Liberty Matters

Operose Machines ‘R’ Us

Andrew's contribution "Hume Really Didn't Say Everything He 'Said'" and Chandran's  "Finding Fault with the Default Theory" call for response, indeed, extended treatment of Hume texts. I understand both to be rejecting the idea that Hume held as central to his moral and political outlook a notion of liberty in a "mere" sense.
By "a 'mere' sense" I mean, again (see my first Response Essay above), something like others (here, notably governors) not messing with one's stuff. Andrew seems to be saying that Hume does not hold some such idea as central—a Hume-reading that I came to suspect while reading Andrew's excellent book about Hume's conventionalist view of government and other institutions (Sabl 2012). Chandran's comments, too, seem to be saying that, but, also, that he himself does not hold some such idea of liberty as central in his own outlook—which would surprise me. Maybe I am misapprehending the drift of Chandran's remarks, in particular the use he makes of such words as "establish," "contestable," "default," and "must accept." But the impression I get is that Chandran is saying that because any mere-liberty concept must suffer from certain philosophical embarrassments, it fails and should be avoided.
Again (see my first Response Essay above), mere-liberty (or, the liberty principle) is deceptive in its apparent simplicity. I find it insufficient as a bare principle for estimating governmental reform. The insufficiencies correspond to the following problems or limitations: (1) defeasibility, (2) incompleteness (holes, silence) of the liberty principle as a guide, and (3) sometimes ambiguity, grey areas, in the distinctions used in reckoning liberty. And, furthermore, (4) any allegiance or attachment to the idea as maxim (or presumption) lacks a foundational sort of justification.[46]
But the big question is whether, in the face of the at least four sorts of limitations, one should discard the whole notion, dismiss it as illusory, by reason of the combined troubles—here I think of John Gray. The troubles are just too embarrassing, perhaps.
I think it is a misreading of Hume to say that he decided the troubles were too great and discarded the notion. Hume held on to it, and in a central way, in spite of all the troubles. He did not throw mere-liberty under the bus.
If one chooses to hold on to mere-liberty and in doing so avoids being simplistic, foolish, and group-thinkish, one must develop complications that qualify and hedge one's appreciation of and attachment to the liberty principle—think enthymeme ("by and large," etc.), not axiom. One must see that there is justice above any such allegiance, that liberty and desirability are distinct operators. But developing such complications does not amount to discarding the liberty principle. The plexus (of political philosophy) still has the liberty principle at (or near) its center.
Maybe embarrassment in overall outlook is our fate, and our responsibility is to choose the least-bad embarrassment, even with all its operoseness, work with it, and strive to improve it. Does such an attitude toward our intellectual life not sound Humean? Is that not the spirit of the great dramatic moment in Hume?[47] Not skeptical eschewal of any operose project, but judicious embrace, affirmation, and dedication, in spite of the philosophical limitations.
Andrew writes, "I contest the premise that Hume ever in fact defined liberty in the more-or-less Millian sense" ("Millian sense" corresponds, I think, to what I'm calling mere-liberty). One may concede the claim, but that does not settle the larger issue of whether some such notion was central to Hume and indeed was often signified by liberty, freedom, and the like.
Andrew says: "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.... But he didn't."
Although the "unwarranted" confuses the matter, Andrew's challenge is good: Hume had the perspicacity to spoon-feed his readers. If mere-liberty were central to him, why didn't he define the idea clearly and express his attachment to it more explicitly?
That is a worthy question. Meanwhile, this entry is approaching the word limit.
Regarding Andrew's remark that "Hume was quite a clear writer": yes and no.
Here is how Norman Kemp Smith put it, as regards the philosophical works:
All who have more than a merely casual acquaintance with Hume's philosophical works will probably agree that, contrary to first impressions, he is an extremely difficult writer. The difficulty is not so much in regard to his arguments taken singly, which are in the main admirably lucid, but in regard to their bearing upon one another, and upon the central positions which they are intended to support. With repeated reading, and the collation of widely separate sections, questions by no means easy of answer multiply on our hands. [Kemp Smith 1941, 79]
Again, Donald Livingston (1984) says likewise, particularly in his "Hume as a Dialectical Thinker" chapter.
But Duncan Forbes suggests something similar in reading Hume's works generally, including the History and the Essays:
Hume is uniquely difficult to interpret because no other thinker probably covers so much ground and says so much with such economy. Since one cannot be sure at any given moment just what he is saying, it is necessary to cast the net as widely as possible, and this is one reason for carefully studying all the variants in the different editions. [Forbes 1975, ix]
In Arthur Melzer's tremendous book Philosophy between the Lines: The Lost Art of Esoteric Writing (2014), he explains four purposes in writing indirectly, enigmatically, or esoterically, and all four—defensive, protective, pedagogical, and political—might be pertinent in considering why a mere-liberty-embracing Hume might have refrained from defining mere-liberty, and from expressing his attachment to it, more clearly and directly than he did.
And Melzer explains that practically all great writers before 1800 engaged in esoteric writing to a degree that most people today find hard to fathom.
Forbes, Duncan. 1975. Hume's Philosophical Politics. London: Cambridge University Press.
Kemp Smith, Norman. 1941/2005. The Philosophy of David Hume. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Klein, Daniel B. 2004. "Mere Libertarianism: Blending Hayek and Rothbard." Reason Papers 27: 7-43. <>.
Matson Erik W. and Colin Doran. 2017. "The Elevated Imagination: Contemplation and Action in David Hume and Adam Smith." Journal of Scottish Philosophy 15(1): 27-45. <>.
Melzer, Arthur M. 2014. Philosophy between the Lines: The Lost Art of Esoteric Writing. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
[46.] Incidentally, I elaborate the four limitations in Klein (2004), which was written with minimal acquaintance with Hume.
[47.] And, likewise, the great dramatic moment in Smith; see Matson and Doran (2017).