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Nicholas Capaldi, “The Place of Liberty in David Hume’s Project” (January, 2018)

Nick Capaldi, the Legendre-Soulé Distinguished Chair of Business Ethics in the School of Business of Loyola University, New Orleans, outlines David Hume's ambitious "Project" with a list of 8 "theses", the last of which states that "Liberty is the Central Theme." Capaldi's gloss on this thesis is "The ultimate ontological reality is the individual human agent; there is no institution or practice that transcends the individual; the legitimacy of any practice is based on the acquiescence of individuals.  Acquiescence is not consent. There is no philosophical argument for liberty: it is the default position.  Given its unique history, England was able to preserve and elaborate this insight in large part because of its inherent disposition to distrust abstractions – this is the British Intellectual Inheritance, and Hume's philosophical practice as well as his History is the only meaningful kind of account that can be given." Capaldi is joined in this month's discussion by Daniel Klein who is professor of economics and JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University; Chandran Kukathas who holds the Chair of Political Theory in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics; Andrew Sabl who is Orrick Fellow and Visiting Professor in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics, Yale University; and Mark Yellin of Liberty Fund.

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Nicholas Capaldi, "The Place of Liberty in David Hume's Project" (January, 2018)

 

 

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The Debate

Lead Essay: Nicholas Capaldi, "Hume's Project" [Posted: January 1, 2018]

Responses and Critiques

  1. Daniel B. Klein, "Hume and Liberty, Simple and Complicated" [Posted: January 3, 2018]
  2. Andrew Sabl, "Politics, Method, and Pluralism" [Posted: January 5, 2018]
  3. Chandran Kukathas, "On Nicholas Capaldi's David Hume" [Posted: January 10, 2018]
  4. Mark E. Yellin, "Hume a Hayekian?" [Posted: January 11, 2018]

The Conversation

  1. Nicholas Capaldi, "Dine at the Table of Liberty, Whine, or Resign" [Posted: January 15, 2017]
  2. Daniel Klein, "Presumptions and Default Positions" [Posted: January 17, 2018]
  3. Daniel B. Klein, "Hume as Non-foundationalist" [Posted: January 19, 2018]
  4. Nicholas Capaldi, "Common Sense Methodized" [Posted: January 22, 2018]
  5. Chandran Kukathas, "Finding Fault with the Default Theory" [Posted: January 23, 2018]
  6. Andrew Sabl, "Hume Really Didn't Say Everything He "Said"" [Posted: January 23, 2018]

 

About the Authors

Nicholas Capaldi is Legendre-Soulé Distinguished Chair of Business Ethics in the School of Business of Loyola University, New Orleans. He is the author of two books and numerous articles on David Hume. He is also the author of the intellectual biography John Stuart Mill (Cambridge, 2005). His latest book is Liberty and Equality in Political Economy from Locke vs. Rousseau to the Present (2016, co-authored with Gordon Lloyd). He is currently working on a book on the rule of law focusing on Hayek and Oakeshott.

Daniel Klein is professor of economics and JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and associate fellow at the Ratio Institute (Stockholm). At GMU he leads a program in Adam Smith. He is the author of Knowledge and Coordination: A Liberal Interpretation and editor of Econ Journal Watch.

Chandran Kukathas holds the Chair of Political Theory in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics. He is the author of Hayek and Modern Liberalism (1989) and The Liberal Archipelago (2003). He is currently completing a book on immigration and freedom.

Andrew Sabl is Orrick Fellow and Visiting Professor in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics, Yale University. His most recent book is Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England (2012). He is currently completing a book tentatively titled "The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration."

Mark Yellin works at Liberty Fund.

Additional Reading

 

LEAD ESSAY: Nicholas Capaldi, "Hume's Project" [Posted: January 1, 2018]

Thought seems to have made little advance since David Hume and Immanuel Kant, and in several respects it will be at the point at which they left off that our analyses will have to resume.  It was they who came nearer than anybody has done since to a clear recognition of the status of value as independent and guiding conditions of all rational construction.  What I am ultimately concerned with here … is that destruction of values by scientific error … [this is] a tragedy, because the values which scientific error tends to dethrone are the indispensable foundation of all our civilization…. Science itself … rests on a system of values which cannot be scientifically proved. 

--Hayek, Law, Legislation, and Liberty (1972). [1]

Hume's Historical Context

Hume's historical context was defined by clergy (Kirk) who (a) emphasized Christian self-denial and control of the passions, (b) justified this version of Christianity by appeal to transcendent classical philosophy (e.g., Cambridge Platonists) and (c) promoted a culture suspicious of, if not hostile to, commerce.  Politically, Britain was divided between "Country" vs. "Court' political parties, each appealing to intellectual abstractions that made compromise difficult if not impossible.  Hume's project was to undo everything for which the Kirk stood by undermining its intellectual foundations, to promote a commercial society by emphasizing its human origin and humane consequences, and to promote thereby a more productive politics.

The Copernican Revolution in Philosophy[2]

Thesis One: How we understand ourselves is more fundamental than how we understand the nonhuman world. Our understanding of the nonhuman world is parasitic on our understanding of the human world.  We cannot understand ourselves in the way in which we understand the sciences and the way in which the sciences explain the nonhuman world.[3]  Epistemology is more fundamental than metaphysics (already implicit in all of modern philosophy if not late scholasticism).  Kant was one of the few who understood Hume's role in this revolution.[4] 

Thesis Two:  Premodern philosophy distorted our understanding both of ourselves and of the nonhuman world. The fundamental error of classical and medieval philosophy was the categorical error of trying to understand ourselves in the way in which we understood something else, like mathematics (Plato), non-evolutionary organic biology (Aristotle), and countless variations thereof.  The fundamental error in classical and medieval thought consists in believing that truth, goodness, beauty (meaning, and all norms) exist in an objective structure independently of us, that those norms form a self-contained (holistic and collective) and hierarchical structure (telos) to which we must conform. 

The classical world's misconception is epitomized in Aristotle's physics: rest as natural; there needs to be a first cause; causal relations involve the identity of formal-final-and-efficient causes. Modern physics (Galileo→Newton) destroyed this Aristotelian vision.  Motion is the natural state (a consequence of which is that human beings should be understood as moved by their passions); we do not need a first cause; there are no final causes (no all-encompassing telos).  There are only efficient causes and hence no way to reason either forward to a final cause or backward from formal cause to efficient cause.  Efficient causes can only be established empirically.  All of this is not the product of Humean phenomenology but the consequences of an understanding of Newtonian physics. 

Classical philosophy fostered the intellectual hubris that this totality can be systematically represented and apprehended.  The clearest form of intellectual totality for the ancients was geometry, and hence they were led to assert that all valid explanation had to be a deduction from first principle(s).  Challenged to produce an outline of all this, classical philosophers (and their modern and contemporary descendants) cannot resist the temptation of fabricating ingenious hypotheses and appeals to abstractions (veils of ignorance). The absence of a teleological totality means the absence of a collective social good (hence the importance of individual liberty).  We do not reason from wholes to parts; reason is instrumental, and we reason from parts to larger parts.

Thesis Three: we cannot understand ourselves independent of human action[5] without falling into self-defeating skepticism. It is not Hume who is the sceptic; rather skepticism is the logical outcome of classical philosophy.  It is Hume who showed us how we avoided skepticism.[6]

The world does not understand itself; there is no stepping outside the world and viewing it from an Archimedean perspective.  Our understanding of the physical world and the social world and our understanding of ourselves emerge midstream at the same time.  Furthermore, human action cannot be explained by reference to an alleged human "nature" nor by appeal to social wholes.  Within human action we discover that (a) we are agents interacting with others (inanimate objects, animals, and other agents) in order to satisfy wants (passions); (b) when reflecting on ourselves we do not start at rest with reason and then decide how to act; (c) within ongoing action (motion is the original condition) we discover the subordinate role of reason; and (d) there is no collective good; rather we negotiate and renegotiate with other agents. By the time we are conscious of our selves (individual identity) and our context of negotiation, there is already an implicit order complete with inherent norms (custom). This is clearly an anticipation of or early expression of what Hayek termed spontaneous order. [7]

Thesis Four: The Copernican Revolution explains the transition to the Technological Project (TP).[8]  The TP is the transformation of nature for human purposes; hence the importance of entrepreneurship and the transition from agriculture to industry – crucial for the creation of wealth, the redefinition of property, and social transformation.   Classical philosophy encouraged us to "discover" an external structure and to conform to it.  Copernican philosophy encourages us to manipulate (transform) the world to conform to our own internally generated models.  This allows Hume to account for economic growth and be pro-commerce.

Common Sense Epistemology

Thesis Five:  The imagination is more important than either deductive or instrumental reason.  It is the imagination that permits us to reason by analogy (e.g., common law) and to invent useful fictions (e.g., space, time, money).  The usefulness cannot be explained relative to external structures but only by reference to the satisfaction of human wants (passions). 

Practice as an Inductive Process

We come to understand ourselves through our cultural practices. The cultural context is not the product of an original plan (the Judeo-Christian God's or otherwise). Practice preceded theory. In Hume's famous example, two men in a boat start coordinating their rowing (T, 3-2-2). A practice has an embedded norm(s). There is no issue in Hume about the origin of norms.[9]

Prior practice reflects spontaneous order and not planned order.  Since the original order was not planned, it does not contain self-conscious positive goals, and it is not expressible in a closed deductive system. Our awareness originates in the recognition of an alleged violation of what we think is normal practice. Over time, we become conscious of the norms only because of conflicts, either conflicts over which norm applies in a given case or the realization that two or more norms which developed independently in different practices conflict in a novel situation.

All critique and the resolution of internal tensions is immanent.  Resolution proceeds inductively by attempting to restate the norms in such a way as to achieve consistency and coherence.[10]  This process is retrospective and does not determine all future permutations of practice or eliminate the need for further future conflict-resolution. 

Thesis Six:  Moral Pluralism.  Since critique is immanent there will inevitably be conflicting understandings, that is, moral pluralism (domestic political parties; international competition/conflict).  There is no Archimedean position from which to resolve the disputes definitively or permanently.  The notion that clergy or professional (applied) philosophers are experts or have access to special knowledge which will enable them to resolve all controversy is self-serving pretentious nonsense. 

In response to the existence of such conflicts, societies develop another institution, namely, a legal system.  Law functions to minimize conflict not permanently resolve it.  Minimizing conflict as opposed to promoting a specific form of the good life in the face of moral pluralism has greater survival value.  In the English common law, so-called negative rights (historical entities not ontological entities) as opposed to positive rights are consistent with this approach.  It is not surprising that courts are reluctant to enforce positive duties. Despite the fact that Hume did not pursue a career in law, he did study law, and we know that he was familiar with Hale's work[11] and the Dutch legal theorists Voet and Vinnius.[12]

Spontaneous order is the awareness that practice always precedes theory.  Theory is the explication of practice, most especially the inherent norms.  There is therefore no mystery about the origin or justification of norms.  There cannot be a theory (external or transcendent explanation) of how practice and theory are related, i.e., no metatheory or super-theory that supersedes all previous practice.  Total conceptualization or conceptualization (theory) of the preconceptual (practice) is impossible.  Ongoing revision of practice is immanent.  There is no final and definitive revision and reformulation.

When two or more independent spontaneous inheritances meet or confront one another, there is no theory or independent perspective from which to judge or predict future permutations. Adherents of each inheritance need to decide based on its own internal resources how to respond.  There is no a priori limit on what form that response might take (annihilation, coexistence, or absorption, total or partial).   No theory other than an explication can guide or determine future practice.  Alternative explications of the same inheritance are not only possible, but deciding among them requires the addition of rhetoric and persuasion.

Thesis Seven:  Spontaneous order, so understood, is the foundation of the rest of Hume's philosophy.  Hume's project is to understand the human world (morality, politics, economics, policy, etc.) by rooting it in spontaneous order, history, and the evolution thereof understood inductively.   The later evolution of economics as a formal (mathematical) social science has moved away from Hume's own project.[13] 

Moral Philosophy

Hume's moral theory is an extension of his epistemology and his understanding of human passions.  This explains the order of the Treatise (Bk I on the Understanding, Bk II on the Passions, and Bk III on Morals).

  1. Transcendent philosophy is mistaken; there is no external-objective framework apprehended by reason and to which humans must conform.  Reason is the slave of the passions (instrumental, explicative, imaginative).
  2. Norms are already embedded in prior practice: no is-ought problem.[14]
  3. We are able to adopt the social perspective through imagination and sympathy, not reason.  More to the point, sympathy allows us to understand how others understand their personal interests and therefore aids in the negotiation of social endeavors. 
  4. Moral Pluralism: There is no guarantee that all conflicts can be resolved.  Moral reasoning (like the common law) moves from parts to larger evolving parts but never to a final all-encompassing social whole (collectivism is false); hence there is no guarantee against the redefinition or the collapse of the social whole

Political Philosophy

  1. Hume makes clear in the Dialogue appended to the Enquiries that the level of universal truths is too thin to support policy; reference to historical context is necessary.  Qualified generalization is the most we can achieve. One of the most important things that all human beings share is being born into a particular historical context subject to evolution.  Given human passions (e.g., sex drive), the social world or some version of it is always a given.
  2. There is no external-objective political/legal framework apprehended by reason and to which humans must conform; there is no ancient constitution (dangerous abstraction); simultaneously, there can be no "argument" for the "right" of revolution (Locke mistaken).
  3. Britain's present legal and political system is a collection of norms that evolved over time (Hume's History is designed to establish and reinforce this).
  4. We accept (acquiesce in) social authority as a system because it ultimately protects us as individuals and protects our loved ones; legitimacy is the product of acquiescence (public opinion). There are intimations of Mandeville and Smith's hidden hand (T, 3,2,7) in the view that the laws of justice were not originally intended for public benefit.  Legitimacy is not derived from origins or abstractions but accumulative (inductive, historical) experience.
  5. Since there is no social whole, and given individual autonomy, our limited benevolence, and the necessity of acting in concert on occasions, human beings will form political parties (based on interest, principle, or personal loyalty); from a social perspective, political parties function as coalitions of interest groups or factions (hello, Madison). 
  6. Just as human beings create political parties, so they will create competing and cooperating nation-states.
  7. Since there is no social whole, government as an institution is engaged in managing conflict.  It follows that one-world government (a) is incompatible with Hume's understanding of moral pluralism and (b) invariably reflects another version of illusory transcendent philosophy.
  8. Humean political "science" is a combination of (a) the recognition of the foregoing empirical and historical facts, (b) a reminder of the logical errors of transcendent political philosophy as opposed to his own, and (c) whatever highly qualified generalizations we can make (always subject to revision).  As is the case for Hayek and Oakeshott, Hume's political theory is an attempt to transcend partisanship, and that is why it is a mistake to attribute to him either (a) a label or (b) the criticism that he fails to make a case for a label.
  9.  Thesis Eight: Liberty is the Central Theme.  The ultimate ontological reality is the individual human agent; there is no institution or practice that transcends the individual; the legitimacy of any practice is based on the acquiescence of individuals.  Acquiescence is not consent. There is no philosophical argument for liberty: it is the default position.  Given its unique history, England was able to preserve and elaborate this insight in large part because of its inherent disposition to distrust abstractions – this is the British Intellectual Inheritance, and Hume's philosophical practice as well as his History is the only meaningful kind of account that can be given.

Political Economy

  1. Since transcendent philosophy is mistaken, there can be no such thing as social "science" understood as explaining, predicting, and controlling the social world by means of a social technology.  In this important respect, Hume differs from some British Enlightenment (Bentham) and most of the French Enlightenment thinkers.[15] 
  2. Hume cannot be classified as either a mercantilist or a doctrinaire libertarian or anything else because these categories are either (a) ultimately semantic or (b) presuppose a premeditated agenda-laden theory smacking of pretentious and illusory transcendence.
  3. The critics of commerce (classical philosophers, Churches, advocates of civic republicanism) are wrong.  Their conception of society goes against the "natural bent of the mind" (E, Com, 263); these critics reflect mistaken transcendent philosophy in which human beings are supposed to subordinate passion to reason and promote monkish virtues. 
  4. Hume looks favorably upon commerce because it is consistent with his understanding of human passions.[16]
    1. The passions seek and require growth. (T, 2.1.10.3, 10; E, RP 6, 113)
    2. Commerce spurs intellectual growth and communication. (E, RA 4-5, 271)
    3. Commerce improves agriculture  by promoting "agriculture as a science." [TP] (E, Co 11, 261)
    4. Commerce promotes liberty and the rule of law. (E, RA 277)
    5. Growth is preferable; it dampens conflict rather than exacerbating it.
    6. "Commerce and manufactures gradually introduced order and good government, and with them, the liberty and security of individuals … who had before lived almost in a continual state of war with their neighbors, and of servile dependence upon their superiors.  This, though it has been the least observed, is by far the most important of all their effects.  Mr. Hume is the only writer who, so far as I know, has hitherto taken notice of it." (Smith, Wealth of Nations,  3.4.4 [1: 412]).
    7. Political-economy is policy- or norm-laden, focused on repairing conflicts in previous practice and extending practice to novel circumstances. 
    8. Previous thinkers had conceptualized economics as being in the service of political agendas; Hume conceptualized legal and political institutions as now being in the service of economic growth. 
    9. Hume's History is, in part, (a) an extended essay on how political-economic institutions developed in England, (b) the explication of the norms inherent in the spontaneous-order practices when not distorted by theory (philosophical, religious, political),  (c) a qualified guide to future practice, and  (d) a potential model for developing countries of how to proceed.

Qualified generalizations about commerce

  1. Hume is opposed in principle to social technology because the latter presupposes a transcendent economics, and therefore he is opposed to government manipulation of the economy as opposed to maintaining conditions for growth, enforcing contracts, and providing conflict resolution.
  2. Liberty is the default position: "these matter ought always to be left free, and be entrusted to the common course of business and commerce." (H, 26,40, 3:78)
  3. Hume generally opposed restrictions including limits on interest (usury), wage controls, patent monopolies, and sumptuary laws. 
  4. Economic stagnation is more likely in monarchies (statist societies) which emphasize status over growth.
  5. Critique of egalitarianism (EPM 3.26).  Liberty is a product of English history; (Equality is the product of [Rousseauean] Continental history still under the spell of transcendent philosophy.)[17]
  6. Given Hume's understanding of the universality at some level of human passions, and given that there are nation-states, there is likely to be international commerce.  Because these states are historical artifacts, their institutional structures (political, economic, etc.) might have evolved differently.  Given the historical context, it will come as no surprise that there will be richer and poorer countries, and this creates economic policy challenges.  By analogy, economic growth dampens conflict domestically and may do so internationally; by analogy, the division of labor spurs economic growth domestically and might do so internationally (Hume, Smith, Kant argument for potential world peace).[18] 
  7. Free trade, in principle, is better than managed trade; but: protectionism is sometimes justified (E, Co 19, 265); role of government is to manage conflict in newly evolving circumstances.[19]

 The Perennial Importance of Hume

  1. Hume changed our conception of philosophy (Copernican Revolution).  He showed that alternative conceptions of philosophy are not only wrong but both retard intellectual development and distort legal-political-economic institutions and public policy.
  2. Prior to Hayek and Oakeshott,[20] Hume gave the best philosophical foundation for modernity (understood by me to encompass the technological project, market economy, limited government, rule of law, and culture of personal autonomy).[21]
  3. Hume identified the problematic transition from traditional cultures to modernity that has dogged the international context.
  4. Hume moved public policy discussion from ideology to prudence.

References

Abbreviations:

  • Treatise (T) and Enquiries (EHU, EPM) (by section numbers)
  • History (H) and Essays (E) are Liberty Fund editions.
  • Smith's Wealth of Nations (Liberty Fund edition)

Endnotes

[1.] Hayek, Law, Legislation, and Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), Introduction, vol. I, pp. 6-7; in all three volumes Hayek cites Hume a total of 43 times.  As early as 1960, with the publication of The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [1960], 2011) Hayek acknowledges that "Hume will be our constant companion and sage guide…." Introduction,  n10.  In that work, Hume is cited 28 times.

[2.] N. Capaldi, "The Copernican Revolution in Hume and Kant," Proceedings of the Third International Kant Congress, ed. L. W. Beck (Dordrecht, Holland:  Reidel, 1972), pp. 234-40.

[3.] There is a perennial temptation to confuse or to reduce philosophy to another discipline.   It is reflected in counterfeit philosophers. See Donald Livingston, Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium (Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 1998).

[4.] "It is positively painful to see how utterly his opponents, Reid, Oswald, Beattie, and lastly Priestly, missed the point of the problem; for while they were ever taking for granted that which he doubted, and demonstrating with zeal and often impudence that which he never thought of doubting, they so misconstrued his valuable suggestion that everything remained in its old condition…. I should think that Hume might fairly have laid as much claim to common sense as Beattie and, in addition, to a critical reason (such as the latter did not possess)…." Immanuel Kant, Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics, ed. L.W. Beck (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1950), pp. 6-7.

[5.] See N. Capaldi, "The Historical and Philosophical Significance of Hume's Theory of the Self," in ed. A.J. Holland, Philosophy, Its History and Historiography (Dordrecht, Holland: Springer: 1985), pp. 271-85.  The complex idea of the self emerges in action as the object of pride and humility.  Hume's conception of personal identity (idea of the self) anticipates Oakeshott's conception: the self of which we are not immediately aware is free to use imagination to define itself as an individual and give meaning to its historical experience by making choices; this is how we learn about and make ourselves; this engagement is a self-enacted history ([adventure in self-definition).

[6.] N. Capaldi, David Hume: The Newtonian Philosopher (Boston:  Twayne, 1975), chapter 8.

[7.] Hayek asserts that Hume was the first person to give cogent expression to what Hayek later called "spontaneous order."  See The Constitution of Liberty, p. 115 n23.

[8.] N. Capaldi and G. Lloyd, Liberty and Equality in Political Economy: From Locke vs. Rousseau to the Present (London: Elgar, 2016).

[9.] There is no such thing as Hume's law or Hume's fork or a division between facts and values. See N. Capaldi, Hume's Place in Moral Philosophy (New York: Peter Lang, 1989).

[10.] Donald Livingston, Hume's Philosophy of Common Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984). Oakeshott puts this as "political activity is the amendment of existing arrangements by exploring and pursuing what is intimated in them." "Political Education," in Fuller (ed.), Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1991), p. 56.

[11.] Sir Matthew Hale, author of The History of the Common Law of England, is a crucial influence.  He was the first person to attempt a general history of English law; he originated the metaphor of the Ship of the Argonauts (every part was ultimately replaced, but still it remained the same ship).  This metaphor perfectly captures common-sense inductive reasoning that is fundamental for Hume and for explaining British history and its institutions.  It also exemplified why historical narrative is fundamental to all explanation. 

[12.] "My Own Life," in Essays, vol. 1, p. 2, Hume, Essays: Moral, Political and Literary, ed. Eugene F. Miller (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, revised edition 1987.

[13.] Dan Klein is an important and noteworthy exception.

[14.] N. Capaldi, "Hume's Rejection of 'Ought' as a Moral Category," Journal of Philosophy 63 (5):126-37 (1966).

[15.] See Hume's Letter to Turgot, The Letters of David Hume, ed. J.Y.T. Greig, Vol. II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 180.

[16.] The best account of this is still Eugene Rotwein's introduction to his collection of Hume's Writings on Economics (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1955, reprinted in 2007).  I had the good fortune to team-teach with Gene when I was a member of the faculty at Queens College, CUNY.

[17.] Capaldi and Lloyd, Liberty and Equality in Political Economy.

[18.] Hume, "The Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences," in Essays.

[19.] Joseph Schumpeter:  "[Hume] was the one eighteenth-century economist who always insisted on the variability of man and of the relativity to time and place, of all policies; the one who was completely free from the paralyzing belief, that crept over the intellectual life of Europe, in practical principles that claim universal validity, who saw that a policy that was rational in France at a given time might be quite irrational at the same time in Naples." Joseph Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954), pp. 293-94.

[20.] Oakeshott acknowledged Hume as a proponent of the politics of skepticism. For an Oakeshottean reading of Hume see Shirley Robin Letwin, The Pursuit of Certainty, Part I (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1965/1998).

[21.] See Capaldi and Lloyd, Liberty and Equality in Political Economy for a discussion of the "Lockean Narrative."

 

RESPONSES AND CRITIQUES

1. Daniel B. Klein, "Hume and Liberty, Simple and Complicated" [Posted: January 3, 2018]

Like fireworks on New Year's Eve, the essay by Nicholas Capaldi launches a splendorous cascade. The useful and agreeable essay runs along lines of Hume as pragmatist and non-foundationalist. I hope to remark on such in follow-up conversation. Here I hold forth on Hume on the theory and history of liberty, connecting to Nick at several points.

As Donald Livingston (1984) says, "philosophical insight is gained by working through the contrarieties of thought which structure a drama of inquiry" (35). To study David Hume and Adam Smith is to study the contrarieties that figure centrally in their thought. By contrariety, I don't mean a stark double-doctrine, as for example when a word exoterically means X and esoterically a quite contrary Y. The idea, rather, is that the two meanings, X and Y, do differ, and the key is to see when the author means X and when Y—and, sometimes, when Z, and beyond—and how the author accommodates both X and Y.

A contrariety that looms large in A Treatise of Human Nature (THN) resides in the word reason (Matson 2017a). Another great contrariety in THN and other works by both Hume and Smith resides in nature/natural. In their moral and political thought, the big contrarieties reside in justice, liberty, and freedom.[22]

Smith makes a pathway to clarity in our understanding of Hume. A remarkable contrariety in Smith resides in justice. He seems to tell us that justice talk ought to be confined to "mere justice," or commutative justice. But read closer. Actually, he affirms not one but three senses of justice. He does not confine his justice talk to commutative; he practices the other two as well, and copiously.

But commutative is clearly very special. One aspect of its specialness is that, by virtue of its precise and accurate—or grammar-like—rules, it has a flipside that, too, is grammar-like. The virtue of commutative justice, that is, not messing with other people's stuff, has a flipside in others not messing with one's stuff. In equal-equal jural relationships Smith often calls that "security," but in superior-inferior jural relationships, "liberty" or "natural liberty."

That commutative justice and liberty are flipsides is signaled by Smith, for example, when he says of two restrictions: "Both laws were evident violations of natural liberty, and therefore unjust" (WN, 530, italics added). Liberty is others not messing with one's stuff.[23]

But Smith's "system of natural liberty" clearly entails the government messing with one's stuff. So liberty must also have a meaning aside from others not messing with one's stuff.

Likewise for Hume. He does not articulate the simple meaning of liberty as explicitly, but he too upheld it as a meaning of liberty. Yes, that general formulation—others not messing with one's stuff—has inside of it the evolved historicity of the grammar-like content of what functions as "stuff," of what makes it "one's," and what counts as "messing with" it. The injunction against messing is a necessary convention among jural equals, however, so, amidst a diversity of historicity, there obtains a uniformity in the general formulation.

And we likewise have a uniformity in applying the following crucial principle: a type of action in a superior-inferior jural relationship is an initiation of coercion if (and only if) such action in equal-equal jural relationships is an initiation of coercion. If your neighbor "taxed" you (i.e., extorted wealth from you) or "regulated" your freedom of association (i.e., stalked and assaulted you in private life), we darned-well would regard that as an initiation of coercion, and so we do call it an initiation of coercion when done by government (though not "extortion" or "assault").

Historicity pins down "stuff," "one's," and "messing with," yielding operative concepts of both commutative justice and liberty. The Hume-Smith formulations maintain that taxation and government interventions are initiations of coercion, are violations of liberty; such semantics check their advocates by placing upon them a burden of proof.

The foregoing formulations presuppose jural dualism. But human experience has, arguably, found itself in conditions of jural monism, that is, only equal-equal, in the simple society of the ancestral band of the Paleolithic, giving us instincts to jural monism that die hard (Hayek's two-worlds hypothesis and atavism thesis about modern collectivist politics). In recent millennia, human experience has found itself in conditions of jural multiplicity beyond dualism: Families, clans, slave-masters, tribes, lords, ecclesiastical institutions, multiple governments, all grating against one another, a jural mishmash that defies the simple "jural superior" of the modern nation-state. Today, speaking of "the government" feels natural to us, because within the modern nation-state there is an integration of the, e.g., municipal, county, provincial, national authorities.  As Robert Bucholz (2003) puts it, Britain saw the formation of imperium. The formation of such jural imperium, which underlies jural dualism, which underlies the formulation of liberty given here, is a chief theme of Hume's History of England. Thus, Nick: "Liberty is a product of English history."

Britain was early to jural imperium (which does not preclude competing court systems). The accretion of jural integration occurred at the same time that the philosophy of governance shifted from social cohesion in the higher things to the emergent, post-Westphalia focus on the lower things that were worked out in natural jurisprudence, a refocusing that comported with growing toleration in high-things differences, with concomitant abstract ideas like earnings (honest income), increasingly sanctified in evolving Christianity and justified in the liberal theory of virtue (e.g., in Britain, Locke, Butler, Hutcheson, Hume, Smith), with concomitant results like innovation and what Nick calls the technological project, and with liberal economic theory and Smith's "liberal plan." What emerged was not just the nation-state, but inspiration and formulations for a liberal nation-state—a plan practical, virtuous, and lucrative to most, not least the Exchequer. Perhaps deliberately downplaying concomitants which tended toward social discohesion, Hume and Smith made such appeal to all honest gentlemen (Merrill 2015).

But the nation-state is the institutionalization of initiations of coercion. Imperium is the nation-state's supervening of all jural affairs. Resolution of the contrariety comes by way of judiciously incorporated distinctions, refinements, and qualifications—that is, by complications.

Liberty is used to formulate reforms and to compare them (including the no-reform option), thus keeping thought and discussion anchored in what we know and practice, the status quo. The liberty principle (if Reform 1 rates higher in liberty than Reform 2, then prefer it to Reform 2) is defeasible. Thus, as Nick points out, Hume is no "doctrinaire libertarian." But Hume and Smith propose to make a maxim of the liberty principle—Nick thus says that Hume maintains liberty as "the default position." Maintaining that presumption depends on properly theorizing the configuration of ownership (Klein 2011): Nick rightly emphasizes that for Hume political authority is based on acquiescence, not consent.

Hume and Smith considered the constitutive elements that conduce to relative liberty—rule of law, rules certainty and generality, representative government, divided powers, checks and balances, and so on. The word liberty is often used by Hume as descriptive of such political-science elements. But, as quotations in Nick's essay evince, both meanings of liberty are at work, that is, both a constitutional notion of an institutional system of liberty and the jurisprudential-flipside notion: others not messing with one's stuff.

Excellent scholarship on Hume's politics—e.g., by Duncan Forbes (1975), Hayek (1967, 116ff), Andrew Sabl (2012)—has often been shy on the libertarian idea of liberty at the heart of Hume's outlook (Matson 2017b), a shyness that Nick's essay helps to correct.

References

Bucholz, Robert. 2003. A History of England from the Tudors to the Stuarts. Audio/video course. Chantilly, Virginia: The Teaching Company.

Capaldi, Nicholas. 2018. "Hume's Project." Liberty Matters. Liberty Fund.

Forbes, Duncan. 1975. Hume's Philosophical Politics. London: Cambridge University Press.

Hayek, Friedrich A. 1967. The Legal and Political Philosophy of David Hume. In Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. London: Routledge.

Klein, Daniel B. 2011. "Against Overlordship." The Independent Review 16 (2): 165-71. <http://www.independent.org/pdf/tir/tir_16_02_1_klein.pdf>.

Klein, Daniel B. 2017. "Commutative, Distributive, and Estimative Justice in Adam Smith." Adam Smith Review, forthcoming. <https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2930837>.

Livingston, Donald. 1984. Hume's Philosophy of Common Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Matson, Erik W. 2017a. "The Dual Account of Reason and the Spirit of Philosophy in Hume's Treatise." GMU Working Paper in EconomicsNo. 17-50. <https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3070619>.

_________. 2017b. "Hume's Way of Reasonableness in Epistemology, in Politics, and in Political Economy." GMU Working Paper in Economics, No. 17-49. <https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3070624>.

Merrill, Thomas W. 2015. Hume and the Politics of Enlightenment. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sabl, Andrew. 2012. Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Smith, Adam. 1976. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Ed. R.H. Campbell and A.S. Skinner. Oxford: Oxford University Press. /titles/smith-an-inquiry-into-the-nature-and-causes-of-the-wealth-of-nations-cannan-ed-in-2-vols.

Endnotes

[22.] In Smith, another dramatic contrariety resides in impartial spectator.

[23.] In Klein 2017 I exposit Smith's affirmation of the three senses of justice and the flipside relationship between commutative justice and liberty.

 

2. Andrew Sabl, "Politics, Method, and Pluralism" [Posted: January 5, 2018]

In a Florentine age in which academics conceal ruthless factional competition under courtly politesse, a swashbuckling essay like Nicholas Capaldi's is rare and welcome. Many of his thrusts unquestionably hit home. He aptly names Hume's enemies (pretentious and bigoted clerics, vain partisans, enemies of commerce); rightly portrays Hume as teaching how norms and conventions rest neither on deductive foundations nor on origin stories; and brilliantly summarizes Hume's anti-superstitious, agent-centered philosophy thus: "the world does not understand itself."

My disagreements remain substantial. I take Capaldi's bold and admirably clear theses to slight Hume's insistence that a certain kind of politics, and in particular political authority, is an essential and independent precondition for human happiness. I am skeptical that methodological individualism and the rejection of a transcendent cosmic order need entail a liberal attitude towards society and politics. And I fear that Capaldi has avoided a problem that occupied Hume himself: the second-order pluralism arising from the likelihood that most people are not, and will not become, Humeans.

Rather than holding forth at length about Hume's politics,[24] I will only note a few ways in which Capaldi's rather Hayekian reading of Hume sells (in my view) Hume's political ideas a bit short. First, it slights the fact that substantial levels of commerce require stable and robust political authority. While Hume indeed thought that property and peaceful order could exist without government, he limited this possibility to a state of subsistence, as with the "[Native] American tribes" whom Hume regarded—quite wrongly but in accord with many in his time—as subsisting purely by hunting and gathering and relying only on political authority only episodically. "Throw any considerable goods among men, they instantly fall a quarrelling" (T 3.2.8.1-2): thus Hume necessarily moves from his speculations regarding the origin of property to a story of how governments acquire authority and citizens come to feel a sense of allegiance to them. No authority, no "considerable" property—for although everyone can discover, through experience, the value of having a property convention, we cannot without government reliably settle disputes about property or ensure that the same conventions will operate on a large scale. Liberty in a prosperous society, then, cannot consist in an absence of authority; it must reflect a convention of authority that provides for its own limits.

Relatedly, it is quite misleading to portray Hume's History of England as an account of how "political-economic" institutions developed. Political order had primacy. Hume's story of historical development starts with Roman law on the one hand and the development of settled rules of monarchical and parliamentary authority on the other. Those who expect Hume to have written primarily social or economic history (either because they've read his Essays or because they think that's what all smart people write) are often surprised to find a book whose main topics are politics, constitutional law, and—in the absence of imperfection of these—civil and foreign war.[25] If this seems to make spontaneous order overly dependent on politics, there are compensations. While Capaldi rightly notes that a Humean can admit no metaphysical "guarantee against the redefinition or the collapse of the social whole," governmental authority, constitutionally limited, provides decent de facto prospects for avoiding such a collapse. Once again, liberty—"settled," reliably defined, and established liberty, to use Hume's favorite qualifier—is the gainer.

If politics is more crucial than Capaldi implies, political science is also more progressive, less frozen in the era of Hume's own insights. Hume portrayed his own political science as a young discipline given the paucity of political data: "the world is still too young to fix many general truths in politics…. We have not as yet had experience of three thousand years…."[26] Thus Capaldi's suggestion that contemporary "statism" is merely a new form of "monarchism" seems to strain an analogy: since Hume did not experience (say) communism, his maxims cannot teach us much about it.[27]

More specifically, Capaldi slights the extent to which contemporary experience has shown that "modernity" requires not merely "limited government" and the "rule of law" but representative democracy. That is, Hume's mitigated relativism regarding forms of government may have been reasonable in his time but no longer.[28] Experience has taught that only representative assemblies, on a democratic basis, can reliably channel and secure the process of continuous conciliation—"we negotiate and renegotiate"—on which Capaldi rightly takes diverse modern societies, lacking a common good, to rely.[29] Put differently: the most Humean attitude towards politics is not to fear or disparage the whole enterprise (as Hayek was generally tempted to do) but to realize that politics, like law and economics, is a realm with its own methods of negotiating human interests, of ensuring that each of us has some chance of achieving what he or she values in the absence of guarantees that our values will be common ones.

Leaving politics: Capaldi's linkage of epistemological modernism to political liberalism seems too quick. Any given approach to truth can coexist with a variety of social and political values. Newton dabbled in mysticism and alchemy; Hobbes adduced from a radically subjectivist and egotistical theory of value a political theory that demanded near-absolute state authority; an even more radical individualism led Sartre to embrace communism to stave off a sense of alienation and absurdity. The absence of a preexisting transcendent order may mean there is no preexisting reason why we may not lead our own life in our own way. But that ontological liberty includes the ability to wish the way were given to us: to lament a perceived excess of political and social liberty.  

I don't deny that empiricism and methodological individualism have—as often noted—an elective affinity with liberalism. But in urging more than such affinity, by taking as a matter of course that "the absence of a teleological totality" entails both "the absence of a collective social good" and "the importance of individual liberty," Capaldi seems to me to be lapsing into metaphysics. He denies, in the name of what he takes to be the best abstract logic, the possibility of intellectual combinations that in fact appear as a matter of history and experience.

In all this, we do well to apply Humean pluralism to itself. We need to consider not only that human purposes radically diverge, but that there is not, and will likely never be, a Humean (or Hayekian) consensus regarding what to do about this divergence. The market solution of letting each cultivate his or her own garden is not automatically more persuasive—in experience, as opposed to a certain logic—than the political solution of letting each try to persuade others of his or her own opinion. More generally: the least Humean thing in the world, the least consistent with Hume's own pluralism and relentless classification of observed causes and effects, is to hope that almost everyone will take Hume's own easygoing attitude towards pluralism and will adopt his inductive attitude towards causes and effects. Demonstrably, observably, Humeanism has always been, and continues to be, a minority taste. Most people want—though as Humeans know, they cannot have, can only imagine—a political sense of common purpose and a metaphysical assurance that the cosmos is not indifferent to their fate.[30] On the institutional level, we will only understand liberty's contemporary bases if we admit that modern institutions work in spite of the fact that many of their beneficiaries are, and will remain, alienated or resentful towards the benefits they bring.

Endnotes

[24.] As might be expected of someone who wrote a book called Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).

[25.] See the citations in ibid., 252n40—and as an example of irritation at Hume's "too narrowly political" history from a "social" historian, Duncan Forbes, Hume's Philosophical Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 121.

[26.] David Hume, "Of Civil Liberty": Essays Moral, Political, and Literary, ed. Eugene F. Miller (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1987), 87.

[27.] While the Soviet Union practiced what Hume took to be a distinctly monarchical attitude towards "the polite arts" (Hume, "Of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences," Essays, 126; compare Yuri Slezkine, The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017],  Mao's China did the opposite. The varieties of communism are not a topic on which Hume can provide much guidance—as is no shame to Hume, who knew that political maxims could rest only on experience.

[28.] In a 1764 letter to Catherine Macaulay, Hume called France's absolute monarchy and the direct democracy of some Swiss cantons "equally legal, if established by custom and authority" (New Letters of David Hume, ed. Raymond Kilbansky and Ernest C. Mossner [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954] 81).

[29.] On this see Jeremy Waldron, Law and Disagreement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[30.] Hume's Natural History of Religion can be seen as an ironic essay on these common human yearnings: our determination to give natural events a deeper meaning than they have leads us to animism, polytheism, or syncretism; our determination to posit an overall purpose to the cosmos leads us to deism or theism. That these two stances are, in Hume's view, both silly and contradictory does not mean that they will disappear, but merely that religious belief will predictably oscillate between them.

 

3. Chandran Kukathas, "On Nicholas Capaldi's David Hume" [Posted: January 10, 2018]

David Hume turned me into a skeptic. This is less because I became a philosophical skeptic—and I can see why Nicholas Capaldi views Hume as someone who showed why it is classical philosophy that leads to a debilitating philosophical skepticism—than because I became a political one. The more I read Hume the more difficult I found it to regard most efforts to reform political institutions, or set out the principles by which to do so, as guided by wit and wisdom rather than questionable motives and question-begging assumptions. Hume's genius as a philosopher came to be appreciated long after his merits as an historian were well established, but it is worth noting that his genius as a man was that this skepticism did not draw him either into contempt for his fellow human beings or despair about the human condition. Perhaps this is why I so appreciate not only the deftness of Capaldi's summary of Hume's intellectual contribution but also the insight offered by his jaunty prose into the beautiful mind of le bon David. I take it as given that we are both Humeans in the broadest sense.

That said, however, there are matters with which to take issue—or at least about which to raise a few skeptical worries. In the most general terms, the worry is about whether Capaldi has been Humean enough or been carried away by a bout of enthusiasm, even while rightly eviscerating a variety of superstitions. Hume is not a philosophical or ideological "libertarian," as Capaldi acknowledges in as many words. If a philosophical libertarian is someone for whom claims of property, whether in one's person or in parts of the world, have some objective basis, such an advocate would find no comfort in Hume's deconstruction of this kind of ethical naturalism. If an ideological libertarian is someone with a program of reform, such an advocate would probably consider Hume's cautious and prudent approach too pragmatic and perhaps even insufficiently principled. As Capaldi observes, Hume cannot be "classified" in this way. This brings us to the puzzle, then, of Thesis Eight: Liberty is the Central Theme.

The problem here is not that Capaldi has somehow contradicted himself. He is, after all, trying to make a subtle point: that favoring liberty does not make one a libertarian (of either of the sorts noted above), and it would not do to accuse him of anything so clumsy. It is his elucidation of Thesis Eight that is the source of perplexity. Capaldi writes: "The ultimate ontological reality is the individual human agent; there is no institution or practice that transcends the individual; the legitimacy of any practice is based on the acquiescence of individuals. Acquiescence is not consent. There is no philosophical argument for liberty: it is the default position." There are four claims here that demand more careful scrutiny.

The first claim is that, according to Hume, the "ultimate ontological reality is the individual agent." Could Hume or any Humean make such an assertion? Hume's account of personal identity famously questions the possibility of offering a coherent account of any such thing as the self, since all that empirical (self-) examination yields is a bundle of impressions that can establish nothing definitive about any singular identity. Observation of the external world would undoubtedly reveal the existence of other people, but that would do nothing to warrant the conclusion that individual human agents are the "ultimate ontological reality," even if we read this to mean "ultimate ontological social reality" (as we clearly should, since the claim is not that Hume considers biological human individuals to be the ultimate units of physical reality). One might attribute such a view to Hume, but the evidence that he held it is scant—if any can be found at all.

The puzzle deepens when we turn to the second claim, that "there is no institution or practice that transcends the individual." It is not completely clear whether this claim follows from the first, or if each implies the other, or if the second is simply a further claim that clarifies the meaning of the first and contributes to the defense of the larger thesis about the centrality of liberty. Let us assume it is the latter. The most plausible interpretation of this statement is that Capaldi means that Hume holds that no institutions or practices could come into being or remain except for the human agents that give them existence. A practice is not a practice unless human agents give it life by exercising their agency. An institution cannot exist unless it is populated by human agents: there can be no soldierless armies, judgeless judiciaries, teacherless schools, or spouseless marriages. All this seems commonsensical enough, and most people would accept the claim if this is what it means. Yet these institutions are not made up of generic "individual agents" but of "soldiers" and "judges" and "teachers" and "spouses": identities or roles that are socially created—which is to say, created by institutions and practices. If there are no "transcendent" institutions that have an existence except for the activity of individuals, the same holds true for individuals themselves, who could have no existence (save a biological one) except for the institutions that created them. Nor would it do to solve this chicken-and egg-problem with an "origin" story, suggesting that it all started with (primitive) individuals, unless we want to risk falling into the trap of thinking we need to find a first cause—a trap, Capaldi reminds us, from which we were rescued by Hume.

The point of scrutinizing these first two claims is to suggest that something is amiss in Capaldi's general contention that Hume's social ontology must begin with individual agents. I do not mean that Hume must believe in the existence of transcendent institutions— only that he has no need to posit the social ontology Capaldi identifies. There are, to be sure, numerous passages (notably in Book III of the Treatise) in which Hume writes as if social institutions were created by pre-institutional or pre-social individuals, but these should surely be read with the "as if" firmly in mind. We clearly do the same with Hobbes: we do not take at face value his assertion in Leviathan that men in the state of nature sprang from the ground "like mushrooms": it is a methodological rather than an ontological assumption. Similarly, Hume's individualism is purely methodological.

The third claim in Thesis Eight is that the legitimacy of any practice is based on the acquiescence of individuals—and by "acquiescence" Hume does not mean "consent." The correctness of this claim depends very much on what we understand by the expression
"the legitimacy of a practice." If Capaldi's point is that Hume tells us that when we say a practice is legitimate we are saying nothing other than that people have gone along with, or acquiesced in it, then he is perfectly correct. Hume's explanation is a semantic one: this is what legitimacy means—that people have acquiesced. It does not mean they have consented; it does not mean they like it; it does not even mean they prefer it to anything else. There is no further, deeper, normative claim—such as a claim that the practice in question really is legitimate. The same holds true for obligations: there are no ultimate obligations in some deeper, normative, sense. Somehow it came about that we "feign'd" obligations of all sorts, and before we knew it we believed such things had a real existence, though they never have.

All of this must be entirely familiar to a Hume scholar of Capaldi's distinction, so I bring the matter up not to teach him something new but to draw attention to the real source of my anxiety. This is the fourth claim in his Thesis Eight: that there is no philosophical argument for liberty, which is the default claim. It is perfectly correct to say that Hume offered no such thing as a philosophical argument for liberty, but it is quite another to suggest that he considered liberty to be the default claim. Now here much turns on what is meant by the expression "the default claim." I take it that Capaldi could mean either of two things. On the one hand, he could mean that for Hume liberty was the natural condition of mankind and that departures from liberty were aberrations. This seems straightforwardly implausible since, as Capaldi makes amply clear in his remarks on Hume's History of England, Hume was all too conscious that the attainment and continued enjoyment of liberty in Britain was an historical achievement and not one replicated to any great degree in many places or for most of mankind's past. On the other hand, Capaldi could mean that for Hume liberty was the default normative position such that any departure from liberty had to be justified. There are philosophers who have held such a view, Immanuel Kant (at least in some interpretations) among the classical thinkers and John Rawls (in A Theory of Justice) and Stanley Benn (in A Theory of Freedom) among the moderns. But it is hard to see Hume as holding any claim of this sort.

It is true that Hume does not offer a philosophical defense of liberty. But neither does he say that any departure from liberty must be justified. He was, after all, as Capaldi is at some pains to remind us (in Thesis Six), a moral pluralist. How could a moral pluralist suggest the fundamental importance of one value above all others and assert that it is the default standard from which all departures must be justified? Hume, as far as I can discern, made no such claim. He may have loved liberty. He certainly expressed the view that liberty was the condition of human perfection,[31] though he insisted in the same sentence that authority was no less important because it brought the social stability that was equally necessary for human flourishing. Hume could no more assert that liberty was the default than he could say that stability was. In the Humean worldview, we hover uncertainly between these two extremes, and the danger comes when we are tempted to dart too hastily and enthusiastically towards one or the other.

Liberty is undoubtedly one of the most important themes in Hume's political thought. I am yet to be convinced that it is the central one. None of this is to disparage the man or deny his philosophical insight. Nor is it to question the insightfulness of Nicholas Capaldi's essay, against which I can raise only these few quibbles in an effort to be more Humean than he!

References

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971).

Stanley Benn, A Theory of Freedom (Cambridge University Press, 1988).

Endnotes

[31.] Essay V "Of the Origin of Government" in David Hume, Essays Moral, Political, Literary, edited and with a Foreword, Notes, and Glossary by Eugene F. Miller, with an appendix of variant readings from the 1889 edition by T.H. Green and T.H. Grose, revised edition (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1987). </titles/704#Hume_0059_145>:

In all governments, there is a perpetual intestine struggle, open or secret, between Authority and Liberty; and neither of them can ever absolutely prevail in the contest. A great sacrifice of liberty must necessarily be made in every government; yet even the authority, which confines liberty, can never, and perhaps ought never, in any constitution, to become quite entire and uncontroulable. The sultan is master of the life and fortune of any individual; but will not be permitted to impose new taxes on his subjects: a French monarch can impose taxes at pleasure; but would find it dangerous to attempt the lives and fortunes of individuals. Religion also, in most countries, is commonly found to be a very intractable principle; and other principles or prejudices frequently resist all the authority of the civil magistrate; whose power, being founded on opinion, can never subvert other opinions, equally rooted with that of his title to dominion. The government, which, in common appellation, receives the appellation of free, is that which admits of a partition of power among several members, whose united authority is no less, or is commonly greater than that of any monarch; but who, in the usual course of administration, must act by general and equal laws, that are previously known to all the members and to all their subjects. In this sense, it must be owned, that liberty is the perfection of civil society; but still authority must be acknowledged essential to its very existence: and in those contests, which so often take place between the one and the other, the latter may, on that account, challenge the preference. Unless perhaps one may say (and it may be said with some reason) that a circumstance, which is essential to the existence of civil society, must always support itself, and needs be guarded with less jealousy, than one that contributes only to its perfection, which the indolence of men is so apt to neglect, or their ignorance to overlook.

 

4. Mark E. Yellin, "Hume a Hayekian?" [Posted: January 11, 2018]

There is much to praise and agree with in Nick Capaldi's overview of David Hume's thought, which, correctly in my view, connects his philosophy with his moral and political thought, his political economy, and his work as an historian. As someone who has been deeply influenced by Nick in my own thinking about Hume, it takes some effort to think about where I might have some minor disagreements with him. However, I have been able to come up with two. The first is his claim that the Hayekian notion of spontaneous order is foundational for Hume. The second is that I think Capaldi underestimates the degree to which Hume is setting the stage for probabilistic social science, which in turn can guide legislation and policy.

I am mostly in agreement with Nick's Thesis Three, in which he argues that for Hume, we cannot understand ourselves apart from human action, that there is no Archimedean point to step outside the world to understand it. Nick also argues that there is an implicit order in our inherent norms and customs that "is clearly an anticipation of or early expression of what Hayek termed  spontaneous order." I have no objection to seeing Hume as part of the intellectual genealogy leading to Hayek's conception of spontaneous order, along with Mandeville and Adam Ferguson. And Hayek, of course, has a splendid essay on Hume as the first true liberal thinker.[32] However, later on in Thesis Seven, Nick argues that spontaneous order is the foundation of the rest of Hume's philosophy, which I take to mean his moral and political philosophy and his political economy. While I would agree with Nick that custom, habit, and opinion are fundamental to Hume, I would hesitate to read Hayek back into Hume and describe this as spontaneous order. Hume is offering a description of social and political development that over time that involves intention, action, and reflection upon the effects of the intended acts. That is why I see Hume's political and economic thinking as primarily concerned with the unintended consequences of intentional human action. Sometimes things turn out the way we intend; sometimes they do not. We can reflect upon this and course-correct or leave things alone. Sometimes unintended consequences are harmful; sometimes they are beneficial, such as with commerce and free trade. If they are beneficial we do not want to interfere with them. I think unintended consequences are a better way to understand what Hume is up to than spontaneous order.

This also leads to a difference I have with Nick over seeing Hume as paving the way to modern social science. Hume was clearly concerned with using empirical evidence, which can be historical or quantitative (he used both), and engaging in probabilistic reasoning and making assessments about legislation and policy. Now there is real difference between Hume and Bentham, given Bentham's rationalism, but Bentham is part of the Humean legacy too, not just Hayek. And Hume did engage in what would now be termed rational choice political economy. His discussion of issues around draining a meadow in the Treatise[33] is typically seen as the one of first statements of collective action and free-rider problems. Finally, the American Founders' science of politics, which was used to construct a wholly new republic based on reflection and choice, was deeply influenced by Hume, at least in the cases of Hamilton and Madison. Madison's famous discussion of the problem of faction, as Nick mentions, is drawn from Hume's account of faction and typology. However,  Madison goes beyond Hume to argue that the solution to the problem of faction is to have a lot of them, something Hume, with his strong distaste for factional politics, could never bring himself to argue.

Endnotes

[32.] F.A. Hayek, "The Legal and Political Philosophy of David Hume," in V.C. Chappell, Hume (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1966).

[33.] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book 3, Part 2, Section 8. The passage reads:

Two neighbours may agree to drain a meadow, which they possess in common; because 'tis easy for them to know each others mind; and each must perceive, that the immediate consequence of his failing in his part, is the abandoning the whole project. But 'tis very difficult, and indeed impossible, that a thousand persons shou'd agree in any such action; it being difficult for them to concert so complicated a design, and still more difficult for them to execute it; while each seeks a pretext to free himself of the trouble and expence, and wou'd lay the whole burden on others. Political society easily remedies both these inconveniences. Magistrates find an immediate interest in the interest of any considerable part of their [539]subjects. They need consult no body but themselves to form any scheme for the promoting of that interest. And as the failure of any one piece in the execution is connected, tho' not immediately, with the failure of the whole, they prevent that failure, because they find no interest in it, either immediate or remote. Thus bridges are built; harbours open'd; ramparts rais'd; canals form'd; fleets equip'd; and armies disciplin'd; every where, by the care of government, which, tho' compos'd of men subject to all human infirmities, becomes, by one of the finest and most subtle inventions imaginable, a composition, which is, in some measure, exempted from all these infirmities.

In David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume, reprinted from the Original Edition in three volumes and edited, with an analytical index, by L.A. Selby-Bigge, M.A. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896). Book 3, Part 2, Section 8. </titles/342#Hume_0213_1112>.

 

THE CONVERSATION

1. Nicholas Capaldi, "Dine at the Table of Liberty, Whine, or Resign" [Posted: January 15, 2017]

Dan Klein raises an important (perennial) and challenging question when he points out that we find in Hume and Smith "both a constitutional notion of an institutional system of liberty and the jurisprudential flipside notion: others not messing with one's stuff."

I translate this as follows: Can liberty be defined in such a way that the definition specifies (a) all necessary and sufficient conditions and (b) precisely identifies when illegitimate coercion has been instituted either by other individuals or by some level of government?

Short of an appeal either to a contestable theology (e.g., "...we are endowed by our creator…") or to a contestable metaphysics (e.g., state of nature, original contract, original position, etc.), the answer is NO.

Does this create intellectual or ideological problems for partisans of liberty? The answer is certainly yes. Critics of liberty will point out that there are no in-principle limits to government coercion. By itself, this does not license unlimited government coercion unless one subscribes to an equally contestable philosophical foundation (usually some version of egalitarianism). However, what this does do, seemingly, is establish that partisans of liberty do not have a knock-down foundation.

What is it then that partisans of liberty have on their side?

Individual liberty is the default position. (More on this below.) Defenders of liberty do not have to prove that what they do is permissible or good or contributes to some other goal (although it might). Those who would seek to limit liberty have the onus of showing that (a) a particular action is harmful and (b) curtailing that action will not have even more harmful consequences. Liberty or liberties do not have to be defended; curtailments do. It is important to stress that there is a big difference between living in a society where liberty is the default position ("innocent until proven guilty") and living in a society where it is not. This default position is coherent with lots of other norms (prosperity, security, etc.).

Why is liberty the default position? It is the default position because it is a product of practices that evolved spontaneously out of English history (Tacitus on the mores of the Germanic tribes, MacFarlane on the rise of English individualism, the history of the common law, Hume on the History of England, etc.). Any critique or emendation of this inheritance has to be immanent (for all the reasons already explained in the original essay).

There is an important connection here between law and liberty. The Anglo-American legal system operates with liberty as its meta-norm. (Oakeshott's civil association is an expression of this.) Can a code be constructed that explicitly grants a priori legal protection to a specific liberty, e.g., a market order? That would require a transcendent (rationalist) intervention, something rejected by Hume, Hayek, and Oakeshott among others. More importantly, no legal system can operate by legislative intervention alone; the full meaning of legislation is itself something that emerges (evolves) in subsequent legal challenges and decisions. The only protection is having liberty as the meta-norm or default position.

Having explained why liberty is the default position, we can ask whether we can predict and control all future permutations. The answer is no. This will not satisfy everyone for lots of different reasons, but no one can offer an alternative without appealing to a contestable theology or metaphysics. Your choices are dine at the table of liberty, whine, or resign.

There is an important rhetorical/dialectical element to be considered here. By trying to provide an unassailable principle that applies itself without qualification (academic and legal industry), partisans of liberty do two negative things: (a) legitimate the search for absolutes ("absolutes" reflect transcendent philosophy that Hume rejects) and (b) fail to achieve it and thereby provide ammunition to the liberty-limiters. This is crucial because I believe that liberty-limiters have no positive argument on their behalf (other than discredited theology and metaphysics) and survive only by attacking the failed transcendent hypotheses of the partisans of liberty. When partisans of liberty stop trying to provide knock-down arguments, the liberty limiters will have nothing but discredited philosophy and self-defeating spin. Muddling through is the most effective strategy.

Andrew Sabl, author of the excellent book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England (2012), raises three important points: (1) whether political order has primacy; (2) whether Humean metaphysics and epistemology entail or are the only supports for a liberal society; (3) whether Humeanism is and will continue to be a minority taste.

I heartily agree that Hume gave politics a prominent role. If I had more space, I would have elaborated Shirley Letwin's discussion of Hume's political disposition (chapters 8-10 in Part I of her book The Pursuit of Certainty 1965; Liberty Fund reprint in 1998), most especially because it is a version of Oakeshott's politics of skepticism. Where I would go further is to insist that the legal order is even more fundamental than the political order for a liberal society. One of the great under-discussed contemporary issues is whether law is an instrument of politics (what Hayek feared it had become as a consequence of positivism and is now reflected in the dominance of an anti-democratic administrative state) or whether it is a way of limiting government, including a democratically elected one. Hume's History of England alludes to this issue.

This leads to the second issue of the philosophical foundations of a liberal society. What I argue is that Hume provides (a) an historical account of how a liberal order arose in England and (b) how his epistemology (evolutionary inductivism) and metaphysics are compatible with that order. One never deduces the practice from the theory; all one can do is intellectually explicate the practice.

Projecting these two points (priority of law and role of explication) into contemporary discussion, I argue (in a forthcoming book) that individual freedom is essential to the meaning of the rule of law (Dicey, Hayek, Fuller, Oakeshott's civil association), that the rule of law developed only in Anglo-American societies, that the continental legal tradition has "rule through law" not "rule of law," that a different historical tradition and the dominance of scientism, rejected by Hume, are responsible for this, and that Brexit is, in part, a consequence.

With regard to the third issue, I would agree, unhappily, that Humeanism will probably never be popular. I take consolation in Oakeshott's response to this kind of issue when he said, "The desire of the 'masses' to enjoy the products of individuality has modified their destructive urge" (p. 383 of Liberty Fund publication of "The Masses in Representative Democracy" in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, ed. Timothy Fuller, 1991).

As usual, the ever-perceptive Chandran Kukathas has put his finger on two crucial issues. The first is the status of liberty. The short response is that Hume (a) insists upon the existence of moral pluralism; (b) the rule of law evolved throughout English history as an institutional response for managing potential conflicts; and (c) the rule of law presupposes, among other things, individual liberty as the default position (Oakeshottean civil association). Hume's History commences with Tacitus's reference to the liberty-loving "Germans" and proceeds to show how liberty evolved and became more sophisticated – one could make a case that the whole of the History is the history of the evolution of the rule of law so understood. (See Siedentop on Ockham, Inventing the Individual, and MacFarlane on the Origin of English Individualism).

The second issue is the epistemological (and metaphysical) basis of moral pluralism and its reflection of individualism. Hume is the inheritor of the British intellectual tradition of nominalism (Ockham, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, etc.). (Even philosophy has to be understood historically.) Nominalists reject the rationalist (Cartesian) contention that discursive reason allows us to understand ourselves by isolating a disembodied mind or self. There is no apprehension of the self independent of what it does. There is no Aristotelian distinction between a thing and its properties; properties are revealed in action (Newtonian). The complex idea of the self emerges in action as the object of pride and humility. Hume's conception of personal identity (idea of the self) anticipates Oakeshott's conception: the self of which we are not immediately aware is free to use imagination to define itself as an individual and give meaning to its historical experience in the making of choices; this is how we learn about and make ourselves (idea of the self); this engagement is a self-enacted history (adventure in self-definition). "Almost all modern writing about moral conduct begins with the hypothesis of an individual human being choosing and pursuing his own directions of activity" (Oakeshott, "The Masses in Representative Democracy," p. 367).

"Moral philosophy," as opposed to "ethics," comes into being in the 17th century. It reflects the recognition that there is no natural teleology (as in Aristotle) so that the question of how the interests of the individual are related to the interests of others or to society as a whole (i.e., our moral obligations) becomes a real issue. Aristotle would never have raised such an issue because he saw a seamless web of the individual and society. Precisely because of the nominalist epistemology/metaphysics, Hume can explain (explicate) how we gradually discover how our understanding of the rule of law evolved and how a sophisticated notion of individual liberty emerges as the default position. Without the rule of law so understood, individualism will be superseded by the tyranny of the majority.

Finally, Mark Yellin astutely reminds us that an important case needs to be made for the contents of the qualified generalizations made by Hume with regard to public policy.

References

Alan MacFarlane, The Origins of English Individualism: the Family, Property, and Social Transition (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978).

Michael Oakeshott, Hobbes on Civil Association (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).

Oakeshott, "The Masses in Representative Democracy" in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, ed. Timothy Fuller (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991).

Shirley Robin Letwin, The Pursuit of Certainty: David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Beatrice Webb. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965; Indianapolis: Liberty Fund,1998).

Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (Harvard University Press, 2017).

 

2. Daniel Klein, "Presumptions and Default Positions" [Posted: January 17, 2018]

In that portion of his response directed toward me, Nick speaks of liberty as "the default position."

Liberty as default position might mean that it is important to understand that lawmaking always works upon a background configuration of ownership and open-ended voluntary association among such owners. In this sense, for example, employers are free to pay wages of one dollar an hour until a law says otherwise. Moreover, the formulation of such law is built upon such a background: that is, such a law specifies restriction, not liberty.

But liberty as default position might mean something quite different. Nick also seems to use "default position" for the idea of a presumption of liberty, by which I mean: in considering two policy reforms (one of which may be to make no reform at all, leaving the status quo), the presumption should go in favor of the reform that rates higher in liberty—that is, the burden of proof should be placed on any such person who favors the lesser-liberty option.

Here, I think that talking "default position" is a bit confusing. Calling something "the default position" connotes that if nobody takes action regarding the matter, or even if nobody gives it any thought whatsoever, the position persists or prevails. But if an intervention like the minimum wage is the status quo, taking no action means that such restriction, not wage-rate freedom, is the default. For this reason I'd prefer to express the idea as presumption of liberty, meaning that, even though the minimum wage is the status quo, in the matter of estimating or evaluating that policy, one should approach the matter with a presumption of liberty; that is, approval of the minimum wage (which, let's assume, is the status quo), as compared to a liberalizing reform, should bear the burden of proof.

Hume and especially Smith clearly taught a presumption of liberty. It must be recognized, however, that that is not the only presumption they taught. They also accorded the status quo a significant presumption. (Note: virtually all of the exceptions to the liberty principle that they endorsed or countenanced were status-quo policies in their time and place.)

The two presumptions—of liberty and of the status-quo—stand shoulder to shoulder against reforms that would reduce liberty. But when it comes to a liberalizing reform, that is, a reform that would augment liberty (reducing or abolishing the minimum wage, say), the two conflict.

Out of such conflict, the attitude or posture exhibited by Hume and Smith varies. Sometimes the liberty presumption routs the status-quo presumption, as when Smith denounces, even fulminates against, long-standing interventions and calls for abolition. But sometimes the attitude is acquiescence toward status-quo restrictions, though often with a mind toward gradual liberalization. And, indeed, sometimes the posture is even apparent firm approval of the intervention.

Interpreting the exceptions and equivocations, and the reasons, justifications, and rhetorical strategies involved in them, in Hume and Smith brings us into fascinating fields of thought.

3. Daniel B. Klein, "Hume as Non-foundationalist" [Posted: January 19, 2018]

I'd like to remark on Hume as ethical non-foundationalist. Reading him that way works, I think.

Nick's presentation of Hume seems to be in line with such a reading. But in that regard, some statements might be tweaked. Indeed, the commentaries by Chandran and by Mark may be seen as suggesting tweaking along such lines.

Nick writes: "practice always precedes theory." But that is too unidirectional. Likewise: "we do not reason from wholes to parts; … we reason from parts to larger parts."

Nick notes that our understandings "emerge midstream." Indeed. When the object of our understanding is human affairs, we must understand both those humans and ourselves as already involved in both practice and theory, in both parts and wholes. Already, understanding is working multidirectionally; it emerges amidst streams of practice/theory and part/whole.

Think spiral, with each loop of the spiral containing a "practice" and a "theory," each of which has a subscript corresponding to the particular loop, and likewise for "part" and "whole." The ends of the spiral trail off into ellipses.

Moving clockwise through the spiral, the looping path winds upward—that is, up from the page—or so we hope, and tend to presuppose.

Situated within the spiral, within one of the loops at the position of the 3 on a clock-face, and looking toward the center of the spiral, to our right we have "practice" and to our left "theory." Once we have moved clockwise along the loop, however, and now are at the 9 on the clock-face, to our right we have "theory" and to our left "practice." Talking in a non-contextualized way about "theory" and "practice," e.g., about the conflict between them, as for example Straussians sometimes do, is somewhat like talking in a non-contextualized way about "right" and "left." Such Straussian practice needs to graduate to a higher loop in their spiral (a.k.a., cave)!

It is likewise with facets of knowledge. As the saying goes, facts—those presumptive givens of our contextualized practice—are theory-laden:

What follows are some Hume passages with pragmatist flavor:

If we believe, that fire warms, or water refreshes, 'tis only because it costs us too much pains to think otherwise. (THN, 270)

Under what obligation do I lie of making such an abuse of time? And to what end can it serve either for the service of mankind, or for my own private interest? No: If I must be a fool, as all those who reason or believe any thing certainly are, my follies shall at least be natural and agreeable. Where I strive against my inclination, I shall have a good reason for my resistance; and will no more be led a wandering into such dreary solitudes, and rough passages, as I have hitherto met with. (THN, 270)

The truth we discover must also be of some importance. 'Tis easy to multiply algebraical problems to infinity, nor is there any end in the discovery of the proportions of conic sections; tho' few mathematicians take any pleasure in these researches, but turn their thoughts to what is more useful and important. Now the question is, after what manner this utility and importance operate upon us? (THN, 449-50)

[T]he pleasure of study consists chiefly in the action of the mind, and the exercise of the genius and understanding in the discovery or comprehension of any truth. If the importance of the truth be requisite to compleat the pleasure, 'tis not on account of any considerable addition, which of itself it brings to our enjoyment, but only because 'tis, in some measure, requisite to fix our attention. (THN, 450-51)

Those who have a propensity to philosophy, will still continue their researches; because they reflect, that, besides the immediate pleasure, attending such an occupation, philosophical decisions are nothing but the reflections of common life, methodized and corrected. (EHU, 162)

For here is the chief and most confounding objection to excessive scepticism, that no durable good can ever result from it; while it remains in its full force and vigour. We need only ask such a sceptic, What his meaning is? And what he proposes by all these curious researches? He is immediately at a loss, and knows not what to answer. (EHU, 159-60)

Where Nick writes, "Hume gave the best philosophical foundation for modernity," again I would tweak, changing "foundation" to "outlook." It is true that Hume sometimes talks "foundation":

It appears, that there never was any quality recommended by any one, as a virtue or moral excellence, but on account of its being useful, or agreeable to a man himself, or to others. For what other reason can ever be assigned for praise or approbation? Or where would be the sense of extolling a good character or action, which, at the same time, is allowed to be good for nothing? All the differences, therefore, in morals, may be reduced to this one general foundation, and may be accounted for by the different views, which people take of these circumstances. [EPM, 336; boldface added.]

But here, in lieu of "foundation," we may see "framework." Hume teaches that his four-factor account of merit or virtue—four, as in Jim's conduct is (1) useful to Jim, (2) agreeable to Jim, (3) useful to others, (4) agreeable to others—is an account that lacks foundation for resolving important disputes over incidents of usefulness and agreeableness (Matson et al. 2017). Rather, the "different views" involve taste and propriety at each sympathy, in a swirl of images and reflections, and, as the swirl ascends upward, "'tis difficult to distinguish the images and reflexions, by reason of their faintness and confusion" (THN 365). 

It is reasonable to say, as Nick does, that Hume is a moral pluralist. But in a way Hume transcends the distinction between moral pluralism and moral monism (Brennan 2016). Hume's four-factor account might be said to constitute a moral monism, but inside of that account there is a rich pluralism as to the reckoning of usefulness and agreeableness.

Likewise, Smith may be reckoned a moral monist in the sense that he formulates virtue so as to have it correspond to serving the impartial spectator's universal benevolence; but reckoning such correspondence is a pluralistic and non-foundationalist affair (Klein 2016).

Hume and Smith inspire the transcending, or dissolving, of common distinctions, including consequentialism vs. deontology, utilitarianism vs. natural law, relativism vs. absolutism, nominalism vs. essentialism, positive vs. normative, and is vs. ought. I think Nick tends to agree, and, if so, he might consider a few tweaks at the next loop. As Nick says: "There is no final and definitive revision and reformulation."

References:

Brennan, Jason. 2016. "Moral Pluralism." In Arguments for Liberty, ed. A.R. Powell and G. Babcock: 301-338. Washington, DC: Cato Institute. <https://cdn.cato.org/libertarianismdotorg/books/Arguments_For_Liberty.pdf>.

Klein, Daniel B. 2016. "Adam Smith's Non-foundationalism." Society 53(3): 278-286. <https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2740837>.

Matson, Erik W., Colin Doran, and Daniel B. Klein. 2017. "Hume and Smith on Utility, Agreeableness, Propriety, and Moral Approval." George Mason University Dept. of Economics Working Paper 17-01. <https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2883695>.

4. Nicholas Capaldi, "Common Sense Methodized" [Posted: January 22, 2018]

I am happy to acknowledge Dan's points – they are well taken.

What thrills me is his SPIRAL representation (not theory) of the interrelation between "theory" and practice. I see the widening of the spiral as encompassing our growing experience (funded wisdom of the past) applied to novel circumstances. This might also be useful in an account of markets.

What I want to focus on is the expression "theory." This needs to be elucidated, and I am happy to expand on this. There are at least three types of "theory": elimination, exploration, and explication. In real physical science, eliminative "theory" takes the form of eliminating one theory in favor of another. (Copernicus eliminates Ptolemy.)

Exploration saves the surface phenomena (seeing colors) by constructing an elaborate account of underlying structure (light rays, nervous system, etc.). Molecules are colorless, but we can explain why we see the world in technicolor. The hidden structure can be empirically confirmed.

Explication is a mode of understanding social practices. It presupposes that all social practices function with implicit norms and that to explicate a practice is to make explicit the inherent norms. In explication we try to clarify that which is routinely taken for granted, namely, our ordinary understanding of our practices, in the hope of extracting from our previous practice a set of norms that can be used reflectively to guide future practice. Explication attempts to specify the sense we have of ourselves when we act and to clarify that which serves to guide us. We do not change our ordinary understanding but rather come to know it in a new and better way. Explication is a way of arriving at a kind of practical knowledge that takes human agency as primary. It seeks to mediate practice from within practice itself.

Explication is a form of practical knowledge and presupposes that practical knowledge is more fundamental than theoretical knowledge. Explication presupposes that efficient practice precedes the theory of it. All reflection is ultimately reflection on primordial practices that existed prior to our theorizing about them. Language is a good example. Natural languages were and are spoken prior to the explication of their grammar.

What transcendent philosophy (and bad social science) try to do is offer a hidden structural (exploratory) account of social practice (Rawls). Unfortunately, there is potentially an infinite number of such accounts (great for clever dissertations and publications) with no way to choose among them – they are masks for a private political agenda. In any case, in order to engage in exploration we must presuppose agreement on what is being explained. Exploration always presupposes explication and can never go beyond it (Wittgenstein, Hayek, and Oakeshott).

It would be a mistake to try to understand this process of norm articulation from either a natural scientific or social scientific perspective. The objection to viewing this process as, say, simply organic is that it fails to do justice to the historical, or temporal, dimension. We might be mistakenly tempted to think in terms of adaptation to the environment, but such adaptation will be restricted to individuals or, when viewed socially, mistakenly construed as a form of progressive social development. Real historical development is much more precarious and in no sense unilinear.

Explication is an intrinsically historical activity precisely because a practice is an ongoing historical event. To explicate is to explain what we have been doing, specifically, what we have been trying to do or aiming to do. Explication, then, sees the present as a development out of the past; explication does not see the present as an imperfect vision of the future and the past as an imperfect vision of the present. Another way of putting this is to say that explication sees the evolution of practices, not the progress of practices; or, alternatively, it is a progress "from" not a progress "to." To believe in "progress to" is to be concerned with the alleged existence of how the world "really" is independent of us, whereas to believe in progress from" is to be concerned with how the world is relative to ourselves. How the world is relative to us cannot be understood independent of our interaction with it and how along the way we have acquired our way of thinking and acting.

I suggest that Hume was an early articulator of explication and that we should use "explication" instead of "theory" in the spiral. It is common sense methodized and corrected.

 

5. Chandran Kukathas, "Finding Fault with the Default Theory" [Posted: January 23, 2018]

Nicholas Capaldi quite correctly observes that, short of appealing to a highly contestable theology or metaphysics, we cannot establish a definition of liberty that tells us when liberty has been honored or breached, or when individuals or governments have acted coercively. And he notes very candidly that this creates certain problems for the partisans of liberty, for there is no foundational view or theory to which they can appeal in defending liberty. So far, so good.

But he then goes on to say that the proponents of liberty do nonetheless have a resource up their sleeve: liberty is "the default position," and the onus is on those who would curtail liberty to justify their actions—for example, by showing that not curtailing liberty would be harmful. I do not think this claim is defensible. Nor do I think it is a claim that is within the spirit (or the letter) of Hume's writings.

Given the assumption that liberty cannot be defined in a way that is not contestable (or, I assume Capaldi would acknowledge, question-begging), it is hard to see how any proponent of liberty could put the onus of justifying a curtailment of liberty on anyone without first claiming that the act of curtailment in question is a curtailment of liberty. Should the alleged curtailer simply deny that the act in question is a curtailment, or deny that it is a curtailment of liberty, what is the proponent of liberty to do other than to assert a particular definition of liberty? What the proponent of liberty cannot do, however, is tell the person alleged to be curtailing liberty that the definitions with which he is working, in demanding the other respect "liberty," is a definition the other must accept. After all, that definition, as we have agreed, will be contestable. Liberty cannot be the default consideration when there is no default definition of liberty — or of curtailment, for that matter.

But even if the definition were agreed on — let's say because in the background is a set of common understandings of what are the most important liberties in the society — there is no reason why anyone who would curtail liberty in some way must accept that it is the default. Why not say that stability or peace is the default? Or justice? Hobbes took the view that peace was more important than anything else and that its preservation required the upholding of the absolute authority of the law. Obedience to the law was the default and liberty something to be enjoyed when the law was silent, such that some actions were not forbidden. In this accounting, certain liberties might exist, but there is no reason to believe that their status must be that of default entitlements.

Now it may be that Capaldi is saying that in certain societies liberty is the default. In some societies, for example, he says, there is a "presumption of innocence." I'm not sure this helps. I do not think there are any societies in which liberty is the default, though there are some where liberty understood in certain terms, or liberties defined in particular ways, have very strong presumptions in their favor. Even then, they are often violated. In the United States, government authorities routinely confiscate property and place the onus on the dispossessed to prove the absence of a tax liability. Nor is it the case that the in-principle existence of a presumption of innocence illustrates that some societies make liberty the default. The presumption of innocence is a doctrine to be found in numerous traditions and is explicitly endorsed in the constitutions and legal systems of countries as diverse as Japan, Iran, Turkey, India, Indonesia, and Cambodia, as well as the nations of the modern West.

There is nothing in Hume, in my reading, to suggest that he thought liberty was the default position or that the onus was always on those who would curtail liberty to justify doing so. Though he was surely no Hobbesian, he was far from sanguine about the idea that liberty was the foundation stone of a good society. The foundation was authority.

Capaldi's reading of Hume, and presentation of the issue at hand, to my mind, reflects a certain Oakeshottian style of thinking at which Capaldi has hinted on several occasions in his original essay and the subsequent intervention. Much as I admire Oakeshott as a thinker, however, I do not think this illuminates Hume. I am not even sure if it offers us the understanding of modernity Capaldi wants to defend. But this is a matter for another post.

 

6. Andrew Sabl, "Hume Really Didn't Say Everything He "Said""[34] [Posted: January 23, 2018]

Nichols Capaldi's and Dan Klein's compliments of my work are much appreciated; the sentiment is assuredly mutual.

My first comment amounts to something like skeptical fact-checking. I contest the premise that Hume ever in fact defined liberty in the more-or-less Millian sense Capaldi attributes to him (to cite his comment above: "Those who would seek to limit liberty have the onus of showing that [a] a particular action is harmful and [b] curtailing that action will not have even more harmful consequences"; emphasis Capaldi's) and sought to vindicate a general presumption against limiting liberty in that sense.

Hume was quite a clear writer. If he had wanted to call unwarranted restrictions on trade, choice of occupation, and the like violations of "natural liberty," he could have done so (as his friend Adam Smith repeatedly did); or, if he preferred, he could have left out "natural" (as Smith, no Lockean, probably should have). But he didn't.

Capaldi had a strong interest in finding passages where Hume defined liberty as above and stated a presumption against infringing upon it. Yet Capaldi's initial contribution was able to adduce in support of the claim that "liberty is the default position" for Hume only one passage from the History of England. There Hume wrote, in the course of mocking some particularly foolish wage, price, and export regulations under Henry VII, "that these matters ought always to be left free, and be entrusted to the common course of business and commerce." This offhand line, absent from Hume's economic essays, which Hume revised and added to throughout his life and in which he could have developed this sentiment, seems inadequate to bear the weight Capaldi places on it—especially since, as Capaldi concedes, Hume elsewhere did not think trade restrictions "always" inadvisable but conceded their necessity in some circumstances.

There is, in fact, another passage from the History that seems even more Millian (at least in economic matters) but in other ways cuts decisively against Capaldi's portrayal of Humean liberty. Regarding a parliament under James I in 1624, Hume wrote:

Advantage was also taken of the present good agreement between the king and parliament, in order to pass the bill against monopolies, which had formerly been encouraged by the king, but which had failed by the rupture between him and the last house of commons. This bill was conceived in such terms as to render it merely declaratory; and all monopolies were condemned, as contrary to law and to the known liberties of the people. It was there supposed, that every subject of England had entire power to dispose of his own actions, provided he did no injury to any of his fellow-subjects; and that no prerogative of the king, no power of any magistrate, nothing but the authority alone of laws, could restrain that unlimited freedom. The full prosecution of this noble principle into all its natural consequences, has at last, through many contests, produced that singular and happy government, which we enjoy at present.[35]

This might seem promising, but in fact it undermines Capaldi's position rather than supporting it. First, the passage, and the event it described, concerned not how much liberty could be violated or on what grounds, but on whose authority: henceforth "the authority alone of laws," not royal prerogative, could lawfully do so. Second, it's worth noting that Hume—who again, revised his works obsessively and until his death in 1776—in that passage called Britain in his time "singular and happy" with respect to liberty as a result of the "full prosecution of this noble principle into all its natural consequences" (emphasis added). (Elsewhere Hume famously writes, in his own voice rather than as part of the narrative stream, that Britain in his time has, "if not the best system of government, at least the most entire system of liberty, that ever was known amongst mankind."[36]) But 1776 was the same year in which the first volume of Smith's Wealth of Nations portrayed England as fairly honeycombed not, to be sure, with royal-chartered Elizabethan monopolies on the production and sale of many goods but with mercantilism, export monopolies, occupational licensing, and other outrageous and unwarranted restraints on economic choice and therefore on natural liberty. Clearly, Hume did not—as Smith did—regard such regulations and interventions as fundamental threats to liberty. Finally, the above passage does not in fact contain the word "liberty" (nor, in fact, does the passage Capaldi cites).Hume speaks of monopolies as infringing not liberty but the English subject's "power to dispose of his own actions"; "law"; the "known liberties of the people"[37] This is the language of conventional civil liberties, not "liberty" as a free-standing criterion.

So the common tendency to assimilate Hume to Smith on these matters rests on low and eroding ground. Hume seems to have been both far less exercised by economic regulation than Smith was and demonstrably disinclined to call such regulation a limitation of liberty—even in the passages that seem most favorable to a Smithian reading.

Thus I must agree with Chandran (writing in the spirit of Capaldi's co-editor Donald Livingston[38])that "Liberty cannot be the default consideration when there is no default definition of liberty—or of curtailment, for that matter." I further believe that Capaldi's suggestions to the contrary result from a tendency to think about "liberty," "individualism," and other concepts in a decidedly non-nominalist fashion. But more on that later.

Endnotes

[34.] With apologies to Yogi Berra: see [Garson O'Toole,] "I Really Didn't Say Everything I Said," Web blogpost, Quote Investigator, 30 December 2012. <https://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/12/30/yogi-didnt-say/>.

[35.] Hume, The History of England (Liberty Fund edition): Volume 5, p. 114. That passage is followed by a long footnote (Note N)  in which Hume notes how much more favorable to liberty James I's reign was than Elizabeth I's had been—a constant theme in Hume, opposed to people who idealized "Good Queen Bess." The passage continues to define liberty in the commercial terms alluded to above, though free speech in the Commons is also mentioned:

How little this principle had prevailed, during any former period of the English government, particularly during the last reign, which was certainly not so perfect a model of liberty as most writers would represent it, will easily appear from many passages in the history of that reign. But the ideas of men were much changed, during about twenty years of a gentle and peaceful administration. The commons, though James, of himself, had recalled all patents of monopolies, were not contented without a law against them, and a declaratory law too; which was gaining a great point, and establishing principles very favourable to liberty: But they were extremely grateful, when Elizabeth, upon petition (after having once refused their requests) recalled a few of the most oppressive patents; and employed some soothing expressions towards them.

The parliament had surely reason, when they confessed, in the seventh of James, that he allowed them more freedom of debate, than ever was indulged by any of his predecessors. His indulgence in this particular, joined to his easy temper, was probably one cause of the great power assumed by the commons. Monsieur de la Boderie, in his dispatches, vol. i. p. 449. mentions the liberty of speech in the house of commons as a new practice.

[36.] History of England 6.531.

[37.] This accords with Hume's constitutional argument, which I explicate further in Hume's Politics, that Tudor tyranny could temporarily place aside English subjects' fundamental liberties but could not permanently obliterate them.

[38.] "Hume's concept of liberty is not framed in a speculative theory of liberty. There is, for instance, nothing in Hume comparable to Mill's discussion in Of Liberty [sic] of a 'simple' theoretical principle which can distinguish the liberty of the individual from the liberty of the state. Liberty is mentioned often in Hume's philosophical and historical writings but the remarks are usually brief and in the context of discussing something else such as the nature of government or the process of civilization. When Hume does discuss liberty directly, it is not to define and fix its limits but to make historical, causal observations about the conditions that produce, sustain, and threaten the existence of liberty and the values it makes possible." Donald Livingston, "Hume's Historical Conception of Liberty," in Nicholas Capaldi and Donald Livingston, eds., Liberty in Hume's History of England (Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Kluwer Academic, 1990), p. 105.

ADDITIONAL READING

Online Resources

Books by David Hume (1711-1776) in the OLL: </people/david-hume>.

David Hume, Essays Moral, Political, Literary, edited and with a Foreword, Notes, and Glossary by Eugene F. Miller, with an appendix of variant readings from the 1889 edition by T.H. Green and T.H. Grose, revised edition (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1987). </titles/704>.

David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume, reprinted from the Original Edition in three volumes and edited, with an analytical index, by L.A. Selby-Bigge, M.A. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896). </titles/342>.

David Hume, Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals by David Hume, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge, M.A. 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902). </titles/341>.

David Hume, The History of England from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution in 1688, Foreword by William B. Todd, 6 vols. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1983). </titles/1868>.

David Hume, Letters of David Hume to William Strahan, ed. G. Birkbeck Hill (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1888). </titles/652>.

David Hume, The Natural History of Religion. By David Hume. With an Introduction by John M. Robertson (London: A. and H. Bradlaugh Bonner, 1889).</titles/340>.

David Hume, The Philosophical Works of David Hume. Including all the Essays, and exhibiting the more important Alterations and Corrections in the successive Editions by the Author. In Four Volumes. (Edinburgh: Adam Black and William Tait, 1826). </titles/1728>.

  • vol. 1 (Treatise of Human Nature Part 1): </titles/1481>.
  • vol. 2 (Treatise of Human Nature Part 2, Dialogues concerning Natural Religion): </titles/1482>.
  • vol. 3 (Essays Moral, Political, and Literary): </titles/1483>.
  • vol. 4 (The Inquiries, Natural History of Religion, and other Essays): </titles/1484>.

 

Works Mentioned in the Discussion

Stanley Benn, A Theory of Freedom (Cambridge University Press, 1988).

Brennan, Jason. 2016. "Moral Pluralism." In Arguments for Liberty, ed. A.R. Powell and G. Babcock: 301-338. Washington, DC: Cato Institute. <https://cdn.cato.org/libertarianismdotorg/books/Arguments_For_Liberty.pdf>.

Bucholz, Robert. 2003. A History of England from the Tudors to the Stuarts. Audio/video course. Chantilly, Virginia: The Teaching Company.

N. Capaldi, "Hume's Rejection of 'Ought' as a Moral Category," Journal of Philosophy 63 (5):126-37 (1966).

N. Capaldi, "The Copernican Revolution in Hume and Kant," Proceedings of the Third International Kant Congress, ed. L. W. Beck (Dordrecht, Holland:  Reidel, 1972), pp. 234-40.

N. Capaldi, David Hume: The Newtonian Philosopher (Boston:  Twayne, 1975).

N. Capaldi, "The Historical and Philosophical Significance of Hume's Theory of the Self," in ed. A.J. Holland, Philosophy, Its History and Historiography (Dordrecht, Holland: Springer: 1985), pp. 271-85.

N. Capaldi, Hume's Place in Moral Philosophy (New York: Peter Lang, 1989).

Nicholas Capaldi and Donald Livingston, eds., Liberty in Hume's History of England (Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Kluwer Academic, 1990).

N. Capaldi and G. Lloyd, Liberty and Equality in Political Economy: From Locke vs. Rousseau to the Present (London: Elgar, 2016).

Forbes, Duncan. 1975. Hume's Philosophical Politics. London: Cambridge University Press.

Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collége de France 1978-1979 (New York: Macmillan, 2008).

Sir Matthew Hale, The History of the Common Law of England.

Hayek, Friedrich A. 1967. The Legal and Political Philosophy of David Hume. In Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. London: Routledge.

F.A. Hayek, "The Legal and Political Philosophy of David Hume," in V.C. Chappell, Hume (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1966).

Friedrich A. Hayek, Law, Legislation, and Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972).

Friedrich A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [1960], 2011).

Hume's Letter to Turgot, The Letters of David Hume, ed. J.Y.T. Greig, Vol. II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[Hume] New Letters of David Hume, ed. Raymond Kilbansky and Ernest C. Mossner [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954]

Immanuel Kant, Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics, ed. L.W. Beck (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1950).

Klein, Daniel B. 2011. "Against Overlordship." The Independent Review 16 (2): 165-71. <http://www.independent.org/pdf/tir/tir_16_02_1_klein.pdf>.

Klein, Daniel B. 2016. "Adam Smith's Non-foundationalism." Society 53(3): 278-286. <https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2740837>.

Klein, Daniel B. 2017. "Commutative, Distributive, and Estimative Justice in Adam Smith." Adam Smith Review, forthcoming. <https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2930837>.

Shirley Robin Letwin, The Pursuit of Certainty: David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Beatrice Webb. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965; Indianapolis: Liberty Fund,1998).

Donald Livingston, Hume's Philosophy of Common Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

Donald Livingston, Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium (Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 1998).

Alan MacFarlane, The Origins of English Individualism: the Family, Property, and Social Transition (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978).

Matson, Erik W. 2017a. "The Dual Account of Reason and the Spirit of Philosophy in Hume's Treatise." GMU Working Paper in EconomicsNo. 17-50. <https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3070619>.

_________. 2017b. "Hume's Way of Reasonableness in Epistemology, in Politics, and in Political Economy." GMU Working Paper in Economics, No. 17-49. <https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3070624>.

Matson, Erik W., Colin Doran, and Daniel B. Klein. 2017. "Hume and Smith on Utility, Agreeableness, Propriety, and Moral Approval." George Mason University Dept. of Economics Working Paper 17-01. <https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2883695>.

Merrill, Thomas W. 2015. Hume and the Politics of Enlightenment. New York: Cambridge University Press.

M. Oakeshott, "Thomas Hobbes," Scrutiny 4 [1935-36] p. 276.

Michael Oakeshott, "Political Education," in Fuller (ed.), Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1991).

Oakeshott, "The Masses in Representative Democracy" in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, ed. Timothy Fuller (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991).

Michael Oakeshott, Hobbes on Civil Association (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).

[Garson O'Toole,] "I Really Didn't Say Everything I Said," Web blogpost, Quote Investigator, 30 December 2012. <https://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/12/30/yogi-didnt-say/>.

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971).

Eugene Rotwein's introduction to Hume's Writings on Economics (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1955, reprinted in 2007). 

Sabl, Andrew. 2012. Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Joseph Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954).

Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (Harvard University Press, 2017).

Yuri Slezkine, The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017].

Smith, Adam. 1976. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Ed. R.H. Campbell and A.S. Skinner. Oxford: Oxford University Press. </titles/smith-an-inquiry-into-the-nature-and-causes-of-the-wealth-of-nations-cannan-ed-in-2-vols>

Jeremy Waldron, Law and Disagreement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

 

Last modified January 23, 2018