Liberty Matters

Situating Hume

Rather than reading Hume through the eyes of Hayek and Oakeshott, I suggest reading Hayek and Oakeshott through the eyes of Hume. Put more accurately, I would argue that there is a British intellectual inheritance stretching from Ockham to Oakeshott, and Hume is best situated within it. Given what I have said earlier about explication, restating that tradition gives us a deeper insight into what earlier thinkers in that tradition were doing. What is important is that there is a continuous inheritance of thinking that is exemplified in almost all of the most famous and influential British thinkers, a way of thinking and acting that clearly differentiates them from thinkers in other cultures.
The English language is distinguished by its etymological impurity, the relatively large size of its vocabulary, the large number of its idioms, and the relative simplicity of its grammar. English philosophers have always emphasized the conventional character of language. It should come as no surprise that the English language reflects a world composed of a multiplicity of entities identified by what English philosophers insisted upon as the conventional character of language.
The seminal figure is William of Ockham. Classical objective thought as exemplified by Plato and Aristotle reached its zenith in the 13th century; it then cracked with the rise of nominalism as expressed in Ockham. Ockham articulated the three major features of the British intellectual inheritance: nominalism, induction, and individualism. Fast forward to the Copernican Revolution in which the freedom of the individual is the basic presupposition and in which the projection of order by the imagination of human beings is foundational and the result is the autonomous individual of liberalism and the imaginative reconstruction of spontaneous order.
All real knowledge is inductive and not deductive (Bacon, Newton, Hume, Mill). Logical or necessary truths are purely verbal. Hence we cannot use them to prove God's existence. Neither can we use the concept of causation to prove God's existence, for, as an abstraction, causation is nothing but regular succession (Hume). The Aristotelian contention that there are final causes (teleology) in nature fosters the illusion that there are natural hierarchies in the social world. Belief in God is a matter of revelation and faith. "[A] corporate conception of society was giving way to the image of society as an association of individuals" (Locke).[42]
In Ockham, Thomistic natural law gives way to Franciscan natural rights (Hobbes and Locke). Among these are the right to consent to rules and rulers, the right to self-preservation (Hobbes), the right to private property (which can be renounced but only voluntarily), and the right to a private conscience, including the capacity for conscientious mistakes of judgment as long as they are consistent with equality and reciprocity (Mill).
Newton's physics embraced atomism (individual atoms moving in empty space), not a Cartesian (Continental) notion of a plenum where there is no empty space and everything moves within one whole system. That is, Newton favored explanation that focused on individuals as opposed to explanation that focused on wholes.
Hobbes's social philosophy is rooted in the civil (social) condition. "The creation of language and the establishment of the state are, for Hobbes, inventions of the same character and serve the same end…. [T]he necessity of an absolute sovereign in the community … is a necessity exactly paralleled by the necessity of fixing the meanings of names if language is to serve any useful purpose at all…. [A] language which is understood by only a single person and a way of behavior which is pursued by one man independently of all other men are, for Hobbes, examples of the same kind of anarchy."[43] Language is constituted by rules, but the rules do not tell you what to say only how to say it. Language can serve the ends of specific users but has no purpose of its own. The rule of law, in which the rules do not tell you what to do but only how to do it, is the perfect analogue. Neither language, nor the rule of law, nor the civil condition, nor the state may have an overall goal of its own. It is in this space that we locate human freedom. The social world is not the product of individual selfishness but of spontaneous order.
What thinkers in this intellectual tradition find is not a world of abstractions but an indefinite multitude of particulars individuated by human beings for human purposes in their language. Its mode of explanation is inductive, not deductive, and cheerfully accepts the possibility of future reorientations. Its inductive conclusions are remediable recipes for future use. The language has no authoritative grammar but relies on a social consensus to which individuals must consent. This is where we locate the British Mind.
[42.] Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism [Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014], p. 311.
[43.] M. Oakeshott, "Thomas Hobbes," Scrutiny 4 [1935-36] p. 276.