Thomas Merrill on David Hume’s coalition

American University professor Thomas Merrill writes:

Hume’s message to the “honest gentlemen” is therefore something like this: “you may not understand this curious character the philosopher; you may think him flaky and unhinged; but if you care about establishing a regime dedicated to individual liberty, you need him around. You need not model your life on his; in fact it is better if you do not. But you need to tolerate him and even be open to being guided by him. Especially do you need to heed his negative message of calling into question the political claims advanced by the various forms of superstition on the basis of alleged insights into the ‘original and ultimate principle.’ Think of the philosopher as you might a garbage man: you might not want to do the job yourself, but it is very useful to society that someone does it.”

That is from Merrill’s Hume and the Politics of Enlightenment, and the passage was sent to me by Daniel Klein, who describes the book as “new and highly recommended.”


As Hume might be among the first to lament, the rule of philosophers and the "Politics of Enlightenment" have not established a regime dedicated to individual liberty. Whoops!

It's a shame that academic publishers don't price their books low enough for the general reader. Maybe they'll come out with an e-book that will be cheaper.

CUP seems to be by far the worst when it comes to pricing

$79 for the Kindle version! They clearly only expect to sell copies to libraries.

Why don't academic presses have an institutional price and a personal price? Journals have that, after all, and online magazine subscriptions, etc.

Maybe we should peg their wages at garbage man levels too.

No, that's way too much. Pay them like adjunct professors. They deserve no more.

I just got a nosebleed

Is that price correct?

CUP monographs get sold to every academic library worth its salt in the world, at a high price, for the hardback. Later a paperback is released, costing somewhere between 15 and 30 bucks.

Philosophy, and philosophers, are tolerated if not ignored in the U.S. The philosophical basis for viewpoints on controversial subjects seldom makes it into mainstream discussions, which are dominated by economic pragmatism rather than morality. In other parts of the West the situation is somewhat different. In Germany, for instance, a philosopher like Peter Sloterdijk can have his own television program devoted to exploring issues from a philosophical perspective. There could be no counterpart to that in the U.S. In a speech the head of the German central bank quoted Goethe. Ben Bernanke would never have done that. Janet Yellen probably couldn't quote an American philosopher, if there is one.

One hour on Public TV?

The philosophical basis for viewpoints on controversial subjects seldom makes it into mainstream discussions -

Allan Bloom once wrote that he'd never been a party to a discussion of abortion in an academic setting where the exponent was not attempting to justify the practice. John Rawls once wrote in a footnote that he could hardly imagine general restrictions on the practice could be reasonable. It's probably a good thing that academic philosophers are ignored.

I'm pretty sure that Janet Yellen has read Shakespeare and Robert Frost, and could probably muster a quote or two if necessary. I don't know much about her philosophy, but if you told me she had read John Rawls or Bruce Ackerman at some point, it wouldn't surprise me. Mind you, Bernanke or Greenspan would have had to be very careful about quoting any of those people, as the Democrats tend to jump on any Republican who quotes a dead or elderly white male.

"as the Democrats tend to jump on any Republican who quotes a dead or elderly white male "

I would love to hear a single example of Democrats getting mad about a Republican quoting some dead white male philosopher in the whole Plato to Rawls tradition. They might have made an issue of Ayn Rand or something, but I am extremely skeptical that there was an attack ad run against some GOP candidate's love of Merleau-Ponty.

I'm pretty sure all these guys are Democrats. If you offer money for what you "would love," I will find more citations.

Of course, Hume (1711-76) did not have the benefit of Big Data, or even Little Data. In any case, I suppose Hume's skepticism about inductive reasoning appeals to Cowen, as Cowen is highly skeptical about broad generalizations based on specific observations: 1929 and 2008 both experienced similar high levels of inequality; a financial crisis ensued; therefore, a high level of inequality caused the financial crisis. To Hume, broad generalizations (theories) are more likely to explain, or predict, specific behaviors, or consequences. Hence, it is better to have a set of general and impartial laws (the rule of law) to encourage a public spirit and regard for the community than specific and partial laws that benefit a particular group or class because doing so will encourage factionalism.

Tyler is losing it, quoting this stale, pale male.

I think Hume would agree: Diversity, Liberty or Equality. Choose one.

Could anyone recommend a good book on the Scottish Enlightenment?

100 bucks for 212 pages! Better be good.

"if you care about establishing a regime dedicated to individual liberty, you need him around"

Questions for the peanut gallery:
1) Was that actually true in Hume's day?
2) Is it true today?
3) If your answers for 1 and 2 are different, when would you peg the changeover?
4) Are any of the above answers conditional on geography?

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