Liberty Matters

Mind the Gap

"Hence the ENGLISH, of any people in the universe, have the least of a national character; unless this very singularity may pass for such" —Hume, "Of National Characters," Essays, Moral, Political and Literary.
Nicholas Capaldi thinks that we should situate Hume in a British philosophical lineage that stretches from William of Ockham (1288-1348) through to Michael Oakeshott (1900-1990), suggesting that an appreciation of the character of this tradition will give us a grasp of what he calls the British mind. I cannot, however, break from my Humean skepticism when it comes to talk of this kind. Are there any such singularities spanning 700 years? Hume doubted the existence of a national character even among his contemporaries—people of the same generation. A quick review of his essay "Of National Characters" reveals how much fun he has with the idea of generalizing about the Irish, or the Danes, or the Scots, or the English. I cannot help thinking that the idea of a British mind is something which Hume could not take seriously. What commonalities are found tell us more about the observer making the generalization than about the subject.
An Englishman in Italy is a friend: A European in China; and perhaps a man wou'd be belov'd as such, were we to meet him in the moon. But this proceeds only from the relation to ourselves; which in these cases gathers force by being confined to a few persons.[44]
I am with Hume on this: we find the continuities we seek, and they conform to the views we already hold. Gaps in the narrative are filled with speculations, and contradictory evidence is passed over in haste or dismissed as exceptions to the rule.
But even if we elect to play the game of historical continuities, there is a problem with the narrative inasmuch as it might not only be questioned for some heroic imaginative leaps but also challenged on the grounds that it does not support the philosophical conclusions in play. Take, for example, the idea that William of Ockham should be viewed as a British thinker and one whose influence should be considered noteworthy for its shaping of the British philosophical tradition. Ockham left Britain for Avignon when he was 37 and never returned from Europe, where he penned his most important and influential works. As a leading figure in the emerging nominalist tradition, Ockham's influence is undoubtedly significant, but not only in Britain. If Hobbes and Hume were among his descendants, so was Luther.
But neither is it so evident that the nominalist tradition was a benign one from the perspective of liberty in the way that Capaldi's narrative intimates. He is quite right to note that this development in medieval philosophy was destructive of much in the ancient—and particularly the Aristotelian—worldview, and gave rise to a kind of individualism. But the emergence of nominalism and voluntarism also brought about a shift in the view of God, who ceased to be the Logos or the Divine Being in whose order humans participated through their use of reason and became the sovereign who governed through his omnipotent, unbounded, absolute, and indivisible will. Human authority became delegated authority, but this gave rise to the question of how to account for the diversity of existing authorities—political and ecclesiastical. In the pre-nominalist Christian view, there was no problem, and it found in Aristotle's constitutional pluralism ample support for a world of overlapping jurisdictions, with power shared among popes, emperors, kings, bishops, abbots, dukes, doges, and all kinds of self-governing corporations that ruled in their own spaces. The emergence of the nominalist and voluntarist outlook brought into question this idea of a complex political space with multiple and overlapping jurisdictions governed by competing wills, and it was not long before it was challenged by the conception of the ideal state as one of undivided sovereignty. Nominalism gave us Bodin and Hobbes[45] and the idea of a unitary state that related to its subjects not indirectly through the various forms of association found within its purview but directly—as individuals.
Yet even this narrative is inadequate and simplistic. My purpose in relating it is to supply a counterpoint to Capaldi's to say that the effort to make sense of Hume by "situating" him in a 700-year tradition is a misguided one. It might tell us a little about the narrator, but cannot help us understand the situated subject.
In the end, the trouble (or the irony) may be that I am simply too much a nominalist myself to buy the story. I believe there are many particular nominalists but am reluctant to concede that there is a nominalism exercising the singular influence that has been claimed for it.
[44.] Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book III, Part II, Section 1. Online: 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>. See also Hume's Essay XXI "Of National Characters" 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_430>.
[45.] This is a point that Oakeshott recognizes in his famous Introduction to the Blackwell edition of Hobbes's Leviathan (1946). Online: Oakeshott, "Introduction" to Hobbes's Leviathan (Oxford: Blackwell, 1946). Republished in Michael Oakeshott, Hobbes on Civil Association, foreword by Paul Franco (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000). </titles/668#lf0091_label_009>.