Hume`s Literary Dialogues on Natural Religion

Copyright © 2012
Avello Publishing Journal
ISSN: 2049 - 498X
Issue 1 Volume 2:
The Unconscious
Dale Jacquette, University of Bern, Switzerland.
1. Why Dialogues?
A variety of different motivations have been attributed to David Hume for adopting a
conversational dialogue format in his posthumously published 1779 Dialogues
Concerning Natural Religion.1 The predominant view is that Hume, having arranged in
his literary will for publication of the manuscript within two years of his death, wrote in
dialogue form in order to avoid damage to his reputation among a conservatively
religious authority.2 The suggestion is that by writing in dialogue form, Hume distances
himself from any of the conclusions that his fictional characters might defend in the
Dialogues, just as the author of a play like William Shakespeare’s Macbeth depicting a
king’s assassination would not normally be considered guilty of regicidal intent. By
writing in dialogue form, Hume avoids any personal obloquy in what is then only the
dramatization of a philosophical discussion between persons of different philosophical
outlooks, none of which is easily identified with Hume.3
The documentary evidence that might support the standard explanation of Hume’s
choice of dialogue form unfortunately is equivocal. There is an exchange of
correspondence between Hume and his friend, the surprisingly philosophically timid
Adam Smith, author of Wealth of Nations, concerning the inadvisability of publishing
Hume’s Dialogues under any circumstances.4 There is the fact that Hume, having
vacillated between asking Smith to publish the Dialogues after his death, and then
bequeathing him all of his manuscripts except the Dialogues, and entrusting it instead,
first, to his previous publishers, until finally turning over responsibility for the task to his
like-named nephew David Hume.5 Hume’s name was to appear as author of the
Dialogues, and having inflammatory anti-religious philosophical positions considered by
dialogue from characters rather than in the form of a treatise, would not go very far then,
as it would now, to disguise what seems to be Hume’s own narrowly constrained
probabilistically conditional Deism, as defended by Cleanthes in the Dialogues.
These interesting background facts shed additional light on what must
nevertheless be the primary internal evidence in Hume’s Dialogues themselves. Hume’s
text under his name is distanced from any of the three main characters in the
conversations on natural religion in a further way by framing the opening remarks of a
fictional Pamphilus addressing a fictional Hermippus, and offering only to recount what
purport to have been actual discussions between the three principal characters of Philo,
Demea and Cleanthes. Pamphilus, a student of Cleanthes, explains that he was present
but too young to participate. Oddly, then, Pamphilus, who claims to rely on his deeply
etched memory of the occasion, offers a detailed justification for writing specifically on
the philosophy of natural religion in dialogue form. It follows logically, then, that Hume
as the author of the Dialogues must be identical with Pamphilus. It is Pamphilus’s voice
that we hear first, and he has things to say about why it is challenging to write in dialogue
form and why it is especially appropriate to do so specifically in writing about the
philosophical promise and limitations of natural religion, all of which should be Hume’s
burden to explain. If Hume = Pamphilus, then, like Pamphilus, Hume ≠ Philo, ≠ Demea,
≠ Cleanthes. Hume, identified with Pamphilus, is none of the three main dialogue
speaking characters, even in disguise, but only a student of Cleanthes’ philosophy. Once
we enter the book, Hume is no longer present in the first person. It is Pamphilus who
thinks the choice of dialogue as a form needs explaining, and who offers an explanation
in the prologue. Pamphilus serves as a neutral observer, a concierge to the interactions of
three main interlocutors. He pleads his youth as grounds for not having any fixed opinion
about any of these difficult matters concerning the existence and nature of God, and he is
only there to report what he heard.6
If Hume assumes the persona of Pamphilus in the Dialogues, then he cleverly
allows the onus of defending religious heterodoxy, even blasphemy in the judgment of
some ecclesiastical critics, to fall on fictional characters with whom neither author Hume
nor narrator Pamphilus can logically be identified. As Pamphilus, Hume is so distanced
from the philosophical action of the Dialogues, that his pen permits Philo, Demea, and
Cleanthes collectively to get into all the mischief Hume wants to stir up concerning what
can and cannot be reasonably inferred from within the constraints of an epistemically
respectable empiricist, experientially grounded natural religion. He can unreservedly air
all the frankly anti-natural-religion conclusions at which he has arrived in his own
skeptical thinking and uncompromising empiricist origins of all our ideas, without putting
his name to any of these disreputable propositions.
Hume is Pamphilus, and Pamphilus, as we learn only as the Dialogues conclude,
despite being a pupil of Cleanthes, is too young to have a horse in the race. Hume is
thereby personally off the hook, in the sense of publishing only a fictional account of
fictional conversations. The deeper fiction is that Hume as Pamphilus is not actually
recounting philosophical dialogues between three disputants. Pamphilus is not truthful in
this respect, and neither, therefore, is Hume. He is the author of a philosophical fiction.
The standard explanation of why Hume writes in dialogue form attributes to him the
choice of a literary devices by which his name on the book’s title page can only be
properly understood throughout as having authored a work of fiction. Hume, on the
standard explanation of his use of dialogue form in discussing natural religion, by these
and similar artifices, skirts opprobrium in any direct or immediate sense touching himself
or his good name in posterity. He is at most a student of the ideas that he as Pamphilus
have heard other thinkers discussing. Despite this literary legalistic maneuvering to
protect his posthumous reputation, the standard explanation maintains, Hume manages
skillfully to communicate all of his skeptical doubts about the ability of natural religion to
ascertain anything philosophically defensible concerning God’s attributes. It is to
accomplish both of these purposes, to protect himself and have his say about the limits of
natural religion, that Hume in this standard interpretation is most often said to have
chosen to write dialogues concerning the argument from design for the existence of God
and the limits of natural religion in trying to understand God’s nature.
The standard explanation is attractive, but is that David Hume? If Hume intends
the Dialogues as a pure fiction, then how can its philosophical ideas be taken more
seriously than trade entertainment literature? If the standard explanation is true, then
Hume must think that with his name on the cover he can deceive any educated reader that
he does not share the opinions that a leading figure in the Dialogues defends, then we
misjudge Hume’s sagacity to the same extent that we uncharitably suppose Hume
misjudges the readers of his book after his death. The standard interpretation, differently
expressed, depicts Hume as a highly cautious thinker and writer who supposedly on
prudential considerations alone in a climate hostile to Deism and religious free-thinking
adopts a flimsy barricade of fictional identities and situations in order to lay out from
behind a partition of masks some tough-minded arguments about the philosophy of
natural religion that he hopes future readers will be able to see through and grasp what he
would have openly declared in his own day were it not for the oppressive climate of
religious persecution of the time.
Hume, however, does not demonstrate a similar caution in publishing other
openly skeptical writings in relation to religion, and he withholds publication of two
religiously controversial essays from the press during his lifetime only when his printer is
threatened with a lawsuit. Hume himself is fearless in writing what he thinks, while
never seeking deliberately to offend. Why, then, would he choose to write in dialogue
form in order to preserve his reputation against religious traditionalist outrage after his
death? How is Hume’s posthumous reputation supposed to remain untarnished if readers
immediately after the book’s publication think that they can immediately read Hume’s
own anti-religious sentiments between the lines of every dialogue exchange? If the ideas
in the book arouse a religious backlash, regardless of which character expresses them,
then blame and reproach are bound to attach to Hume as the Dialogues author, and
cannot be deflected onto any fictional character. Surely Hume understands this. On the
standard explanation’s assumptions, it should follow that Hume cannot assume that he
can fool everyone by allowing his dialogue characters to give voice to his own religious
skepticism, so why assume that he would do so in order to distract the unwary reader and
shield himself from responsibility for the book’s controversial ideas?
If Hume’s greatest priority was simply to avoid damaging his future reputation,
then he could have achieved this purpose by destroying the Dialogues, as he tells Sir
Gilbert Elliot he burned a skeptical treatise in philosophy of religion that he had written
earlier in his career.7 Or he could have published the Dialogues anonymously, just as we
have them, minus his name. Perhaps he considered this and was dissuaded by the
thought that he would be thereby risking a compounded criticism of cowardice and lack
of philosophical commitment in the likelihood of his authorship’s later discovery. He
had shown the manuscript of the Dialogues to a number of friends, there was a scattered
correspondence concerning them, and his printer and publisher knew of them. Such
subterfuge in any case never seems to have occurred to Hume, at least not as a factor in
choosing to write about natural religion in dialogue form. Hume is not reluctant to assert
his authorship, but proudly posthumously publishes the Dialogues under his name.8 He
is evidently not motivated exclusively or even primarily by concerns for his later
reputation, except insofar as he may think his reputation will actually or eventually be
enhanced by publishing the book. He no doubt wants to avoid a tirade of religious
dogma and bigotry, especially during his lifetime, but he accomplishes all of these
purposes by having the book produced after his death and under his name. It does not
add anything useful to these explanations to suggest that Hume writes dialogues on the
philosophy of natural religion in order to conceal his own philosophical attitudes, and for
Hume’s readers after his death to be able if pressed to demur, step away from and disown
the most controversial anti-religious ideas expressed by his Dialogues’ fictional
Hume’s Dialogues, whatever his reasons for choosing to write in this form, do not
articulate a unified philosophy of religion. Instead, the Dialogues represent a virtual
stand-off between opposed arguments and philosophical starting points supporting very
distinct philosophical attitudes toward the scope and limits of natural religion. It is a
discussion that, more realistically than many philosophical dialogues, never achieves
final resolution, except to the self-contained satisfaction of some of the individual
fictional participants. The three disputants as the dialogues break up at the end seem to
disagree without resolution with each other, much as they did at the beginning, and they
have all made good points. It took time and patience exhausted to discover exactly where
their differences lay, and in the process a worthwhile conceptual clarity is achieved. The
reader is tested as to which arguments emerge as strongest among the interlocutors, and
where the most interesting persistent philosophical problems still remain. In this and
other respects, Hume’s Dialogues follow the venerable model of Cicero’s De Natura
Deorum (On the Nature of the Gods), also written in dialogue form, but with a distinctly
‘Academic’ or Platonic bias against the Stoics.9 Hume’s characters, significantly, boldly
stand their mutually incompatible grounds. None of them is as thoroughly beaten down,
as, say, Hylas by Philonous in George Berkeley’s Three Dialogues Between Hylas and
Philonous, or as anyone besides Parmenides who tries to talk philosophy with Socrates.10
The implied inability to resolve philosophical differences concerning natural religion is
precisely what Hume’s skeptical philosophy should lead us to expect in all his published
philosophical writings, beginning with A Treatise of Human Nature.11
Anyone familiar with Hume’s skepticism in his time as today will immediately
see in his Dialogues his personal philosophical signature endorsing a diluted Deism that
is not quite theism and not quite atheism. The position that seems to triumph in the
philosophical exchange Pamphilus reports between Philo, Demea, and Cleanthes is that
the existence but not the nature of a divine intelligent architect of the universe is probably
knowable. The argument from design in its most persuasive guise can at most support
belief in the conditionally probable existence of a divine creator or Deity, but that beyond
this tepid concession we cannot on the same empirical grounds conclude anything of
substance concerning God’s nature, essence, properties or attributes. Deism
acknowledges the conditional probability that the world was divinely, intelligently
created, while leaving moral beings free to act without consideration of the creator
Deity’s properties and especially will. Natural religion cannot philosophically justify any
proposals as to whether and if so what God wills, and whether or not God has any
specific will concerning human beings. This is potentially dangerous stuff. Without a
solemn doctrine articulating what God wills, no theistic religion can command a
following. It would be no wonder then if Hume were sufficiently apprehensive about the
public reception of such subversive ideas.12
2. Hume’s Skepticism in the Philosophy of Religion
Hume is skeptical where matters of God’s nature are concerned. He is therefore
skeptical, in effect, about substantive theistic religious teachings in every tradition.
Hume’s skepticism is more but not so general as to exclude all possibility of knowledge.
As a skeptic, Hume targets natural religion as only one among a larger category of
confused philosophical enthusiasms. He is generally skeptical about the meaning and
certainly the truth of any proposition involving ideas that do not originate in acts of
perception or impressions of sensation or reflection. Hume’s skepticism catches in its net
not only natural religion, but philosophical belief in the existence of thought-independent
substance external to the mind, the subject, self, person or soul as a unified entity, the
infinity or infinite divisibility or spatiotemporal extension, and the nature and modality of
causation beyond temporally ordered spatially contiguous regular successions specifically
among our ideas of physical events.
Hume is obligated ideologically and methodologically to consider the efforts of
natural religion to prove that God exists on experiential grounds in the argument from
design. For Hume, there is no other conceivable way in which God’s existence might be
proved, and upon criticism, Cleanthes, characterized by Pamphilus as a thinker of
‘accurate philosophical turn’, concludes that the argument has at best a qualified and
questionable success. There are fundamental problems that the Dialogues highlight,
concerning especially the strength of inference by which the existence of God is
supposed to be implied by the perceivable natural order in the universe, on the analogy of
the design and appointment of means to end inherent in human-made mechanical artifacts
like pocket-watches and water-mills.
It is in the spirit of the age to rely upon the experience of empirical phenomena
for answers to outstanding philosophical problems. The climate of thought, that Hume
also shares, represents, and carries forward in his own way, was powerfully shaped in
large part, especially in Great Britain at the time, by the stunning intellectual successes of
Isaac Newton’s natural philosophy, and more specifically by his kinematics or
geometrical physics in the ‘System of the World’, expounded in his monumental 1687
Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.13
We can think of Hume’s empiricism as taking up the banner of Newton’s natural
philosophy and purifying it of some of its vestigial seventeenth century rationalist
encumbrances, making it more true to itself and extending it from physics in natural
philosophy to the complementary study of moral philosophy. Hume describes the
Treatise in its subtitle as ‘Being an ATTEMPT to introduce the experimental Method of
Reasoning into MORAL SUBJECTS’.14 He seems thereby to apply Newton’s famous
dictum, ‘Hypotheses non fingo’, in the Scholium Generale of the 1713 second edition of
the Principia from natural to moral philosophy. He extends Newton’s remark from its
original intent in natural philosophy, specifically with respect to withholding speculation
about the metaphysics of gravity beyond the observable phenomena, more generally to
include the practice of moral philosophy. Dividing philosophy rather too sharply into
natural and moral, Hume in his day distinguishes as moral philosophy several branches of
what are referred to today as philosophy of mind, epistemology, and value theory at the
foundations of ethics, social-political philosophy, and aesthetics.15
Speculation is rife as to exactly what Newton means by denying that he ‘feigns’
or fabricates as hypotheses. Obviously scientific inquiry and explanation of the sort that
Newton personifies thrives on the making and testing of empirical hypotheses. We
formulate a hypothesis about some natural phenomenon that we want to understand, and
then we try to confirm (Hempel) or disconfirm (Popper) the hypothesis.16 It is always a
win-win situation for the advance of science, regardless of whether an interesting
hypothesis is observationally or experimentally confirmed or disconfirmed, because it
always teaches us something we did not previously know about how the world works. To
take away hypothesis formulation from that process of exact scientific knowledge
seeking seems not only in opposition, but hypocritical or even inconsistent, as a
description of what his readers know perfectly well is built on what Newton also calls
hypotheses. Is Newton, then, caught up in some kind of contradiction? Are the hints at a
methodology or philosophy of science in the Scholium Generale at odds with Newton’s
own official scientific practice, providing him with what he should have known were
abundant counterexamples to his not framing hypotheses? We could, but we need not
rush to say so. Newton, it might be argued, must mean something different from
‘hypothesis’ in this context than its most general use in contemporary methodology and
philosophy of science, as a proposition that has a certain function in the search for truth
in natural or experimental philosophy.
Newton in denying that he makes hypotheses seems to mean more specifically
that he refuses to speculate concerning the unobservable nature of gravity beyond its
perceivable effects. Newton’s natural philosophy is an effort to discover exact analogies
between abstract geometry and the occurrence especially of causally related physical
events involving objects moving in space and time. The context in which Newton
remarks that he frames no hypotheses is one in which he explains that in the
mathematicization of natural events he is unable to go beyond the phenomena of gravity
to explain how gravity functions independently of its objectification in appearance. As to
what gravity itself is, the nature of gravity, so to speak, Newton hazards no hypotheses,
as he equivocally declares:
I have not as yet been able to discover the reason for these properties of
gravity from phenomena, and I do not feign [non fingo] hypotheses. For
whatever is not deduced from the phenomena must be called a hypothesis;
and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, or based on occult
qualities, or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy. In this
philosophy particular propositions are inferred from the phenomena, and
afterwards rendered general by induction.17
Nor, similarly, will Hume venture to explain what causation or causality is, the
invisible cause-and-effect relation of regularly successive events, nor allow
experientially-grounded ideas of ‘necessary [causal] connexions’ into philosophically
respectable explanations of any conceivable perceptions.18 Hume does not offer a threepart analysis of either causation itself or causal connection into regular succession,
temporal priority of cause over effect, and spatial contact or propinquity.19
The latter requirement as a condition for causation itself would rule out the
possibility of action at a distance, implying that remote causation is never anything other
than a chain of proximate causal connections. Such conclusions might be welcome rather
than the reverse in scientific quarters, but is it the kind of proposition concerning the
speculative metaphysical nature of causation beyond all perceptual phenomena to which
Hume in his principled skepticism is generally unwilling to offer any positive
philosophical commitment. Whether self-consciously or not, Hume, in the spirit of
Newton’s revolutionary science, is vehement that we can never say anything positive
about the nature of causation, or project metaphysical hypotheses beyond the empirical
phenomena concerning hidden connections governing perceivable event regularities, just
as Newton says that he advances no hypotheses concerning the nature and workings of
gravity beyond the observations his science explains and predicts.
If causation itself as a relation is not perceivable, then the question, not lost on
Immanuel Kant, as to whether causation is something objective belonging to the world of
phenomena, or something subjective belonging instead to human experience and
judgment of the world. Causation might then be ontically dependent on experiencetranscending conditions of thought and the way in which we experience the world rather
than on the world itself or as it would be independently of perception, the Kantian Ding
an sich, thing-in-itself or -as-it-is-in-itself.20 What Hume offers instead of an analysis of
causation is an exercise in philosophical anthropology. In the same three-part analysis,
he does not explain causal connection, but the experiential origin of our idea of causal
connection, asking, effectively, what is our idea of causation and where does it come
from?21 His task is to understand how the mind could have arrived at such an idea. As
to the nature or even the existence of causation or causality itself, Hume finds it
philosophically irresponsible to speculate. Like Newton’s constraints on the pretenses of
a proper philosophy of science trying to grasp the hidden or phenomena-transcending
workings of gravity, Hume’s perception-driven empiricist philosophy of mind and
epistemology permits only an account of how the mind may have devised its idea of
causal connection from its perceptions of spatiotemporal events, of regular succession,
temporal priority and spatial contact. It is a billiard table model of causal interaction,
which we may suppose applies throughout nature at the microphysical level, and thereby
explains the mind’s category of causally interconnected events. In that regard, Hume’s
concept of causation is significantly more impoverished than Newton’s.22
As to whether the picture is true, correct or accurate, whether the idea of causation
corresponds to causation as a real relation outside or independently of thought, Hume
staunchly maintains that we cannot justifiably conjecture. Trying to do so brings us only
to the point that we say more about our idea of causation, and not about causation itself
independently of our ideas. The same is true for Hume in other areas of metaphysics.
Causation is not the only category or relation to fall under the empiricist juggernaut of
Hume’s Fork.23 Hume’s critique of metaphysical pretensions specifically regarding
causation as a necessary connection of events was nevertheless compelling enough to
awaken Kant, as he says in Prolegomena, from his dogmatic (rationalist) slumbers.24
The reverberations of Newton’s Hypotheses no fingo through Hume also reach Kant,
where it permeates deeply into the Transcendental Aesthetic and concepts and categories
of the pure understanding in Kant’s 1781/1787 Critique of Pure Reason.25
We cannot offer an authoritative metaphysics of substance and substances
themselves, if Hume is right, nor of persons or the ego or self, as opposed to an account
of the mind’s idea of substance, persons, and itself. Which is quite another thing. We
may talk only about ideas when we believe ourselves to be talking about things, but
Hume insists philosophically on the difference.26 We can thereby characterize Hume’s
empiricism as a more faithful and thorough application of Newton’s Hypotheses non
fingo to all of philosophy, excluding terms for perceptually ungrounded ideas. Hume can
then maintain a scrupulous avoidance of speculation on the real nature of things beyond
the limit of what can be known concerning impressions and ideas as the only constituents
of thought.27 Hume goes so far as finally to question even Newton’s own classical
mathematical assumptions in the development of his kinematics.28
Applying the ‘experimental method of Reasoning’ to the moral sciences, Hume
does not propose a kinematics of philosophical thought. He does not project the
dialogues of Socrates and Phaedrus onto an ovoid in order to predict what Socrates will
say next, in the way that Newton offers geometrical analogies in order to explain the
motion of a planet or star. What Hume does instead in every instance is to curb back the
pretensions of a speculative metaphysics, to rein it in with reminders that our only stock
of legitimate ideas for thought in any domain are those that ultimately derive from
immediate sense impressions. A legitimate idea can account for itself, explain its origin
or the origin of its cognitive predecessors in sensation, perception, or reflection.
Anything else has no business littering the philosopher’s desk. It is for just this reason
that Hume is often rightly described as a skeptic. He does not advance bold new
hypotheses in metaphysics, but rather makes us reconsider and draw back from former
especially rationalist philosophical assumptions. He wants to help keep philosophy
within its proper sphere, respecting its proper empirical experiential limits, and avoiding
the equivalent of pseudo-science, as seen in the previous century’s extravagant
metaphysical system builders.29
Writing in dialogue form is a literary device that Hume might exploit if he is
genuinely skeptical about anything that might be said, pro or contra, concerning the
Deity’s properties, in excess of acknowledging the probability of such an entity’s
existence. If Hume were not skeptical, then he could have simply written a treatise in
which he plainly set forth his philosophical objections to natural religion and the
argument from design as it was developed by William S. Paley and others at roughly this
time.30 Hume does this in his plain-spoken equally potentially provocative 1757 treatise,
The Natural History of Religion, in which Hume can be understood as implying that all
religion has a natural scientific psychological explanation, for which no reference to
supernatural beings or forces is required.31 He apparently did so also in his treatise on
the subject that he consigned to the flames. There is, on the other hand, an important
difference for Hume between natural religion and a natural history of religion. The latter
is a subject about which philosophy can be definite even if fallible, as in other empirical
matters, here in the anthropology of religion as a cultural sociological phenomenon.
Natural religion itself, as opposed to a natural history of religion, is quite another thing,
and its propositions need to be subjected to the same high level of philosophical scrutiny,
in the course of which Hume discovers that his general skepticism applied to any ideas
lacking a legitimating experiential origin in immediate impressions of sensation.32
3. Hume’s Choices and Publication History of the Dialogues
Hume is not afraid to say what he believes, even when its content is unpopular or
controversial. The example of Hume’s The Natural History of Religion, published in
Hume’s lifetime, fully testify to this, along with the essay ‘Of Miracles’, appearing as
Section X of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, published in first and
second editions in 1748 and 1777.33
On the other hand, Hume’s 1755-1756 essays ‘Of Suicide’ and ‘Of the
Immortality of the Soul’ were deemed too sensitive for his publisher Andrew Millar, and,
under threat of legal proceedings, were replaced in the originally planned Five
Dissertations to result in the truncated Four Dissertations, substituting the more
innocuous essay, ‘Of the Standard of Taste’, and published without the offending
material in 1757.34 It was not until seven years after his death, in 1783, that ‘Of Suicide’
and ‘Of the Immortality of the Soul’ appeared in an edition of essays pre-authorized for
publication by Hume.35 Otherwise, Hume at most sometimes cushions his conclusions
so as not to give undue offense, though never at the cost of making his meaning clear.
Like a sensible person, Hume listens to the advice of friends who seem to have his
interests at heart. His good and gifted friend Adam Smith, thinking the manuscript was
some kind of social dynamite, urges excessive caution, and Smith may even have wanted
to withhold publishing the Dialogues indefinitely, as a reflection of his honest concern
for Hume’s reputation in the public mind. Hume did not strongly share Smith’s
excessive discretion, and, wanting to avoid distractions during his remaining years,
prescribed a two-year interval for the publication of the Dialogues after his death. Hume
is justly proud of the Dialogues, of what he has accomplished in them philosophically
and as a literary endeavor. He may care what becomes of his reputation once he is dead,
but, more importantly, he seems to want his reputation to depend, among other things, on
the Dialogues.36
Rather than expressing Hume’s distrust of Smith to carry out his wishes
concerning the Dialogues, nor as a snub of any kind to his longtime friend, I prefer to see
in the provision made by the last minute codicil added to his will, Hume’s gentlemanly
decision, knowing Smith’s views on the matter, to avoid putting his friend in a moral
dilemma. He spares Smith the conflict of conscientious loyalties to Hume’s reputation
over Hume’s desire that the Dialogues be published. At the same time, Hume gives
Smith a comfortable distance from any perceptions of seditious anti-religious content of
the book on his own part and during his own remaining lifetime, as Hume, by arranging
for posthumous publication, was similarly avoiding any imprecations among his
contemporaries. The fact that Hume does not share Smith’s concerns about the
reputation risks and greater social dangers of publishing the Dialogues is amply
demonstrated by the fact that Hume specifies in the final codicil to his will that his own
nephew, also conveniently named David Hume, later jurist and legal scholar, is to
oversee the publication of the text. If Hume had shared Smith’s sense that to be
associated with the publication of his Dialogues was likely to bring adverse
consequences, then he could hardly have made it his request to visit calamity upon a
beloved and respected namesake nephew, especially while still a young man with the
prospect of a promising career before him.
The only reasonable explanation is that Hume, out of respect for Smith’s
difference of opinion and more guarded moral inclinations, arranged for the posthumous
publication of the Dialogues in a way that would free Smith of any moral conflict
between the obligations of a loyal friend and advisor concerned about Hume’s reputation
after his death, or even of the social repercussions of publishing the book, and as executor
of his friend’s literary will.37 Hume’s provision released Smith from any immediate
association with what Smith in his correspondence with Hume clearly considers a
philosophical-theological powder keg with a real potential to disrupt the social order.38
In the event, the publication of Hume’s Dialogues went largely unnoticed, attracting only
a few critics immediately at the time. As Hume predicted, the book did not ignite any
sort of moral backlash against Hume’s reputation, nor did it undermine the foundations of
What Humean idea could we have of God, supposing that we can reasonably infer
that there is a great enough intelligent designer and builder to have made the universe? Is
God ‘old’ and wise? Or is the God of our world a youthful apprentice in a divine craft
school, who made our world as a prototype to develop his or her or its skill? Now, of
course, it is our world, and here we are stuck in it, if we rightly conclude from the
empirical evidence that it was created by God. However, God may have moved on to
other things since then and simply ignores the infinitely many worlds he, she or it made
before making the latest most divine interest absorbing world, which unfortunately is not
the world we inhabit. If the best that natural religion can do is to argue on very generous
grounds that there is probably a divine creator of the phenomenal universe that we
inhabit, then no specific content as to God’s will, or whether God has a will, let alone a
will directed in any way toward human beings, can be validated by ideas deriving from
immediate impressions of sensation and reflection. There will exist instead, as there does
in fact, a wide array of different empirically insupportable faiths concerning God’s will,
precisely as we find throughout history and in the world today.40
Hume’s The Natural History of Religion already offers anthropological and
individual psychological accounts of the historical development of religions as a social
phenomenon. Religion in Hume’s hands becomes a subject whose origins and the origins
of whose concepts and putative ideas, can be studied like any other natural phenomena
and related plausibly to such occurrent states of mind as sense experiences and emotions,
beliefs and desires. Hume, in this disarming way, secularizes religion. He brings it
alongside any other social practice, the contents of whose genuine ideas are explainable
as resulting from cognitive manipulation of immediate sense impressions. Otherwise,
Hume will strategically ask, what are we supposed to be talking about? The world
outside of our ideas? For that, exactly as when questions arise about substance, the self,
and the unseen workings of cause and effect relations, Hume’s answer is an
uncompromising skepticism toward any speculative metaphysics. In the Enquiry
Concerning Human Understanding, Hume, in a moment of rare hyperbole, goes so far as
to demand that books containing nothing but such speculative metaphysics be
incinerated.41 What we know, if Hume is right, are the existence and their contents of
our ideas insofar as they are available to reflection. A world existing independently of
thought and outside of our ideas is something in which Hume allows we may be
psychologically compelled to believe, while repeatedly insisting that the true nature of
existence independently of our ideas must obviously remain beyond the reach of our
ideas, and hence of any meaningful philosophical reasoning in which we can engage. We
cannot have an adequate idea of substance, person or self, causation, infinite divisibility,
or God, thinks Hume, so there can be no correct argument to take us from any true
assumptions we like to the conclusion that God has or fails to have any particular
property, especially the property of having any particular will toward or with respect to
What we experience in the anthropology of comparative religion, Hume
maintains, is a wide proliferation of equally unsupported proposals concerning the nature
of God. As a matter concerning which we can have no adequate ideas, it is fruitful
ground for imagination, for charismatic persuasion, institutional reinforcement of
religious beliefs, and many different types and grades of force. Questions of God’s will
toward human beings, for us as individuals in particular, Hume shows, cannot be
answered by the resources of natural religion, any more than they can by the resources of
natural philosophy or modern science.42 Where do the answers come from then instead?
Religions themselves speak of individuals receiving and communicating revelations.
Anthropologically speaking, someone makes them up, combining properties experienced
in different things into a composite fictional being, and they are disseminated through a
culture in all the usual ways, including word of mouth, printed text, propagandistic art,
political and police decree, education and religious training. Different cultures respond to
the need to have something to say about God’s ineffable will in different ways, and these
differences are influenced even when they are not fully determined by geographical,
geological, genetic, environmental, or sociological factors. We can investigate these
things just as we can investigate the progression of religious ideas in different cultures
from hunter-gatherer to agrarian societies, from stone to bronze, iron, and steel ages, in
the evolution of cultures known to Hume.
The interpretation of Hume’s motives, as wanting to both have his say on natural
religion and protect his reputation after death, is not obviously insupportable. Especially
in the early days after completing the Dialogues, sometime between 1751 and 1755, as
the chronology is usually judged, and certainly by 1771, Hume may have wanted to
suppress the work for fear of repercussions while he was still seeking employment in a
religiously touchy environment.43 The fact that Hume suffered discrimination on the
basis of his philosophical skepticism is well-documented, and lends support to the
standard explanation of his decision to write about natural religion in dialogue form. The
question is whether Hume’s choosing to write in dialogue form for the one and only time
in his literary career on the topic of natural religion did so in order to protect his
reputation and address concerns about the potential social impact of the Dialogues. We
know that when Smith saw the manuscript for the first time, it was already in dialogue
form. Although Hume had previously written and subsequently destroyed a manuscript
in treatise form skeptical of religion, we have no knowledge that the more recently
composed content of the Dialogues was ever written in anything other than dialogue
form. Nor do we know Hume’s exact reasons for destroying the early discourse on
religion. Smith advises Hume against publishing the text, but with respect to a work that
is already written as a series of dialogues. Thus, Hume could not have been responding
to Smith’s timorous publication concerns in choosing to write in dialogue form, but either
had those concerns himself prior to hearing them from Smith, or choose a dialogue
format for different reasons. The suggestion that Hume might have shared Smith’s
concerns we have previously refuted by the fact that Hume turns the responsibility to
publish over to his homonymous nephew.
It remains that Hume must have had other motivations for electing to write on
natural religion in dialogue form. Another explanation for Hume’s adopting the dialogue
form is suggested by the proposal that Hume could not bear to cover the same ground
again in expository discursive prose the topics of his previously discarded treatise-style
manuscript. If so, then Hume’s situation parallels that of Berkeley, who writes his 1713
Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous shortly after the manuscript for the
unpublished Part II of Berkeley’s 1710 A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human
Knowledge reportedly went missing during his travels in Italy.44 This explanation makes
more sense, and is strengthened by the near precedent for Hume in Berkeley’s similar
experience, than the implausible suggestion that Hume writes in dialogue format in order
to disguise his own religious views from a censorious public.
It seems strained to suppose that Hume would have taken out the double
insurance policy of both delaying publication until after his death and writing in dialogue
form in order to avoid the bad reputation that might have accompanied expressing
himself too freely about some of these controversial matters. The time - line seems
wrong. Hume would have had to have decided on the dialogue format from the very
beginning as his first wave of protection from being immediately identified with the most
watery imaginable Deism, assuming as do many interpretations that Hume in the
Dialogues sympathizes most strongly with Cleanthes. Then only later Hume would have
had to add the further precaution of arranging to withhold publishing the Dialogues until
after his death. Here the example of Hume’s essays ‘Of Suicide’ and ‘Of the Immortality
of the Soul’ is instructive, because Hume had not been reluctant to publish these
discussions, even though he withheld them under pressure in the end. He had been
willing to go forward, and relented only after his printer demurred. If Hume thought that
he could conceal his own opinions and take refuge in the frank ambiguities of author
attitude afforded by writing in dialogue form, leaving everyone to guess which if any of
the participants speak for him, then why deliberately postpone publication until after his
own death? If he thought there was any risk of anyone suffering guilt by association,
then why leave instructions to have these ideas published so immediately after his death,
within two years, and by his well-regarded nephew? Why not decide instead not to
publish at all, or have the manuscript sealed for publication only until after a period of
time that would outlast any of his then surviving friends and the posterity of his more
distant family members? What specific role would the composition of the work
specifically as lengthy dialogues accomplish or add to the measures that a prudent person
would otherwise have taken under these kinds of circumstances?
Besides attributing cowardice of a sort to Hume, the interpretation leaves
important points unexplained. Since we have no paper trail of earlier compositions on
the subject worked out in ordinary prose, no treatise or dissertation from Hume on the
limitations of the argument from design for the existence of God or of natural religion
generally in proving God’s nature or attributes, we must assume that Hume envisioned
his writing on the topic to require or at least to lend itself to dialogue form right from the
start. Hume dies in 1776, but we know that he was engaged in writing the The Natural
History of Religion at the same time he was writing the Dialogues, and that he finished
the Dialogues, roughly as we have the book today, in the period between 1751-1755.
Hume publishes the Natural History, but deliberately delays the Dialogues. He may have
rightly supposed that the Natural History would not be as inflammatory as the Dialogues.
In any case, from these several facts we can reasonably piece together the conclusion that
Hume was working on the Dialogues as dialogues for at least twenty years before his
death. His previous writings, excluding his massive multi-volume work on The History
of England, and anyway his contributions to philosophy, were not particularly wellreceived during his lifetime, and we might just as easily infer that Hume wanted to avoid
the embarrassment of punishing reviews and journalistic rebuke or even condemnation
from the pulpits around Great Britain and especially in his native largely Calvinist
Scotland. If so, however, why would he have risked publishing anything controversial
whatsoever on the philosophy of religion?45
The explanation does not ring true. We must recall that already in the Treatise in
1739, Hume had chosen as the epigram for the book a quotation from the Roman senator
and historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus, in his Historiae I.1, ‘Rara temporum felicitas,
ubi fentire, que velis; & que fentias, dicere licit’.46 The Latin extols ‘The rare good
fortune of an age in which we may feel what we wish, and say what we feel’. Hume may
have changed his mind about the temper of his day between the glowing youth of the
Treatise and the sober experienced judgment of the Dialogues concerning the public
reception of his uncompromising empiricism. However, if he did still believe that he
could think and say respectfully whatever he wanted about any topic, then the
explanation of his both adopting a dialogue format for his open-minded critique of
natural religion and argument from design needs to account for the significant weather
change in his outlook in something more concrete than generalities about the cautions of
mature reflection.
There must be something else to say. There must be another, better account of
why Hume chose the dialogue form right from the outset over several decades of writing
and rewriting the Dialogues. If it was not to avoid defamation or to spare his friends and
family embarrassment, then perhaps the answer is that Hume understood dialogues as
singularly appropriate for the expression of precisely the arguments he considered most
essential to appreciating the scope and limits and difficulties of attaining to any certainty
concerning the propositions of natural religion.
4. Pamphilus as Hume’s Ostensible Fictional Persona
With this historical and philosophical background in place, we are at last in a sound
position to assess Pamphilus’s explanation of why Hume’s book is written as dialogues.
If it is correct to identify Hume with Pamphilus, as the character Hume officially presents
himself as being in the Dialogues, then, Hume’s famous irony notwithstanding, we may
suppose that Pamphilus in attempting to justify the dialogue format of the text, is
speaking for Hume and giving reasons that Hume accepts, on which his writing about
natural religion and the argument from design for the existence of God is predicated.
The best internal evidence we have for Hume’s intentions in choosing a dialogue
form are Pamphilus’s opening remarks to Hermippus. There we are provided with
several pages of explanation as to why dialogues in particular were deemed appropriate
for Hume’s subject. Although Pamphilus and Hermippus are just as fictional as Philo,
Cleanthes and Demea, Pamphilus, who does not take part in the discussion, is supposed
to be an eye-witness reporter to Hermippus of the dialogues that took place between the
three principals, and he porticos the Dialogues with a detailed explanation as to why the
dialogue form is appropriate in particular for the topic of natural religion. Pamphilus
after this preamble disappears from the group, until he is casually mentioned by Philo as
an aside near the end of the dialogues’ penultimate paragraph.47
There is, on reflection, something strange about Pamphilus in his role as gatekeeper to the Dialogues. Pamphilus remarks on the challenges of writing in dialogue
form, and the rarity of its success. Since the genre itself poses difficulties for the
philosophical writer, it is natural to wonder why it is chosen in the present instance.
However, Pamphilus is not supposed to be describing the written composition of
philosophical ideas in dialogue form, but a real dialogue between three speakers that
actually took place. It would not make sense to justify the choice of dialogue form to
express what are supposed to be dialogues. Pamphilus plays a double role, the point of
which may be to indicate right from the start that the reader of Hume’s Dialogues is
entering into a purely fictional discussion of philosophical ideas, none of which are
necessarily accepted by any living person. It is the unspoken equivalent of the explicit
disclaimer one finds at the beginning of novels and at the cinema, largely for legal and
insurance purposes, that any resemblance of the characters to real persons is unintended
and coincidental. Pamphilus prepares the reader to consider the problem:
It has been remarked, my Hermippus, that, though the ancient
philosophers conveyed most of their instruction in the form of dialogue,
this method of composition has been little practiced in later ages, and has
seldom succeeded in the hands of those who have attempted it.48
Expository writing in the form of a discursive treatise or dissertation lends itself
more readily to the presentation and critical evaluation of arguments, which, Pamphilus
observes, in contrast with ‘the ancient philosophers’ who often wrote dialogues, is ‘now
Accurate and regular argument, indeed, such as is now expected of
philosophical inquirers, naturally throws a man into the methodical and
didactic manner; where he can immediately, without preparation, explain
the point at which he aims; and thence proceed, without interruption, to
deduce the proofs, on which it is established.49
Reasonably enough, Pamphilus remarks that if the point of a given exercise in
philosophy is to present a systematic theory of philosophical ideas, then the dialogue
form seems hardly appropriate. From this we may accordingly conclude that Hume in
the Dialogues does not have a system of conclusions to propose, and is not in the position
of someone who can present himself as having mastered the topics contained in the book,
to the point where he can instruct the reader in the discoveries of an inquiry in roughly
the same manner as a teacher to a student. This Pamphilus denies:
To deliver a SYSTEM in conversation scarcely appears natural; and while
the dialogue-writer desires, by departing from the direct style of
composition, to give a freer air to his performance, and avoid the
appearance of author and reader, he is apt to run into a worse
inconvenience, and convey the image of pedagogue and pupil.50
Such is the first horn of a dilemma that to Pamphilus argues even more strongly
against the advisability of writing philosophical dialogues under normal circumstances
and with respect to ordinary philosophical topics. Quite possibly Hume has in mind
Boethius’s Consolatio Philosophiae (The Consolations of Philosophy), Anselm of
Canterbury’s dialogues De Veritate (On Truth), De Libertate Arbitrii (On Freedom of
Choice), and De Casu Diaboli (On the Devil’s Fall from Grace), where the two
participants in all three dialogues are explicitly ‘the Teacher’ and ‘the Student’, Galileo’s
Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems: Ptolemaic and Copernican, or even
Berkeley’s relatively recent Three Dialogues, where Philonous has the better of Hylas
consistently throughout.51 To avoid such infelicities and ruin the dramatic illusion of a
genuine dialectic between real thinkers, Pamphilus believes, when the dialogue writer in
fact has a philosophical system of ideas to present, requires more stage setting,
dissembling of an author’s genuinely held positions, and interchange between characters,
than the propositions to be finally defended may generally justify. If the purpose is to
spell out a philosophical doctrine, then the trappings of conversation in dialogue format
with those objectives in mind simply does not seem to be worth the effort on the author’s
part, nor the reader’s patience in wading through all the ins and outs of discussion. The
average audience might better appreciate a non-theatrical communication of the essential
propositions, definitions of concepts, and articulation of propositions by means of more
conventional arguments in the treatise-style of philosophical prose. Pamphilus continues:
Or if he carries on the dispute in the natural spirit of good company, by
throwing in a variety of topics, and preserving a proper balance among the
speakers; he often loses so much time in preparations and transitions, that
the reader will scarcely think himself compensated, by all the graces of
dialogue, for the orders, brevity, and precision, which are sacrificed to
Having explained the difficulties and reasons why one might choose not to adopt
a dialogue format for expressing philosophical ideas, Pamphilus now makes a concerted
plea for exceptions to the rule. There are special cases in which the dialogue form comes
into its own and is ‘peculiarly adapted’ to the subject, for the sake of which, despite the
pitfalls of dialogue-writing, philosophical dialogue alone is strongly recommended:
There are some subjects, however, to which dialogue-writing is peculiarly
adapted, and where it is still preferable to the direct and simple method of
The exceptions against the dialogue format in philosophy are now catalogued by
Pamphilus. Having spelled these out, he then declares that the subject of natural religion
in particular lends itself to exploration in dialogue form, justifying the dispute he reports
as supposedly having taken place between Philo, Cleanthes, and Demea. The first point
Pamphilus mentions as favoring dialogue in a philosophical treatment of natural religion
is when a conclusion is both so obvious and important that it bears repeated emphasis.
Since it is so obvious, we risk boring a reader by stating what any reasonable person
already knows and understands. If it is sufficiently important, however, then a
responsible philosophical investigation cannot afford to leave it unsaid. The charm of the
dialogue format, as we enter into the interactions with characters entertaining a lively
discussion, is that it permits repeatedly expounding vital truths without simply reiterating
the same proposition in the discursive form of a treatise to which philosophy may
otherwise seem to be limited.
Any point of doctrine, which is so obvious, that it scarcely admits of
dispute, but at the same time so important, that it cannot be too often
inculcated, seems to require some such method of handling it; where the
novelty of the manner may compensate the triteness of the subject, where
the vivacity of conversation may enforce the precept, and where the
variety of lights, presented by various personages and characters, may
appear neither tedious nor redundant.54
From what is obvious but important Pamphilus turns next to what is just the
opposite, the obscure and uncertain. These points of philosophical criticism also call for
and are best served by the dialogue format. They require a variety of ideas in opposition,
stemming from distinct philosophical perspectives. For authors who not have arrived at
any definitely settled opinion in the matter, but find it worthwhile to have the
controversies themselves articulated as different points of view, the dialogue form is
especially recommended. In a dramatized discussion of ideas, contradiction criticism and
counter-criticism all have their place, and where together they can play a key role in
enabling a reader to appreciate the depths of argument available to several different sides
of an open-ended philosophical dispute. Pamphilus now adds:
Any question of philosophy, on the other hand, which is so obscure and
uncertain, that human reason can reach no fixed determination with regard
to it; if it should be treated at all; seems to lead us naturally into the style
of dialogue and conversation. Reasonable men may be allowed to differ,
where no one can reasonably be positive…55
Anything too obvious but still important, according to Pamphilus, or too obscure
and uncertain, where even the author may not know exactly what philosophically should
be concluded, may find its optimal expression in philosophical dialogues. This is
precisely what Pamphilus concludes concerning the topics of natural religion, as the
subject matter of the dialogues his remarks to Hermippus are offered by way of general
introduction. The obvious but important truth for dialogue treatment is the existence of
God, as contrasted most sharply in the next paragraph with the question of God’s nature
or attributes, the qualities and relations God possesses or in which God participates.
First, Pamphilus includes natural religion as belonging to the legitimate expressive form
of philosophical dialogue by virtue of the obvious but important truth of God’s existence:
Happily, these circumstances are all to be found in the subject of NATURAL
RELIGION. What truth so obvious, so certain, as the being of a God, which
the most ignorant ages have acknowledged, for which the most refined
geniuses have ambitiously striven to produce new proofs and arguments?
What truth so important as this, which is the ground of all our hopes, the
surest foundation of morality, the firmest support of society, and the only
principle which ought never to be a moment absent from our thoughts and
Next we are informed that, however obvious and important God’s existence may
be as justification for the ‘novelty’ of its emphasis in a dialogue format between different
speakers of different philosophical ideologies and methodological orientations, the
attributes of God, God’s nature or character, whatever might be said substantively
concerning God’s properties beyond the proposition that God exists, satisfies the second
category of aptness for inclusion in philosophical dialogue, not by virtue of being
obvious, but because of its obscurity and uncertainty. If we cannot know exactly what to
say about God’s nature, then there may be no better philosophical recourse than to
consider a variety of different opinions in the field, to let the differences in rational
judgment be held forth, critically examined, and, where it appears that no final or
definitive conclusions are to be drawn, perhaps to let the discussion end honestly as it
must in a recounting of the best solutions philosophy can offer, even if they end only in a
justified stalemate of irresolution. As Pamphilus maintains:
But in treating of this obvious and important truth; what obscure questions
occur, concerning the nature of that divine Being; his attributes, his
decrees, his plan of providence? These have always been subjected to the
disputations of men: Concerning these, human reason has not reached any
certain determination: But these are topics so interesting, that we cannot
restrain our restless inquiry with regard to them; though nothing but doubt,
uncertainty, and contradiction, have, as yet, been the result of our most
accurate researches.57
If we take Pamphilus’s pronouncements literally and at face value, then,
anticipating the contents of Hume’s Dialogues, their direction and the endpoint reached
by the three main participants, it seems unmistakable that the Dialogues, as we have
proposed, amount to a defense of Deism. It is the philosophical position that God’s
existence can be known to at least a certain reasonable degree of probability via the
argument from design, on the experiential grounds of natural religion, as Voltaire among
other leading thinkers of the Enlightenment also held, but that nothing specific about
God’s nature can be justified on the basis of reasoning based on the only available
empirical evidence.58
To suppose otherwise is to engage in speculative metaphysics of precisely the sort
that Hume from the outset of his philosophical career is everywhere at pains to denounce.
He does the same also and for the same general reasons in the theologically less sensitive
case of mind-independent substance, the person or self as a unified substantial entity, the
infinite divisibility of extension, and the true nature of causation and causal connection.
If, on the other hand, Pamphilus no more speaks for Hume than do any of the other
specific characters in the Dialogues, then we have no basis for inferring that Hume
intends the Dialogues as a defense of Deism that deliberately results, as under the
circumstances it must, in a standoff between opposed opinions as to the nature as distinct
from the existence of God.
5. Epilogue
When we set aside the finally insupportable suggestion that Hume writes about natural
religion in dialogue form because he dreads the consequences of appearing in print as an
unequivocal champion of Deism or even atheism in his day, then we are left with what
appears to be the correct answer to the riddle as to why Hume chooses to write on the
topic of natural religion, to examine its arguments, in dialogue form. If Hume does not
do so in order to avoid censure or protect his reputation, the remaining choice would
seem to be, as Pamphilus plainly states, that he chooses to write in dialogue form because
he cannot do otherwise, because the questions at issue themselves must end
philosophically in indecision as to any proposition concerning the nature, properties,
qualities and relations of God, and in particular with respect to what God may or may not
will concerning the human beings that God probably created. If Hume is right, then
philosophy of religion can never advance beyond the impasse of discussion to which
Philo, Demea and Cleanthes are reduced, beyond which point they cannot advance by
means of philosophical reasoning and argument. It is to make this point as unmistakably
clear and evident as possible, by showing what happens when all the arguments are set
upon the table by energetic thinkers, and subjected to close philosophical scrutiny, that
Hume chooses dialogues to present his thoughts about the inconclusive prospects by
which natural religion beginning with the argument from design is circumscribed and to
which it is ultimately limited.59
references are to the thirteenth printing of Norman Kemp Smith’s 1947 edition of
Hume 1979.
Smith, in his introduction to Hume 1979 speaks for many commentators, when he
explains, p. 43: ‘…it is in the Dialogues concerning Natural Religion that the problem of
expressing his mind freely, while yet not too greatly violating the established code, meets
Hume in its most difficult form. For in the Dialogues he is doing precisely what was
above all else forbidden, namely, to make a direct attack upon the whole theistic
position.’ Kemp Smith represents a reasonable and, as it happens, majority view in
Hume scholarship concerning Hume’s reasons for writing dialogues. There are
competing explanations as to why Hume writes in dialogue form, but it is not my purpose
to enter into polemics with alternative accounts. Briefly to consider just one example,
Hurlbutt’s explanation of Hume’s motivations as literary, artistic or aesthetic in Hurlbutt
1963, especially pp. 213-243, ‘The Dialogues as a Work of Art’, seems correct or
anyway reasonable, as far as it goes. Hume undoubtedly has literary as well as
philosophical ambitions in all of his writing, and especially in the Dialogues, which
unfold as a kind of philosophical drama for a theatre of ideas. The aesthetic explanation,
nevertheless, cannot be the complete or final answer to the question as to why Hume
writes in dialogue form, because it does not consider Hume’s more primary ostensible
motivation, in the fact that the methodological constraints of his ‘moral philosophy’ do
not permit decisive answers one way or the other concerning matters of religious belief.
Natural religion involves a choice of topics that falls outside the competence of
philosophical inquiry. We can reach any firm consensus, but, like the characters in
Hume’s Dialogues, remain of many opinions concerning the possibility of knowing
God’s attributes.
3See Mossner 1936.
For criticism and an opposing interpretation of who if anyone
speaks for Hume in the Dialogues, compare Morrisroe, Jr. 1969.
1980, pp. 592-603.
5The provision
for his nephew David Hume to have charge of publishing the Dialogues
was made in a codicil to his will dated 7 August 1776. Mossner, p. 592, refers to the
archives of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, ix, 24.
states, Hume 1979, pp. 128-129: ‘My youth rendered me a mere auditor of
their disputes; and that curiosity, natural to the early season of life, has so deeply
imprinted in my memory the whole chain and connection of their arguments, that, I hope,
I shall not omit or confound any considerable part of them in the recital.’
Letter to Sir Gilbert Elliot, 1751, in Hume 1932, Volume I, p. 154: ‘Any
Propensity you imagine I have to the other Side [Philo’s skepticism in the Dialogues]
crept in upon me against my will: And tis not long ago that I burn’d an old Manuscript
Book, write before I was twenty which contained, Page after Page, the gradual Progress
of my Thoughts on that head. It begun with an anxious Search after Arguments, to
confirm the common Opinion: Doubts stole in, dissipated, return’d, were again
dissipated, return’d again; and it was a perpetual Struggle of a restless Imagination
against Inclination, perhaps against Reason’.
1980, p. 592: ‘The Dialogues were Hume’s pride, as he admitted to William
Strahan: “Some of my Friends flatter me, that it is the best thing I ever wrote. I have
hitherto forborne to publish it, because I was of late desirous to live quietly, and keep
remote from all clamour.”’ Mossner, ibid., pp. 319-320, also cites the relevant
correspondence to prove that it was the combined forces of the Reverend Hugh Blair and
Sir Gilbert Elliot that persuaded Hume not to publish the Dialogues during his lifetime.
Cicero 1933.
Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous [1713; 1725; 1734]. Third
edition [1734] in Berkeley 1948-1957, Volume 2. See Smiley 1995. An alternative
viewpoint to the usual picture of Socrates brow-beating his philosophical discussants is
given by Beversluis 2004.
11Hume 1978,
especially Book I, Part II, Section VI and Part IV, Section II.
12Hume’s Dialogues were judged
sufficiently subversive of religion to warrant a
republication with a refutation under the same cover, by Balguy 1782.
14Hume 1978,
p. xi.
1972, Scholium Generale, 530. Volume II, p. 764: ‘Rationem vero harum
gravitates proprietatum ex phaenomenis nondum potui deducere, & hypotheses non
16The classic
sources are Hempel 1945, Popper 1965 and Popper 1968.
1999), Volume I, p. 943. It is anomalous for Cohen and Whitman to translate
Newton’s ‘fingo’ for ‘I make’ or ‘I fabricate’ as ‘I feign’. This is a legitimate but seldom
used equivalent, where to speak of feigning a Latin speaker could more naturally choose
to adfecto, affecto, ementior, mentior, or assimilio. The word conveys Newton’s
apparent intended meaning rather exactly if ‘I feign’ is expanded as ‘I pretend to make’
or ‘I pretend to fabricate’ no hypotheses.
18Hume 1978,
especially Book I, Part III, Section III, pp. 78-82. Among an extensive
secondary philosophical literature, see especially Beauchamp and Rosenberg 1981, and
Eells 1991. Strawson 1992. Blackburn 2001. Millican 2009. The view of necessary
causation as developed by G.W. Leibniz and others is typified also by the French
humanist physician, Johannes Fernelius, in his massive 1548 discourse, De abditus rerum
causis. See Fernel 2005.
19Hume 1978,
Book I, Part III, Section II, pp. 73-78.
‘Preface’ to 2004, pp. 4, 7: ‘[N]o event has occurred that could have been more
decisive for the fate of this science [metaphysics] than the attack made upon it by David
Hume...Hume proceeded primarily from a single but important concept of metaphysics,
namely, that of the connection of cause and effect’. Thereafter, Kant famously writes, p.
10: ‘I freely admit that it was the remembrance of David Hume which, many years ago,
first interrupted my dogmatic slumber and gave my investigations in the field of
speculative philosophy a completely different direction.’
21Hume 1978,
Book I, Part III, Sections II, VI and XIV-XV, pp. 73-78; 86-94; 155-176.
accepts a category of effectus emanativus or ‘emanative effect’, an emanation
from God by which space and time are created as God’s sensorium, as Newton also hints
in the 1730 version of his Opticks, that Hume would find highly problematic. See
Newton 2004, pp. 21-26.
Fork is a dilemma concerning the possible origin of ideas, based on Leibniz’s
exclusive distinction between relations of ideas and matters of fact. See Flew 1961, pp.
53-55; Flew 1987, pp. 43-48.
24Hume 1978
writes, in ‘An Abstract of a Book Lately Published, entitled A Treatise of
Human Nature &c.’ [1740], §35: ‘It will be easy to conceive of what vast consequence
these principles must be in the science of human nature, if we consider that, so far as
regards the mind, these are the only links that bind the parts of the universe together, or
connect us with any person or object exterior to ourselves. For as it is by means of
thought only that anything operates upon our passions, and as these are the only ties of
our thoughts, they are really to us the cement of the universe, and all the operations of the
mind must, in a great measure, depend on them.’ The idea undoubtedly originates with
Isaac Newton’s theory of universal gravitation. See also Janiak 2007.
1965, A19-B73 on the Transcendental Aesthetic; and on thing-in-itself, B67-68
and passim.
26Hume 1978
Book I, Part II, Section VI, ‘Of the idea of existence, and of external
existence’, p. 67: ‘[N]o object can be presented resembling some object with respect to
its existence, and different from others in the same particular; since every object, that is
presented, must necessarily be existent. A like reasoning will account for the idea of
external existence. We may observe, that ’tis universally allow’d by philosophers, and is
besides pretty obvious of itself, that nothing is ever really present with the mind but its
perceptions or impressions and ideas, and that external objects become known to us only
by those perceptions they occasion.’ Later, in Part IV, Section II, ‘Of scepticism with
regard to the senses’, Hume concludes: ‘We may well ask,” he writes, “What causes
induce us to believe in the existence of body? but ’tis in vain to ask, Whether there be
body or not? That is a point, which we must take for granted in all our reasonings’. An
excellent source on the topic is Wilson 2008. See also Wright 1983.
27Jacquette 2001.
a detailed bibliography of Hume’s objections to infinite divisibility, see previous
note supra 23. On Berkeley’s criticism of infinity, infinite divisibility and infinitesimals
in the calculus or mathematical analysis, Jesseph 1993.
skepticism concerning speculative metaphysics is especially well-developed by
Norton 1982.
30Paley 1802
is perhaps the best known, but by no means the only exponent of the
argument from design in eighteenth century philosophy of religion, though his
representative study post-dates Hume.
31Hume 1956.
32See Parker
2003. Fosl, 1999. Note that for Hume ideas can also originate with
impressions of reflection, but that the mind can only reflect on ideas that have an
ultimately perceptual experiential derivation.
33Hume 1975,
First Enquiry, Section X, ‘Of Miracles’, pp. 109-131. Also Section XI,
‘Of a Particular Providence and of a Future State’, pp. 132-148.
original manuscript for Five Dissertations was actually printed and ready for
distribution in 1756. It circulated in advance among a number of readers, when
influential jurists the Attorney General William Murray, Lord Chancellor, Philip Yorke,
Earl of Hardwicke, and Thomas Sherlock, Bishop of London, threatened to prosecute
Hume’s publishers and printers William Strahan and Andrew Millar, if released with its
offending contents. It was then that Hume and Strahan agreed to alter the essays and
title, eliminating ‘Of Suicide’ and ‘Of the Immortality of the Soul’, and replacing them
with ‘Of the Standard of Taste’. Reduced from Five to Four Dissertations, the modified
collection was published in 1757. See Mossner 1980, Chapter 24, ‘Four Dissertations’,
pp. 319-335.
comprehensive account of the suppression of Hume’s essay ‘Of Suicide’ is given by
Mossner 1950.
36Note supra 5.
37Hume dies
25 August 1776, and Smith 17 July 1790. Ross 2010.
38See Stanley 2006.
p. 19: ‘Hume also proposed in his letter of 3 May 1776 to Smith that neither
Smith himself nor Strahan could object to anything in My Own Life, that it was
‘inoffensive’, and so should be published without delay. This is contra it being seen as
‘objectionable’ in the way the Dialogues might be, though Hume does his best to
persuade Smith and Strahan in his letters to them that the Dialogues would not occasion
any great negative reactions (and in the event, Hume was correct).’ Exceptions shortly
after publication of Dialogues include Hayter 1992, and Milner 1990. See Mossner 1977.
40Hume 1979,
especially Parts IX-X, pp. 188-202. See Gaskin 1978, pp. 22-40.
Jacquette 1985.
41Hume 1975,
First Enquiry, Section XII, p. 165.
42See Tweyman
1986. Mounce 1999.
1980, pp. 150-165.
Letter to Samuel Johnson, 25 November 1729, Philosophical
Correspondence Between Berkeley and Samuel Johnson 1729-30, in Berkeley 1948-
1957, Volume 2, §5, p. 281: ‘As to the Second Part of my treatise concerning the
Principles of Human Knowledge, the fact is that I had made a considerable progress in it;
but the manuscript was lost about fourteen years ago, during my travels in Italy, and I
never had leisure since to do so disagreeable a thing as writing twice on the same
45We know
that Hume sought a position as Chair in Moral Philosophy at the University
of Edinburgh in 1745, and that he was denied because of an unflattering report of his
‘character’. Hume may have thought it the better part of wisdom and discretion
thereafter not to provide his academic enemies with even more ammunition than they
believed themselves already to possess against his qualifications, as he sought to make
his way in the world. An extensive discussion of the writing and publication history of
Hume’s Dialogues to supplement Mossner 1980 is found in Kemp Smith’s ‘Introduction’
to Hume 1979, Appendix C, pp. 87-96. See especially Hume 1932, correspondence
between Hume, Smith, Strahan, and Hume’s nephew. Hume 1978, Book II, Part III,
Section II, p. 409: ‘There is no method of reasoning more common, and yet none more
blameable, than in philosophical debates to endeavour to refute any hypothesis by a
pretext of its dangerous consequences to religion and morality.’
46Hume 1978,
p. ix.
47Hume 1979,
p. 228. Philo says: ‘To be a philosophical sceptic is, in a man of letters,
the first and most essential step towards being a sound, believing Christian; a proposition
which I would willingly recommend to the attention of Pamphilus: And I hope
CLEANTHES will forgive me for interposing so far in the education and instruction of his
p. 127.
1962. Anselm 1967. Galileo 2001. The example of Berkeley’s Three
Dialogues may have been foremost in Hume’s mind, or possibly Plato’s, when Pamphilus
remarks on the defects of philosophical dialogues in which one character dominates the
opinions and arguments of all other participants.
52Hume 1979,
p. 127.
p. 128.
58Voltaire 1962.
See the entry, ATHEE, ATHEISME — ATHEIST, ATHEISM, where
one detects no irony or sarcasm in Voltaire’s apparently decisive remarks, p. 104: ‘What
conclusion shall we draw from all this? That atheism is a most monstrous evil in those
who govern; that it is the same in councilors, even though their lives be innocent, since
they may influence men who hold office; that even though it is less disastrous than
fanaticism, it is almost always fatal to virtue. Above all, let us add that there are fewer
atheists today than ever, since philosophers have recognized that there is no vegetative
being without germ, no germ without design, etc., and that pure grain does not come from
rottenness.’ Later, on the same page, Voltaire writes, ibid.: ‘Unphilosophical geometers
have rejected final causes, but true philosophers accept them; and, as a well-known
author has said, a catechist announces God to children, and Newton demonstrates him to
the wise.’
59I am
grateful to Jason Wakefield for useful bibliographic suggestions made in response
to a previous version of this essay.
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