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The Riddle of Hume's Treatise: Skepticism, Naturalism, and Irreligion [Paperback]

Paul Russell

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Book Description

Nov. 5 2010
Winner of the Journal of the History of Philosophy Prize for the Best Book on the History of Philosophy, 2008 Although it is widely recognized that David Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40) belongs among the greatest works of philosophy, there is little agreement about the correct way to interpret his fundamental intentions. It is an established orthodoxy among almost all commentators that skepticism and naturalism are the two dominant themes in this work. The difficulty has been, however, that Hume's skeptical arguments and commitments appear to undermine and discredit his naturalistic ambition to contribute to "the science of man". This schism appears to leave his entire project broken-backed. The solution to this riddle depends on challenging another, closely related, point of orthodoxy: namely, that before Hume published the Treatise he removed almost all material concerned with problems of religion. Russell argues, contrary to this view, that irreligious aims and objectives are fundamental to the Treatise and account for its underlying unity and coherence. It is Hume's basic anti-Christian aims and objectives that serve to shape and direct both his skeptical and naturalistic commitments. When Hume's arguments are viewed from this perspective we can solve, not only puzzles arising from his discussion of various specific issues, we can also explain the intimate and intricate connections that hold his entire project together. This "irreligious" interpretation provides a comprehensive fresh account of the nature of Hume's fundamental aims and ambitions in the Treatise. It also presents a radically different picture of the way in which HUme's project was rooted in the debates and controversies of his own time, placing the Treatise in an irreligious or anti-Chrisitan philosophical tradition that includes Hobbes, Spinoza and freethinking followers. Considered in these terms, Hume's Treatise constitutes the crowning achievement of the Radical Enlightenment.

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"This book is a triumph and a model for work in the history of philosophy. It offers a powerful reading of the Treatise and of Hume's intentions in writing it, while also correcting common misunderstandings about Hume's place in early modern thought. It deserves to be read by anyone interested in Hume or in early modern philosophy." --Colin Heydt, Journal of the History of Philosophy

"The Riddle of Hume's Treatise is a stimulating and provocative piece of scholarship. The central question it poses--how to understand all of the Treatise as part of a single project?--is most certainly a question that still needs to be asked. And Paul Russell's way of answering it, by means of a careful consideration of David Hume's intellectual context, is the only way." --James Harris, Times Literary Supplement

"Paul Russell has given us a marvelously good book.... [He] offers original and compelling accounts of the irreligious implications of central arguments of the Treatise on an impressive range of topics....it should never again be claimed that the Treatise is largely unconcerned with questions of religion." --Don Garrett, Philosophical Review

"Paul Russell's The Riddle of Hume's Treatise is an excellent and thought-provoking text that is a pleasure to read.... It deserves to have an important impact not only on Hume research, but on the narrative that drives undergraduate survey courses in the history of early modern philosophy as well." --Rico Vitz, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

"Russell's...book presents a powerful, comprehensive, and elegantly written case for putting 'irreligion' alongside -- and even above - 'scepticism' and 'naturalism' as a pervasive theme not only of Hume's later work, but also of his Treatise ." --Peter Millican, Faculty of Philosophy, Hertford College, Oxford University

"Paul Russell's lucid and finely-researched book...will enable all of us to read Hume's primary work with fresh understanding, and is a major addition to the scholarly literature." --Terence Penelhum, University of Calgary

"Persuasively argues that irreligion is the main agenda of Hume's Treatise ." --Annette Baier, author of Death and Character: Further Reflections on Hume

"A bold and novel approach the study as a whole has an exceptional merit." --J. D. McNabb, Eighteenth Century Fiction

About the Author

Paul Russell is Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia. He is also the author of Freedom and Moral Sentiment (OUP 1995) and editor of the forthcoming OUP volumes Thinking About Free Will and The Oxford Handbook of Hume.

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Amazon.com: 5.0 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Riddle Resolved May 21 2008
By D. L. C. Maclachlan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In his day and thereafter Hume has been widely known in many quarters as a notorious sceptic: the problem is to reconcile this with Hume's own stated ambition to produce a detailed science of human nature. The solution is to distinguish between an extreme (Pyrrhonian)scepticism and a mitigated (academic)scepticism. The extreme scepticism contends that we are forced to doubt almost everything because of a lack of rational justification. Hume argues that we must mitigate this scepticism, since our very nature compels us to continue with our empirical reasonings in the usual way. What cannot be resurrected, however, are the rational arguments in favor of the existence of God, etc. which were advanced at the time by divines and the "graver sort of philosopher." Russell argues that the underlying strategy behind the Treatise is to achieve just this result. A great virtue of Russell's book is the careful and thorough examination of the intellectual context in which Hume was working. The supporters of religion at the time were well aware, as Russell shows, that Hume was not "one of us", although I am not convinced that Hume was that invested in pushing this point at a time when he was anxious to make a name for himself through his highly original account of human nature. In general, this is an excellent book and more accessible to the general reader than most books with its degree of scholarly seriousness.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Major New Hume Interpretation Sept. 12 2010
By Thomas Llewellyn - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is an outstanding contribution to philosophical scholarship. I would even go so far as to say that it is the most important work on Hume since Kemp Smith's influential study published in 1941. What we have here is a radical new interpretation of Hume's greatest work, A Treatise of Human Nature. It is well known that Hume's later works included major criticisms of religion. But the Treatise, his earliest work (published before Hume turned thirty), supposedly contained little or nothing concerning the problems of religion. This is the view Russell tackles and stands on its head.

Two themes have dominated Hume scholarship over the years: skepticism and naturalism. The former sees Hume as a radical Pyrrhonian, using the tools of ancient skepticism to undermine any claims we may have to truth and certainty. Prominent early critics in this vein included Thomas Reid and James Beattie. Recent defenders of this view include John Laird, Richard Popkin, and Robert Fogelin.

The naturalistic interpretation, famously articulated by Norman Kemp Smith in 1941, has recently been ably defended by Barry Stroud. This approach emphasizes the importance of feeling over reason as the determining influence on human behavior. While earlier critics had focused attention on the importance of Locke, Berkeley, and Bayle for Hume, Kemp Smith wants to highlight the philosophies of Lord Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and Butler as being the primary antecedents. These latter thinkers represent the "moral sense" theory in ethics. They believed that people have an immediate awareness of the distinction between virtue and vice. This awareness is more of a feeling than a process of reasoning. The moral sense is an innate psychological faculty in humans--an integral part of our biological nature.

Kemp Smith thus believes that for Hume reason is subordinate to feeling. In support of this position is the famous quote from the Treatise (Book Two, Part iii, Section 3): "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." Now it is obvious that skeptical philosophy is a tool of reason, and as reason only plays (and should only play) a supporting role in human life, the naturalistic interpretation trumps the skeptical interpretation as truly representing Hume's beliefs. The passionate soul leads and the critical mind follows. This is the essence of Hume's naturalism, at least according to Kemp Smith.

But supporters of the skeptical position have plenty of ammunition on their side. They point out that Book One Part iv of the Treatise is a devastating attack on the faculties required to produce knowledge: the understanding, reason, and the senses. And Hume himself acknowledges his deep skepticism: "...the philosophy contained in this book is very sceptical, and tends to give us a notion of the imperfections and narrow limits of human understanding" (Abstract, p. 413). And he is aware of the serious implications of this skeptical attitude: "My memory of past errors and perplexities, makes me diffident for the future. The wretched condition, weakness, and disorder of the faculties, I must employ in my enquiries, encrease my apprehensions. And the impossibility of amending or correcting these faculties, reduces me almost to despair,..." (Treatise, p. 172).

But all is not lost: "Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium,..." (p. 175). Our mind returns to the ordinary business of life. We dine, socialize, play games, all of which demand the natural attitude, not the skeptical one. But there remains a problem. Not for the common person of course, but for the intellectual who has been exposed to the skeptical philosophy. Those dedicated to the life of the mind (like Hume) must walk a thin line between the natural attitude (which may yield insufficient knowledge) and the skeptical attitude (which may destroy knowledge).

For the sake of argument let's assume that Hume is an extreme skeptic. So what? Human history has had many skeptics, and some are smarter than others. Why is Hume's skepticism of such vital importance? The answer is that skepticism of an extreme variety will in fact undermine the main goal of the Treatise. The subtitle of the book is "Being An Attempt To Introduce the Experimental Method Of Reasoning Into Moral Subjects." Hume wants to develop a "science of man" using the same methods that Newton used as a foundation for natural philosophy (what we now call natural science). We must investigate human nature using only experience and observation. All fanciful flights of speculation about ultimate origins must be eschewed--"...we cannot go beyond experience;...(Treatise, p. 5).

Russell's "riddle" in his book title refers to this considerable tension between Hume's naturalism (as manifested in his scientific aspirations) and his skepticism (which undermines these aspirations). The author's goal is to solve this riddle by offering a plausible interpretation that holds the Treatise together as a unified work. He plans to do this by focusing on what has hitherto been a neglected aspect of the Treatise: Hume's irreligion. "More specifically, the direction and structure of Hume's thought in the Treatise is shaped on one side by his attack on the Christian metaphysics and morals and on the other by his efforts to construct in its place a secular, scientific account of morality" (p. viii).

The positive side of Hume's thought--his science of man--is framed by the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. This Hobbist view emphasizes human motivation as grounded in a necessitarian (i.e., non-religious) model of human nature. The negative aspect of Hume--his skepticism--aims to refute Christian metaphysics and morals, especially the thought of Samuel Clarke, a prominent Christian rationalist and severe critic of Hobbes. So on Russell's view Hume is both a skeptic and a naturalist. His skepticism is a powerful tool in his attack on Christianity, and his naturalism provides a plausible secular alternative to Christian perspectives on morality (p. 222).

Due to space limitations I cannot address the many issues Russell discusses. Suffice it to say that his interpretation of the Treatise is historically grounded, marvelously detailed, and powerfully argued. Russell's Hume is a virtuous atheist, and his philosophy "...should be considered the jewel in the crown of the Radical Enlightenment" (p. 278).

Paul Russell has written a wonderful book. This type of work, bold in its aims and interpretations, and tremendously learned in its accomplishments, comes along once or twice every 100 years. The philosophy community of the early 21st century owes a debt to this outstanding Hume scholar.

(Note: All references to Hume are to the Oxford Philosophical Texts edition of A Treatise of Human Nature, (eds.) David and Mary Norton.)
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential reading for understanding Hume's Treatise May 25 2008
By stuffbuyer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Hume's Treatise is his greatest work and, by far, the most difficult to understand. Published when he was still in his twenties, it is an overexuberant book. If you read the Treatise carefully, you are struck over and over again by the question, why does Hume cover this topic? Who exactly is he arguing against? What is his overall motivation?

Russell's "Riddle of Hume's Treatise" offers a coherent theory that helps make sense of this classic philosophical text. He argues that Hume's irreligion motivates and informs almost every aspect of the Treatise, providing it a coherence that previous critics have claimed it lacks.

Whether you accept this thesis or not, "The Riddle of Hume's Treatise" offers detailed historical analysis of the philosophical and theological milieu in which the Treatise arose. Understanding the debates current *at that time* provides a deeper understanding of the Treatise and the issues Hume was grappling with.

This is intellectual history at its finest. Anyone serious about understanding Hume's philosophy needs to read this book and consider the implications of its findings.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Philosophy of Irreligion Aug. 5 2011
By R. Albin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This superb and very enjoyable book is a unusually thoughtful and contextually grounded interpretation of Hume's great Treatise. Russell describes the riddle of the title as a pair of closely related problems. Prior interpreters tend to stress one of two aspects of the Treatise, either Hume's apparently radical skepticism or his naturalism, his "science of man." These apparently different aspects led to a general impression that the Treatise lacks a unifying theme. Employing a series of interesting arguments, Russell presents a strong interpretation that the unifying theme of the Treatise is a sustained critique of religion and specifically the sophisticated apologetics articulated by a variety of late 17th and early 18th century philosophers and theologians. Since the Treatise only rarely addresses religious arguments explicitly, prior interpreters have tended to regard religious issues as peripheral to the Treatise.

Russell develops several lines of argument. These include the reception of the Treatise, which was denounced by several contemporaries as a work of atheism. Another interesting point is that the organization of the treatise parallels the combined structure of Hobbes Elements of Law and the beginning of Leviathan. This is certainly significant given Hobbes' stature as the atheistic bogeyman of British intellectual life. Most convincing, however, is the series of careful analyses of several important parts of the Treatise in the context of early 18th century intellectual life. Based on a careful reading of the Treatise and of a large volume of the work of Hume's contemporaries, including many now obscure theistic apologists, Russell shows beautifully that many of the topics discussed in the Treatise draw directly from contemporary debates about the status of theism. To give one example, Russell demonstrates that Hume's famous analysis of induction, usually treated as a purely epistemic discussion, is directly relevant to an argument for theism put forward by the prominent theologian and philosopher Joseph Butler. Russell shows that Hume's skeptical arguments systematically demolish an array of theistic arguments that were the subject of debate in the late 17th and early 18th century.

Russell then argues that Hume's naturalism is the logical complement to his destructive skeptical criticism. Hume's "science of man" is a systematic argument to demonstrate that morality and human society is grounded in human nature and not in religion. Hume's "virtuous" atheism is a more than adequate substitute for religion as a guide to human existence and avoids the potential corruptions inherent in religious faith. The unifying theme of the Treatise is a sustained attack on theistic arguments with an equivalent emphasis on presenting a naturalistic and compelling alternative to theism as a way of life. Russell uses the term irreligion to describe this powerful combination of negative criticism and positive naturalism to summarize Hume's central theme. For Russell, Hume is the great 18th century inheritor and most successful exponent of the Radical Enlightenment of Hobbes and Spinoza.

This is superb scholarship which is illuminating not only about Hume but also about intellectual life in early 18th century Europe. Russell is a unusually fine writer who explains the sometimes abstruse arguments of this period very clearly. He also connects the Treatise with the broad sweep of Hume's life, including much of his later work on religion like the Natural History of Religion and the great Dialogues, as well as his principled personal conduct. A potentially interesting connection that Russell doesn't make is that British circle of freethinkers and religious skeptics sharing some of Hume's views overlaps with the circle of political radicals like Trenchard and Gordon. These dissident intellectuals carried forward the Republicanism of the Commonwealth period into the 18th century, a tradition to which Hume made a distinguished contribution in his political theory.

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