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Philosophy is a game with objectives and no rules.
Mathematics is a game with rules and no objectives.
Theology is a game whose object is to bring rules into the subjective.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Political Thought

David Hume held several posts in his life, but never achieved high office in the academic world or elsewhere. He did, though, achieve the ‘literary fame’ which was his sole expressed ambition: his work was widely admired and discussed in Scotland, France, England, and beyond, and his reputation, though viciously attacked by eminent Victorians such as Carlyle, has been maintained on a high level ever since.

This reputation is not primarily as a political theorist, but in the fields of epistemology and ethics, where his Enquiry concerning Human Understanding and A Treatise of Human Nature respectively have given him an undisputed eminent place in the history of philosophy. His position in the history of political thought is not generally considered to be so large. There is no work comparable to Hobbes's Leviathan, Rousseau's Social Contract, or even Locke's Two Treatises on Civil Government; it is a consequence of his approach to politics that there could not be. Hume's conventionally ‘political’ works consist of something between a dozen and two dozen essays, depending on what one means by politics. Yet Hume is, in many respects, a deeply political writer. His epistemology cannot be ignored by anyone seeking to explain politics, his consideration of the nature of morality, including convention, justice, and property, is an important political theory in all but conventional categorization and these are complemented by his overtly political essays and his History of England in six volumes.

Hume wrote forcefully, in elegant, common language: no British philosopher is further removed than Hume from the Germanic habit of inventing terms and creating concepts. Yet Hume's clarity is often said to be deceptively, even deceitfully, misleading: the contradictions and ambiguities of Hume's writings as a whole are legion and he can make an apparently simple concept, like ‘the association of ideas’, which he is often accused of overusing, into a puzzle as unclear as anything in Kant or Hegel. Take, for example, four famous Humean arguments:

(1) ‘Hume's fork’: the insistence, most clearly in the Enquiry, that true statements come in two forms, ‘relations of ideas’ (especially mathematics) and ‘matters of fact’. Books full of claims which fall into neither category should be ‘consigned to the flames’. This argument suggests Hume as an intellectual ancestor of the logical positivists.
(2) Atheism: the Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, consistently with much of Hume's epistemological writings, appear to favour rejection of all the established arguments in favour of religion including the ontological argument, the necessity of a Creator, and so on.
(3) Causation: Hume argued that causes did not have a separate existence, that the idea of causation must be reduced to the ‘constant conjunction’ of what we imagine to be causes and their effects.
(4) The gap between facts and values: or, in Hume's terms, the impossibility of inferring an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.

 Yet all of these arguments, put so forcefully by Hume in famous passages, are contradicted or mitigated elsewhere in his writings and have been interpreted in widely different ways. The ‘relations of ideas’ category is expanded far beyond the bounds allowed by the logical positivists and Hume insists on the untenability of complete scepticism. Not only is there private correspondence which seems to establish Hume as a religious believer, but the Dialogues contain convincing arguments in favour of an anthropomorphic analogy for any principle of order in the universe and for the necessity of religion reinforcing morality.

The argument from ‘constant conjunction’ can be cited as both a scepticism about science and as a redefining basic principle for Newtonian physics and thus modern science. Some critics have argued that Hume, far from instigating a rigid distinction between fact and value, collapsed such a distinction and convincingly portrayed certain kinds of morality as natural and compelling because of their naturalness.

Similar contradictions threaten the clarity of his political writings. In his essay, ‘Of the Original Contract’, he sustains, with great force and elegance, a contempt for the plausibility and usefulness of any idea of government being based on the kind of contract posited by Hobbes, Locke, or Rousseau. Government is founded on ‘usurpation or conquest’; it must be supported because of its beneficial consequences and it would not last five minutes if subjected to the test of having to fulfil a valid contract. But in many other passages, including the essay Of the Origin of Government, he seems much more sympathetic to a contractual account. In That Politics may be reduced to a Science he argues against the possibility of general prescriptions of how government should be organized while in Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth he appears to offer us just such a general prescription, a devolved, elected, republic, based on a property franchise with a separation of powers.

The accusation must be considered that Hume was inconsistent and negative. Contesting such considerations must start with Hume's beliefs and prejudices about English history. His History ends with the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1689: ‘we, in this island, have ever since enjoyed if not the best system of government, at least the most entire system of liberty, that ever was known among mankind.’ Nothing could be stronger or more consistent in Hume's view of the world than the contrast between his abhorrence for the doctrinaire, vicious milieu of the seventeenth century, with its religious persecutions, civil wars, and political crises, and his gratitude for finding himself alive in the eighteenth century. His own age, as he portrayed it in his essays on economics and the arts, was an unprecedented period of peace, stability, prosperity, and freedom of expression. His disgust at the excesses of the seventeenth century is well shown in his version of the Popish Plot period of 1678-9 with its show trials (as we should now call them) and its hypocrisies, in which both sides, supporters of Parliament and monarch, were equally objectionable in his view.

How did the happy condition of the eighteenth century arise? On what principle was it based? How was it to be maintained? These were essential questions for Hume and he had subtle and important answers to them. The settlement of British political problems had not come about because the right side won, still less because the correct doctrine prevailed. Of William of Orange, the principal beneficiary of the Glorious Revolution, he says, ‘though his virtue, it is confessed, be not the purest, which we meet with in history, it will be difficult to find any person, whose actions and conduct have contributed more eminently to the general interests of society and of mankind’. Thus he supports the same side as John Locke, but regards Locke as taking the right side, not just for the wrong reason, but for the wrong sort of reason. Acceptance of the Glorious Revolution and the subsequent Hanoverian Settlement starts with its good effects. One reason these effects are good is that they give a preponderant victory to the Whigs, but not a total victory: the monarchy remains, with Hume's support, allowing a government which is ‘mixed’ in its principles and institutions and therefore moderate in its nature. Above all, political life is no longer a contest over abstract or religious truth; Hume had as much contempt for divine right as for contract theory, and as much again for the popular political dogmas they generated: the Tory doctrine of passive obedience and Whig doctrine of the right of resistance. Whatever the subtleties of Hume's religious position, he was consistently opposed to religion in its seventeenth-century form, which claimed philosophical truth and moral substance. By contrast, he saw ‘ancient religion’ as a benign package of myths, morals, and allegiances which required no dogma.

Hume's philosophical arguments and historical judgements can be synthesized as follows: the purpose of government is the well-being of the people, but you cannot bring government into being or destroy governments in relation to that purpose, because to do so would not be beneficial. Governments arise by contingency; they are worthy of obedience not because of any rigorous principle, but because their maintenance allows the freedom and stability which is conducive to the general well-being. Human institutions are founded not on abstract principles, but on conventions; justice and property are necessary conventions in conditions of scarcity. Some conventions have a natural basis, not in that they can be derived naturally from reason, but in the sense that they flow from the sympathy which exists naturally in all of us and links us together. The question for political theorists is not, ‘In what circumstances can we justify acceptance of and obedience to government?’, but ‘How can we understand the nature of the bonds which form a society and give us the habit of being governed without resorting to the kind of theological and moral dogmas which are intellectually unacceptable and practically dangerous?’ Most elements of this body of theory are shared with Hume's contemporaries: the relativism and passion for moderate government is shared with Montesquieu; the ultimately sensual purpose is shared with the utilitarians, though without a linear concept of well-being or the apparent rigour of Bentham; the belief in a society based on convention, which grows in conditions of stability, is shared with Burke. Yet the whole constitutes one of the most subtle and important of modern political philosophies.

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