia Woolf's 'A Simple Melody,'" Studies in Short Fiction 35, no. 1 (1998): 60.

12. I see no textual evidence that Mr. Ramsay is aware of the irony. But even if he were, why would it make him laugh? Wouldn't it rather insult his pride? Nevertheless, a self-aware reading is given by Nussbaum in "The Window," p. 746, as well as by Lewis in Religious Experience, p. 162, along with other reasons why Mr. Ramsay finds the anecdote amusing.

13. The connection between these passages in Woolf and Plato is unlikely to have been intentional. Woolf never mentions the Theaetetus in her letters or diaries, even though she had studied some Greek and had read Plato—see her essay "On Not Knowing Greek" in The Common Reader (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1925), pp. 50–53; see also Hintikka, "Virginia Woolf and Our Knowledge of the External World," p. 13; and Wyatt, "The Celebration of Eros," pp. 160–61.

14. Leslie Stephen, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, 3rd ed. (New York: Peter Smith, 1949), vol. 1.

15. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (New York: Prometheus Books, 1992): p. 1, emphasis in original; hereafter abbreviated THN.

16. See Jean Guiguet, Virginia Woolf and Her Works, trans. Jean Stewart (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1965), p. 370: "The stratum of sense impressions … has become the only reality which the novelist allows herself to express. The principle underlying this technique is apparently a kind of sensationalism, which enables Chastaing to place Virginia Woolf in the tradition of Hume." Guiguet is referring to Maxime Chastaing's La Philosophie de Virginia Woolf (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1951). Guiguet himself, however, is wary of such a connection with the empiricist tradition.

17. At least three other scholars have developed alternate parallels between the experimental technique of To the Lighthouse and the doctrines of some philosopher. Hintikka, in "Virginia Woolf and Our Knowledge of the External World," parallels Woolf's amalgamation of perspectives that allow the reader to construct the novel's world with Russell's metaphysical-epistemological theory of how we "construct our common public world out of materials which included private worlds populated by sense-data" (p. 11). Parkes, in "Imagining Reality in To the Lighthouse," connects Woolf's psychological perspectivism with Nietzsche's antirealism (p. 43). Finally, Rauve-Davis argues, in "Whole Like a Wave," that Husserl's phenomenology can better account for "the unity and flow in Woolf's watery worlds" and "the strange mix of fluidity and fixity" in them than Russell's theories (p. 23).

18. Beer, "Hume, Stephen, and Elegy," pp. 45, 49; Richter, Virginia Woolf: The Inward Voyage, p. 67.

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