Monday, August 29, 2011

Hume's Writing

Robert Paul Wolff has started an interesting introduction to Hume. I was struck, however, by this, in the second post:

A warning -- Hume wrote so beautifully, with such concision, clarity, precision, and elegance, that the temptation is overwhelming simply to incorporate large chunks of the Treatise into this tutorial. Any student of philosophy who imagines that it is necessary, or even desirable, to write turgidly and obscurely when engaging with deep questions would do well to spend a long time reading Hume and striving to emulate him.

Students striving to emulate Hume's writing style is exactly what one doesn't want. Hume has many virtues, and it is certainly often said that he writes with clarity and precision, but all the actual evidence is that he is not, in fact, very precise, and that his clarity is largely superficial. As I've noted before, Hume was effectively writing in a very different dialect than he spoke; Scots English in the eighteenth century was much farther from the English of England than the two are now. Hume, being an intense Anglophile, put considerable effort into it, and thus became one of the best Scottish writers of English English. But he was still some distance from the summit, as can be seen if one compares him to his critic James Beattie, who really does write beautifully, clearly, concisely, precisely, and elegantly (even if not always so insightfully) and is hands down the best Scottish writer of English English in Hume's day.

Don't get me wrong: Hume has many virtues as a writer -- his figures of speech are often very striking, his sense of vocabulary (into which he put an immense effort, due to the dialect differences just mentioned) is excellent, and his powers of large-scale organization of his text are much better than usually recognized. But his prose is notoriously ambiguous (sentence after sentence can be read in different ways, to such an extent that the history of Hume scholarship sees Hume being interpreted in radically, and I mean radically, different ways), his discussions sprawling enough to make his (often quite good) organization difficult to see, and when some of his contemporaries ridiculed him for putting things oddly (his occasionally French-sounding syntax, his rampant egoisms, etc.), they did have something of a point.

Hume's virtues as a philosopher include perceptiveness, not elegance; acuteness of observation, not precision of reasoning; striking presentation, not beauty of language; organization of inquiry, not conciseness of argument; restraint in description, not clarity. To be sure, there are passages in Hume that are beautiful, or concise, or elegant, or precise, or clear; he improves greatly in his later works; and he has been helped out by the increasing distaste for rhetorical flowers and balanced clauses, as well as by the slow homogenization of English. But if beauty, concision, elegance, precision, or clarity are what are important to you, Butler and Berkeley are better role models on every single point. Hume's strengths, though lying elsewhere, are really and truly strengths; they have their place, and are not to be dismissed lightly. But the claim that Hume is somehow a particularly elegant and clear writer is mostly a myth of the twentieth century.


  1. Ocham8:38 AM

    A minor point, but I thought Hume was an Anglophobe?  From memory (a biographical introduction I read years ago) he hated priests, and the English.

    (Certainly Reid disliked the English - one of his works even has a dedication to the French, 'who have long been our allies against the English' or something like that).

  2. branemrys10:15 AM

    He was very definitely not an Anglophobe: pro-Union, concerned with gaining a reputation in English circles, very interested in English history. It's even why we spell the name 'Hume'  rather than 'Home' -- he changed the spelling of his name so that the English would be more likely to pronounce it correctly. But he was also a bit of a Gallophile, too, so perhaps it would be better to say he was a cosmopolitan Scot, and the English were one of the two important gateways to the Republic of Letters. I think Alasdair MacIntyre and Annette Baier have had some sort of argument in the journals about how Anglophilic Hume was (MacIntyre accusing him of 'anglicising subversions' of Scottish culture, and Baier arguing that it was simply part of the general cosmopolitanism of the Scottish Enlightenment). And Jennifer Herdt has argued, I think, that his pro-English stance was actually part of, and subordinated to, his Scottish patriotism: he was pro-English because he genuinely thought that England was a good model for Scottish self-improvement.

    I hadn't actually realized that Reid disliked the English; I'll have to pay more attention to that in the future. I'm sure somebody somewhere has done it, but a study of how the Auld Alliance affected Scottish philosophy, and its relation to English thought, would probably be quite interesting.

  3. Ocham8:22 AM

    <span>That’s good, I will put him on the list of philosophers who were really English, or who were spiritually English. <span> </span>Giles Fraser once put it to me that there were no English philosophers. <span> </span>How wrong.<span>  </span>We have Ockham, Scotus (born just on the English side of the border as drawn in 1265, certainly educated in England), Locke, Hume (in spirit), Mill (Scots descent, but - I think – grew up in England), Russell (although Wikipedia claims he was Welsh, because born in Wales). <span> </span>Can we include Hobbes?<span>  </span>Who else?</span>

  4. Ocham8:24 AM

    Oh yes and Wittgenstein of course (at least spiritually, as Hume).


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