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
I’m a fan of biographies, but what I am not always a fan of are the 800-1000+ pages that go with it. It is clearly hard to condense someone’s life in to a book, but what is most impressive is when an individual of prominence is both captured but also analyzed through a lens, a certain approach that allows for novel insight. If brevity comes as part of the deal the all the better. You won’t get all of the key dates and places, or walk the chronological path of their life, but you may get some insight in to how that person thought, what motivated them, and how that played in to their actions. The splendid Benjamin Franklin biography by Edmund Morgan falls squarely in to that category.
Jefferson, like Franklin, is a prime candidate for this more nuanced approach to the biography due to the sheer volume of writing that already exists about the man. In Most Blessed Of The Patriarchs by Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf “they add a fresh and layered analysis, one centered more on his interior life than his deeds for posterity”, an attempt to dig in to and understand the contradictions of his character.
Much of this book is set not in New York or Washington or Philadelphia, the places from which Jefferson entered the American pantheon, but in Monticello, the place that most reflected him. It is “Monticello’s ambiguous moral geography” — and Jefferson’s own — that the authors set out to explore in a sort of scholarly Lewis and Clark journey through the mind and philosophy of the most enigmatic of the founders.
New York Times