Friday, August 13, 2010

David Hume's society & the nightmare of Rousseau

For some years I have been reading philosophical histories written for a popular audience, some of which I've mentioned here, others on another blog. Here's an extract from an entry of 30 June 2007 on my Studies in Dying Culture blog:
My next book was Rousseau’s Dog: Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Enlightenment by David Edmonds and John Eidinow (New York: Ecco, 2006). (Contents) This is basically historical gossip: a biographical account of the relation between the philosophers Hume and Rousseau. It has less intellectual content than their previous work Wittgenstein’s Poker, and even the title doesn’t fit. Is this about Rouseeau’s essential loneliness, apart from his beloved dog, or is the dog a greater thinker than David Hume? The authors are apparently infatuated with the contest between strong intellectual personalities Oddly, the popularity of these writers in their time does not seem to have been accompanied by profound engagement with their ideas. Only in chapter 11 is there actually an intellectual comparison between the two figures. Of greatest interest is the antipathy of Hume towards the French Enlightenment’s atheism and materialism, which resonates down through British intellectual history (see T. H. Huxley).

Another popular book on this subject (which I've not had a chance to read) has since appeared:

Zaretsky, Robert; Scott, John T. The Philosophers’ Quarrel: Rousseau, Hume, and the Limits of Human Understanding. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

The subtitle is an evident pun on Hume's work. What these authors or the authors of comparable books aim to communicate is a matter for extensive discussion. The juxtaposition of work and life can be instructive, but judging thereupon is a tricky business. At stake here is not only the ideologies of philosophers/philosophies, and not just the overall social context, but the possibilities of being rational actors in an irrational society.

I've just been reading a book I've had for years but just grabbed out of the mothballs, definitely not written for a popular audience:

Christensen, Jerome. Practicing Enlightenment: Hume and the Formation of a Literary Career. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.

Though the conceits imposed on the work by poststructuralism are irritating (converting the entire universe into discourse), and get tedious occasionally, there is nonetheless some interesting content here. The question at hand is how did Hume construct himself socially as a man of letters and exercise a potentially limitless adaptability in all social settings, and generally, how did this fit into the emerging bourgeois order where commerce becomes king? I did not read the whole book; I skipped to the final two chapters where Hume's strategy apparently breaks down.

Hume is the toast of the salon culture of Paris, but he finds negotiation of his relations with the French women in the salons rather complicated. Women are indispensable to Parisian salon culture; they are enchanted by male intellectuals; yet, paradoxically, they are maintained as intellectual inferiors by the men, who love having women in their society but really only are interested in one another as intellectual equals. There is an undertone of flirtatiousness in intellectual encounters with women; the tacit social conventions of "gallantry" just complicate matters for the celibate (I get this from other sources) Hume.

The final chapter deals with the subject of the two aforementioned books, the disquieting public tiff initiated by Rousseau. Here Hume's fundamental strategy of engaging everyone in the world of letters and keeping on good terms with everyone is sabotaged. In the No-Good-Deed-Does-Unpunished Department, Hume's generous gesture of rescuing Rousseau from France and setting him up in England, instead of cementing Rousseau's friendship, only arouses his paranoia. Fearful of accusations being circulated against him, Hume feels compelled to engage in a peremptory strike to ward off the threatened public scandal and publishes an Exposé Succinct. Christensen analyzes this scenario at length, but his tedious writing and postmodern conceits are not easily digestible. He seems to validate Rousseau's paranoia, as men of letters were in that time accustomed to acting as political agents for others, and David Hume's liberality comes under some scrutiny. But I see no convincing argument made. Notably lacking is an examination of the contradictions in Rousseau's life strategy that are discernible in Rousseau's Dog. The Republic of Letters was an urbane microsociety embedded in a treacherous macrosociety. The "dialectic of Enlightenment" here need not be made so mysterious: where social mores, conventions, and institutions are at odds with the pretenses of rationalism, a rational being cannot function in society, and a social being cannot function rationally. One can project, abstractly, the development of society in a rational direction, but to be blind to the shaky premises of one's own social being vitiates one's pretensions. This book yields relevant information usable for the triangulation of Hume's society, his social position as an intellectual, and the ideological assumptions embedded in his philosophy, but I do not find it conclusive.

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