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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.)