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Donald W. Livingston’s Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium

Peter S. Fosl

Hume Studies Volume XXIV, Number 2 (November, 1998) 355-366.

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Volume XXIV, Number 2, November 1998, pp. 355-366 CriticaZ Study Donald Livingston’s Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium: Hume’s Pathology of Philosophy PETER S. FOSL..,,h.!ess and Melanc..::.,’: Hume’s DONALD W. LIVINGSTON. P....,sophica, Pathology ofPhilosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. xviii + 433 pages. ISBN 0-226-48716-4 US $68.00, cloth; ISBN 0-226-48717-2 US $24.95, paper.

It is, perhaps, our hermeneutical fate that we are able to illuminate the thought of others only in terms of our own thought. Hume, like other important philosophers, has been interpreted in different ways at different times and by different groups during the same period. During his own time, his rationalistic opponents took him to be a terrible nihilist. Conservative clergymen thought he was a dangerous atheist. He was an inspirational fellow philosophe, an agent of progress, and an ally in the war against ignorance and superstition to many from France. James Beattie and his Scottish Common Sense followers claimed that Hume was an insidious skeptic. Jefferson and many early American patriots saw Hume as a royalist reactionary and scorned him.

During the nineteenth century, Hume was largely ignored until Green and Grose published The Philosophical Works of David Hurne in 1874-75.

Green‘s lengthy introduction portrayed Hume as a crude if clever empiricist whose progress and mistakes would illuminate radical idealism. In the hands of John Herman Randall, Hume became a pragmatist, an image that is still sustained today in some of Richard Rorty‘s work. The positivists of the early Peter S. Fosl is at the Department of Philosophy, Transylvania University, 300 North Broadway, Lexington KY 40508-1797 USA. email: pfosl@transy.edu Book Reviews twentieth century enlisted Hume as a phenomenalistic ally in their rejection of idealism and metaphysical nonsense. Norman Kemp Smith’s influential 1905 article, “The Naturalism of David Hume,” interpreted Hume as a thoroughgoing naturalist in his subversion of skepticism, his understanding of cognition, reason, and perception, and his grounding of mnorality. Kemp Smith’s Hume found precedent in the readings of Charles Darwin, T. H.

Huxley, and J. S. Mill.

Another Hume has, however, emerged in our own time-Hume the humanist, if you’ll pardon the pun. Like Hume’s French contemporaries who were inspired by his ability to write critical history, to produce secular essays of literary and cultural criticism, and to extend Newtonian rationality into social science, a rising group of commentators have sought a more comprehensive picture of Hume. They have done so by teasing, gleaning, and culling insight from his Essays, his History, and his letters-as well as from his philosophical treatises. Their Hume is concerned not just with epistemology but also with the subtleties of language, culture, moral edification, eloquence, and social dynamics. The work of Gilles Deleuze, Yves Michaud, Nicholas Capaldi, Donald T. Siebert, Annette Baier, and Adam Potkay may be counted among this company.

So may Donald W. Livingston. However, while Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium (PMD) sits comfortably among the recent humanistic interpretations of Hume, its highly provocative and challenging claims this text make this book a watershed in Hume studies. The book presents, at least to my mind, the most radical reassessment of Hume since Kemp Smith’s naturalistic interpretation. Livingston ranges over all of Hume’s output, drawing broad and profound lessons from it. It is a grand and sweeping evaluation of modernity, of civilization, of politics, and of the best way to engage contemporary human life.

Livingston’s Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium is visionary, and it should stand as a touchstone for future interpretations of Hume’s philosophy. As a visionary text, however, I wonder if it has not, in its enthusiasm, strayed too far from Hume’s own texts-texts from which Livingston’s views not only claim their origin but also their ground and justification. Indeed, I wonder if Livingston has not strayed too much from Hume’s own projects, for a great deal of the book reads like a jeremiad. I am concerned that Livingston’s brilliant interpretive insight may be obscured by objections to the contemporary political applications he makes of it and in fact, perhaps also to the way in which his political commitments have driven his reading of Hume.

Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium is organized around the question with which the Preface begins: “What is philosophy?” A distinctive characteristic of philosophy is that it questions its own nature, and Hume’s work is no exception. Livingston casts Hume among “those rare thinkers


Book Reviavs 357 (Plato, the Pyrrhonians, Hegel, and Wittgenstein) for whom the radical questioning of philosophy is the defining moment and the key in which all their thought is played” (PMD 12). Livingston maintains that in order to understand Hume’s project as a whole, as well as his more specific investigations, we must first understand what Hume takes philosophy to be.

One of the virtues of Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium is that it addresses this neglected area of Hume studies. If for nothing else, Livingston’s book merits sustained attention for taking up this important issue and for doing so in such a powerful manner.

Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium contains two main sections. In the first, Livingston attempts to describe Hume’s “self-understanding” of philosophy. Chapter One (“Is Hume and Empiricist?”) recasts a lecture of Livingston’s I first heard in the late 1980s. It attempts to define in a general way Hume’s self-understanding of the nature of philosophy. Livingston criticizes the common view of Hume as an “empiricist” and in doing so attempts to expose the liberal, progressive agenda that he believes underwrites this characterization. As Livingston see it, Hume constructs a “sceptical system,” which while not properly speaking Pyrrhonian, “contains a Pyrrhonian ‘moment’,” a moment moreover that is essential to humans (PMD 11). Philosophy for Livingston’s Hume consists in neither the search for truths (whether empirical or a priori) nor the dissolution of conceptual confusions. Rather it is a unique project of self-knowledge.

While Chapter One offers a general interpretation of Hume’s conception of philosophy and thus serves as a general keystone centering and sustaining Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium’s various parts, subsequent chapters present more specific investigations. In Chapter Two (“The Dialectic of True and False Philosophy”), Livingston outlines what he calls a “critical and normative inquiry” that which attempts to “determine what philosophy is and what it ought to be” (PMD 53). According to Livingston, and I agree, the groundwork for Hume’s thoughts on philosophy is to be found in Treatise I iv.’ And as Annette Baier does in A Progress of Sentiments (1991), Livingston correctly focuses on unpacking Treatise I iv in following out his inquiry. It is here he purports to have discovered a “timeless” dialectic describing the essential dynamics of all genuine philosophy.

In Chapter Three (“The Origin of the Philosophical Act in Human Nature”) Livingston articulates a second type of inquiry, a Humean “anthropology of philosophy.” This inquiry aims to identify the causal and genetic processes that gave rise to philosophy and drove its development.

Chapters Four through Seven present what might be called Livingston’s “genealogy” of philosophy. When these chapters are taken together with Chapter Three, we might, alternatively, call them Livingston’s “natural history” of philosophy. Here Livingston loosely follows Hume’s progression in Treatise I iv; he provides a narrative of the cultural-historical development

Volume XXIV, Number 2, November 1998 Book Reviews

of philosophy, the heroic moment it reached in ancient times (T I iv 3), and its transformation with the advent of modernity (T I iv 4).

In Chapter Five (“Philosophy and Christendom”), Livingston charts philosophy’s integration with Christianity. He draws on a wide variety of Hume‘s texts to show how modern philosophy became “corrupt,” how “false philosophy” may be understood as a form of “superstition,” and how “true philosophy” reaches its fulfillment in “philosophical theism.” In Chapter Seven (“Philosophy and Skepticism”), Livingston argues that Humean thought is distinct from historical forms of skepticism and its nihilistic manifestations.

Chapters Eight through Eleven serve as a transition from the earlier focus on the nature of philosophy to the more speculative and cultural-critical reflections presented in Part Two. In these chapters Livingston culls from Hume’s texts theories of “civilization” and “barbarism.” He sifts through Hume’s historical, political, and epistolary writings for examples of how Hume uses his critical notions of true and false philosophy in coming to terms with events in the world around him. These chapters are a condensed version of Livingston’s and Marie Martin’s earlier work published in two edited volumes: Liberty in Hume’s History of England (Dortrecht: Kluwer, 1990); and Hume as Philosopher of Society, Politics, and History, Library of the History of Ideas 4 (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 1991). Many of Livingston’s ideas in these texts have received support and were refined through his involvement with programs sponsored by The Liberty Fund, Inc.

Livingston argues that Hume’s custom-bound notion of liberty contradicts the


and purportedly transcendent notion of liberty developed by Whiggish thinkers and political figures. Although he dismisses Hegel’s account of the organic state because it takes the state to be the human telos and abandons providential theism, Livingston’s sketch of Hume (Chapter 8) is remarkably similar to Robert Pippin’s account of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Livingston argues that Wilkes and his followers were infected by false philosophy and philosophical superstition. According to Livingston, Hume’s support for American Independence was not motivated by his Whiggishness, but by his concerns about the growing central power of the English government and his respect for the right of secession.

Part Two of Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium (“Humean Intimations”) is even more speculative and even more loosely based upon Hume’s texts than Part One. It is for all that, no less provocative and powerful. Readers will find in its passages little pretense to discovering the meaning of Hume’s own texts. What they will find is a series of experiments in thinking in a Humean “idiom” about the character of our social and conceptual orders as they have developed since Hume’s time.


Book Reviews 359 At times, however, I have worried that the two main sections of this book are not so distinct and that Livingston’s putatively historical investigations too often shade into the spinning out of less rigorous, idiomatic intimations. I am particularly concerned that Livingston’s idiom has become politically driven and politically tendentious. If one were to list

those valorized in these pages, the collection would include the following:

aristocracy, patriarchy, monarchy, Allan Bloom, Holy Mother Russia, the Catholic Church, providence, Althusius, the Church of England, private property, Vico (the influence of Livingston’s close friend Donald Verene), tradition, Michael Oakeshott, Lord Acton, federalism, the U.S. founding “fathers,” the antebellum U.S., and the Confederate States of America. A list of those Livingston condemns would include: Marx, Proudhon, the Soviet Union, the post-bellum U.S., imperialism, Rorty, Rousseau, Derrida, Eco, Nietzche, Foucault, feminists, libertarians, centralized government, the notion that the U.S. Civil War was about slavery, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, natural rights, monied elites, the Puritan Revolution, Wilkes, egalitarianism, and public debt. Chapter Fourteen (“The Right of Resistance: Secession and the Modern State”) has circulated for years among traditionalist conservatives and is the primary reason why publications such as T h e Southern Patn’ot have endorsed Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium.

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