Hume: An Intellectual Biography by James A Harris - review by James Buchan

James Buchan

Prudential Man

Hume: An Intellectual Biography


Cambridge University Press 575pp £35 order from our bookshop

For years, David Hume was seen as a traitor to philosophy. When his masterpiece of 1739, A Treatise of Human Nature, merely boggled or terrified its readers, he is said to have retreated into mercenary journalism and history writing. The brief autobiography Hume wrote a few months before his death in 1776, My Own Life, is principally about how much money he had made from writing and public service.

In the 20th century, as Hume’s reputation as a thinker revived, opinion altered. In the modern view, Hume remained forever true to the comprehensive scepticism of the Treatise and devoted the rest of his life to chipping off bits and carrying them into the fields of politics, trade, finance, religion and taste.

James Harris, an intellectual historian at St Andrews University, believes he has found a middle way into Hume’s biography. For Harris, Hume was devoted all his life to literature and to the vocation of the philosopher, who from a position of financial independence seeks in the particularities of experience –

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