Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Review of "The Pursuits of Philosophy: An Introduction to the Life and Thought of David Hume"

As a Hume scholar in training, I often wonder what is the best introductory text to those unfamiliar with his work. Hume: A Very Short Introduction by A.J. Ayer is too lecture oriented for most people and doesn't get at Hume's distinctive doctrines enough, though it is well written. How to Read Hume by Simon Blackburn is a good place to start, but Blackburn's personal agenda does get in the way from time to time. Don Garrett's book Hume is a wonderful book, but too scholarly for the layman. What is a potential Hume reader to do?

If Hume is God's gift to the infidel, then Annette C. Baier is God's gift to the potential Hume reader and scholar alike. Her book The Pursuits of Philosophy: An Introduction to the Life and Thought of David Hume is, and this is not propaganda, the best introductory text to Hume that is currently available. Hume himself would love it.

Baier approaches Hume through his own autobiography, My Own Life, which he wrote shortly before his death.  In it, Hume mentions his early childhood, his unhappiness with anything besides studying philosophy, the failure of his A Treatise of Human Nature to have the revolution in philosophy he had hoped it would, the writing of his first and second Enquiries, and finally an evaluation of himself that is fair to the man he was throughout his life. What I find fascinating about Hume's autobiography is the fact that he considers himself just a simple man rather than one of the great philosophers of all time. A man to whom the word humble can honestly be applied.

The book is divided into 7 chapters, each of which begins by quoting heavily from My Own Life, and then giving more background than Hume gives in his short piece. One of the things that is repeatedly mentioned are Hume's religious beliefs, or his lack thereof. As I mentioned earlier, Hume is known within philosophy as "God's gift to the infidel", and I am not sure that the title is warranted. While pointing out that Hume was obviously not a Christian, Baier seems to try to make the case that Hume was a sort of Richard Dawkins of his time, but then at the end pulls back and says that Hume was not an atheist. She never points out that when talking about religion, Hume never takes a firm position, and also that he often is asking why we believe in certain things, not if they are true or not.

Aside from that, Baier's book is very thorough, simple, and a joy to read. Her chapter on Hume's Treatise is better than the introduction given in the Oxford edition of the book, because she makes Hume's main points and leaves one hungry for more. You see in each chapter that Hume's doctrines are rich and deep, and that reading her book alone will not really bring you to a knowledge of Hume. You have only just gotten started, but you feel anxious to go out and buy Hume's books. That is perhaps this books selling point: If you want to know if Hume is worth a read, you will probably know by the end of the book.

At 144 pages, Baier's book is accessible to even the casual reader and should be on the shelf of all those who call themselves disciples of Hume. A lovely work which I cannot recommend highly enough.

No comments:

Post a Comment