Hume: An Intellectual Biography by James Harris

Hume: An Intellectual Biography

Philosophy can appear impenetrable. The questions discussed are fascinating, but the method of enquiry, analysis and argumentation is often dense and confusing. The history and development of philosophical thought has always filled a gap for me, as the narrative through-line that comes with a historically based analysis is easier to follow and process, whilst also delivering the key facets of the philosophers ideas. Hume: An Intellectual Biography by James Harris fits right in to this category.

Using the term intellectual biography signals that this is not a traditional book on the life and times of David Hume the man. That has been done before by Ernest Campbell Mossner in The Life of David Hume, a biographical foundation stone often referenced in the reviews. Instead what Harris has taken on is a detailed review of the development of Hume as a thinker and writer, and is the surprisingly the first book to do so:

Remarkably, James Harris’s intellectual biography of Hume is the first to have been attempted. As such, it covers the full trajectory of Hume’s intellectual career—from his earliest experiments in epistemology and ethics, through his views on religion, economics, and politics, to his mature efforts to complete his classic History of England. The result is an engrossing reconstruction of his ideas along with his position in 18th-century intellectual life. A significant place is given to Hume’s “anatomy” of human nature, and thus to the criticism of Stoicism which he developed in that context
The Nation

The emphasis here is on presenting a narrative development of Hume’s ideas, not a discursive analysis of their validity:

Readers will not find long disquisitions on competing interpretations of Hume’s philosophical arguments, or on the finer conceptual points of Humean epistemology, but rather a lucid, well-organised and readable narrative, carefully informed by nuanced historical-intellectual scholarship. Like Hume himself, Harris engages in a careful observation of his subject, and avoids making dogmatic pronouncements whenever he can.
Times Higher Education

Hume’s philosophical masterpiece is commonly understood to be the rather large and dense Treatise of Human Nature (1738). After that Hume went on to release a book of essays and write a six volume History of England. The Treatise gets the philosophical attention and the other writings are mostly overlooked. A key aspect of Harris’ intellectual narrative is to reevaluate this common interpretation of Hume’s writing career and to instead provide a more balanced review of his thinking across his work:

James A. Harris admires the Treatise, and his account of its arguments and its relation to the British philosophical conversation of the late 1730s is fine and probing. But his intellectual biography is committed to destroying and clearing away for ever this “two-stage” model of Hume’s career, with its attendant thesis that the Treatise contains the whole of Hume’s subsequent thought in concentrated form and that the later decades of thinking and writing amounted to nothing more than a process of dilution

In the place of the reductive Victorian two-stage model of Hume’s career, Harris proposes a different understanding of what Hume was about, based on a more historically informed idea of what it was to practise philosophy, on a more nuanced conception of scepticism, particularly as it could be understood in the 18th century, and above all positioned in relation to a subtle understanding of what it could have meant in the 18th century to commit yourself to a career as a man of letters.
The Australian Financial Review

This aspect of Hume as a careerist “man of letters” is fascinating, and just the type of historical grounding that delivers context on how Hume must have been approaching these projects as an individual making his way in the world:

Harris identifies two traditional approaches to Hume’s intellectual development: according to one, he became so disenchanted with the destructiveness of the Treatise that he turned away from philosophy to work on subjects that would be less taxing; according to the other, the Treatise was more constructive than it seemed, offering a series of hypotheses about morality and the passions that he was able to build on in his later works. Harris rejects them both, and with good reason. He prefers not to get hung up on the Treatise, and presents the History and the various essays as independent works that can stand their ground without reference to it. Hume more or less created the role of the modern professional writer, after all, and instead of looking backwards he preferred to concentrate on the next project and the next fee: he didn’t think of his works as having ‘unity of any kind at all’, according to Harris, and his readers would do well to stop looking for one. But Harris has revealed a certain continuity in spite of himself: not a positive doctrine but a negative capability – Hume’s gleeful sense that everything we know is wrong.
London Review of Books

It is worth noting that this type of biographical style comes with trade-offs, one that skates over significant life events that Harris deems less requiring of investigation than a standard biography would deliver:

There are costs to Mr. Harris’s erudite method. Hume’s friendship with Adam Smith, his Continental travels, his notorious falling out with the paranoid Rousseau: None of this is narrated in detail. Mr. Harris’s textual explications can have a dry, lofty air. But patient readers are rewarded. Hume emerges as a product of the Enlightenment as it really was, not as it exists in complacent legend.
The Wall Street Journal

But overall the book was highly praised, both for Harris’ writing style and the substance of his research, but mainly for delivering a unique perspective on this highly influential thinker:

Much of Harris’s achievement derives from his capacity for cogent synthesis. For the first time, the various advances made by two generations of innovative scholarship about Hume are brought together in a comprehensive treatment. At the same time, Harris’s book brings its own distinctive analysis to bear on the full range of Hume’s output. Harris emphasizes three main points: Hume’s ambition as a writer, the diversity of his pursuits, and the implications of his skepticism. It was above all as a skeptic that Hume took issue with attempts to revivify the philosophy of Stoicism.
The Nation

You can see Harris introduce the book himself in this quick video:


Book details:
Hume: An Intellectual Biography
By James A. Harris
Cambridge University Press, 575pp


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Review sources:
The Nation (top review)
The Australian Financial Review (top review)
The New York Review of Books
Times Higher Education
The Wall Street Journal
The International Association for Scottish Philosophy
Notre Dame Philosophical Review
London Review of Books


Image courtesy of the BBC.