Wednesday, May 11, 2016

David Hume and Adam Smith

Anthony Gottlieb reviews a new biography of the British philosopher Hume in Who Was David Hume? New York Review of Books 05/26/2016.

David Hume (1711-1776)

He relates this story early in the piece:

Hume the philosopher did have his early admirers, but they had to be careful what they said about him. Six months after Hume’s death, one of his closest friends, Adam Smith, implicitly likened him to Socrates, which caused a scandal. Smith had recently published a controversial treatise on economics, The Wealth of Nations, yet his eulogy of Hume, and especially his account of Hume’s composure in the face of death, “brought upon me ten times more abuse than the very violent attack I had made upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain.” [my emphasis]
That is particularly interesting for me for what it says about how Adam Smith saw his famous work on economics in the context of the British mercantalist system of the time.

Despite the tremendous influence Hume's empiricism had on other major philosophers like Kant, Gottlieb writes that Hume's reputation in the philosophy profession has generally not been so good. But that there is a newfound interest in his work:

... it is probably the rise of so-called “naturalism” in philosophy that best explains Hume’s newfound appeal. Naturalism has several components, all of which were prominent in his work. Hume stressed the similarities between people and other animals: a century before Darwin’s Descent of Man, he argued that there is no great difference between the minds of humans and the minds of some creatures in zoos. (Hume also anticipated Darwin in implying that certain mental traits function to aid reproduction.) He treated religion as a natural phenomenon, to be explained in psychological and historical terms — which tended to annoy the pious — and he argued that the study of the mind and of morals should be pursued by the same empirical methods that were starting to cast new light on the rest of nature. Philosophy, for Hume, was thus not fundamentally different from science. This outlook is much more common in our time than it was in his.

Philosophers now regard Hume’s account of reason not as a mischievous plot to undermine it but as an attempt to explain how it works. As Harris puts the matter, he was developing “an entirely new theory of rationality.” Hume treats humans as clever animals whose beliefs about most things are based on “custom,” in the form of a propensity to expect the future to resemble the past — a propensity, he argued, that is essential for the conduct of life, but cannot be provided with any sort of independent justification. This thesis has come to be known as “the problem of induction,” though Hume himself did not regard it as presenting much of a problem. He played up the importance of what he called “experimental” or “probable” reasoning in human knowledge, and played down the significance of mathematical and quasi-mathematical deductions. This was a considerable novelty after some two thousand years in which philosophers, still enthralled by Greek geometry, had mostly done the opposite. Hume’s emphasis on the sort of empirical and fallible beliefs that humans share with some lesser creatures was all too easily interpreted as a denigration of the powers of the human mind. [my emphasis]
Gottlieb is particulary interested in what he takes to be a kind of coy, discreet atheism on Hume's part.

But he also takes note of Hume's contribution to economic theory:

An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals ... was, in Hume’s view, “incomparably the best” of his works, but the public, in both Britain and France, was more taken by his Political Discourses, a set of essays mostly on economic topics that followed a year later in 1752. Adam Smith wrote that Hume was, so far as he knew, the first writer to argue that manufacturing and commerce tend gradually to produce greater liberty and security for citizens. Hume’s economic essays were particularly acute on monetary theory and on trade. He was insistent about the mutual benefits of international trade, wary of national indebtedness, and dismissive of mercantilist obsessions with gold. It has been said that if only Hume had laid out his arguments more systematically, the birth of modern economics would be recorded as 1752, instead of 1776, when Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published.
Hume and Adam Smith were friends, and they had significant mutual influence on each other's philosophical thinking, as Henry Bittermann noted (Adam Smith's Empiicism and the Law of Nature. I Journal of Political Economy Aug 1940):

... the argument of historical continuity is particularly deceptive when applied to the development of ideas, for it tends to neglect a host of other influences on the thinking of any one man. In Smith's case it neglects the influence of Hume, whom he called "by far the most illustrious philosopher and historian of the present age"" and from whom, he said, he differed "a little." While the critics have often noted Hume's influence on specific points, they seem to have neglected Hume's philosophic influence on Smith. Yet Hume's achievements as a philosopher were to upset a rationalist epistemology involving self-evident ideas, to question the assumptions commonly made about causation, and to attack with telling blows the arguments of natural theology. His political theories were directed against natural law and natural rights. It is, of course, quite possible that Smith completely refused to accept his closest friend's conclusions, but he could scarcely have passed over the published arguments without comment, and, in fact, in several places he points out his express disagreement with Hume. The high praise of Hume would probably not have been applied to an author whose conclusions he thought were erroneous. Likewise Hume, though he criticized various points of Smith's ethical and economic theories, did not charge him with adherence to notions which he himself had refuted. Their silence cannot be regarded wholly as friendly forbearance; rather it indicates considerable agreement on fundamental issues.