Hume's 'Treatise' And The Problem Of Early Success
David Hume: Is there any new philosophical thinking in his later work?
In the years immediately following Hume’s death in 1776 his near-contemporaries were in no doubt about the surest foundation of his claim to lasting reputation. Thomas Ritchie, writing in 1807, could see no merit in Hume’s contributions as either a metaphysician, or a moralist, or as a writer on economics and politics. For Ritchie, it had been only when Hume turned aside from these speculations and applied himself to the history of his country that he had achieved anything durable. In the pages of the History of England, Ritchie announced, there was to be found “a source of useful information to the statesman, a noble monument of its author’s talents, and an invaluable bequest to his country”.
The disregard for Hume’s philosophical writings expressed by Ritchie strengthened during the first half of the 19th century. In that Kantian climate Hume could be presented only as a thinker who had, with a kind of gifted wrong-headedness, explored the dead-end of scepticism with unprecedented thoroughness. Hume had been a mesmerising magician who with virtuoso flourishes had demonstrated the melancholy truth that, pursued in this way, there was after all no rabbit in the philosophical hat. Sir William Hamilton dramatised Hume’s career as a moment of disciplinary dilemma, when philosophers were forced to choose between “either . . . surrendering philosophy as null, or of ascending to higher principles, in order to re-establish it against the sceptical reduction”. Hume’s contribution had been the vital but ancillary one of supplying the crucial first impetus to Kant.
The Victorians, however, were no more enthusiastic about Hume’s historical works than about his philosophy. Even when the volumes of the History of England had first been published some had noticed that they were, in the polite euphemism, “lightly researched”. It was clear that Hume had worked solely from printed sources, and that he possessed neither the technical skills, nor in all probability the appetite, to forage in archives to any good effect. His was a history written in a library, and it was bound to suffer once the Germanic revolution in historiography had been assimilated by English writers. John Stuart Mill dismissed the History of England as “really a romance [which] bears nearly the same degree of resemblance to any thing which really happened, as Old Mortality or Ivanhoe”. Francis Jeffrey, writing in the Edinburgh Review, pronounced the devastating verdict (he was of course fond of pronouncing devastating verdicts) that Hume’s “credit among historians, for correctness of assertion, will soon be nearly as low as it has long been with theologians for orthodoxy of belief”.