David Hume: The Making of a Philosophical Historian. A Reconsideration
The thesis is concerned with the exploration of the interconnections between philosophy and history in David Hume’s work and seeks to provide a reassessment of his remarkable transition from metaphysical philosopher and polite essayist to philosophical and narrative historian. The first part of the thesis puts forth a detailed reappraisal of Hume’s intellectual preoccupations and literary pursuits in the crucial but neglected period 1748-1752, a period that witnessed Hume’s tour of several European courts in 1748, his intensive reading of the classics and his engagement with Montesquieu’s new system of socio-political analysis. These years saw a decisive shift in Hume’s thinking about human nature that resulted in an increasing emphasis on its historicity. It is argued that this helps to explain his growing insistence on the necessity of accounting for the varied manifestations of human nature in different historical periods by a reconstruction of the social, political and economical conditions of past societies as well as their customs, manners and belief systems. It is furthermore argued that Hume’s new holistic view of past civilisations found its expression in a number of diverse pieces which can be read as fragments of a cultural history of classical antiquity and contain an important agenda for a new kind of cultural history. The second part of the thesis considers the significance of this thinking for Hume’s plans for a large-scale work of modern British political history. The discussion is focussed on the History of Great Britain under the House of Stuart (1754-56) and pays particular attention to his intentions as a political historian. It is shown that the success of his work depended largely on his skill in raising his readers’ ‘interest’ and his adeptness in conveying his own ‘impartiality’ as a historian. It is argued that Hume’s achievement can best be understood through an in-depth analysis of his innovative appropriation of a narrative device that had already been used by many historians from Thucydides to Rapin-Thoyras, the set-piece political debate, which Hume employed as the main device for explaining the emergence of a mixed British constitution. The thesis thus offers a fresh interpretation of the relationship between Hume’s concept of philosophical history and his aims and techniques as a narrative historian and seeks to contribute to our understanding of the trajectory of his intellectual and literary career as well as the profound transformation of historical writing in the High Enlightenment.