Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

The Politics of Custom

Fall 1998

Donald W. Livingston
University of Chicago Press, 1998, xix + 433 pgs.

Donald Livingston's brilliant Philosophical Melancholy ranks as the most unusual philosophy book I have ever read. What starts as an analysis of David Hume's conception of philosophy ends in a discussion of the Civil War and secession. Has Livingston simply put together essays on disparate themes and called the result a book? Quite the contrary, he proves to the hilt that seemingly recondite philosophical questions have the utmost practical relevance.

Readers who remember Hume only as a name from a Western Civ course taken long ago probably have a picture of him something like this. Hume denied that we perceive ordinary physical objects. Instead, we have access only to impressions and ideas that copy them. The law of cause and effect has no rational basis: all that we have given to us are constant conjunctions of ideas. Inductive inference yields us no knowledge. Similarly, morality rests on irrational sentiments--"ought" cannot be derived from "is"--and religion is nothing but superstition. Although Hume's own politics were rather moderate, surely his skepticism inevitably leads to utter nihilism.

According to Professor Livingston, who is probably the world's leading authority on Hume, the picture just given misrepresents the facts in every regard. (Those in the grip of the Western Civ picture should not feel too bad, though; at least they have heard of Hume. In more "progressive" colleges, they would no doubt have learned instead about the African origins of civilization or the millennia- long conspiracy of men against women.) Following, and to some extent correcting, the work of the great philosophical scholar Norman Kemp Smith, our author portrays Hume as a sturdy champion of common sense.

Livingston maintains that to view Hume as a radical empiricist is to begin from a mistaken assumption. Hume did not think that the theory of knowledge is a foundational discipline in the style of René Descartes. Instead, philosophy must begin from the customs and traditions of a society, which can be examined but not completely overthrown. As Livingston states this fundamental point: "Philosophical reflection may criticize any prejudice of common life by comparison with other prejudices and in the light of abstract principles, ideals, and models.... But these critical principles, ideals, and models must themselves be thought of as reflections, abridgments, or stylizations of particular domains of custom. What we cannot do is form critical principles from some Archi-medean point...which throws into question the order of custom as a whole" (p. 2).

Unfortunately, most philosophers have not grasped that their thought must be grounded in the "common life." Instead they follow the principles of ultimacy, autonomy, and dominion. They attempt to arrive at the truth of things without presuppositions. In doing so, they recognize no loyalty to antecedent custom. Even worse, they think the principles they have established enable them to overthrow existing society and to refound it on principles they falsely suppose rational.

You probably think that you know what is coming next. Philosophers should not attempt to enact what Thomas Nagel calls the "view from nowhere." Instead, they should stick to common sense. If you thought that, you are not altogether wrong; but you have missed the chief innovation in Livingston's interpretation.

Unlike Kemp Smith, who just did regard Hume as a devotee of common sense, Livingston's Hume does not suggest that philosophers abandon their usual approach. They should continue to seek ultimate principles, but apply their search to philosophy itself. By criticizing all sorts of philosophical systems, Hume tried to show, we can demonstrate the futility of the pursuit of knowledge apart from custom and tradition. How does Hume show this? He attempts to prove that philosophy pursued apart from tradition leads to skepticism. It is not Hume who rejected causation and induction, as our survivor of Western Civ imagines. Rather, this is what Hume thinks you get if you try to philosophize apart from tradition. But, once more, only by trying, and failing, to spin a rational universe out of thin air can a philosopher grasp why he should abandon the attempt and return to the common life.

I found Livingston's interpretation especially valuable in understanding Hume's view of religion. Hume's dialogues are usually taken to be a key document in the war of the Enlightenment with religion. But, according to Livingston, this position misses the subtlety of Hume's argument. His target was not all religion: it was, as we might by now expect, the endeavor to show that particular religious doctrines about God could not be established by pure reason apart from custom.

Hume by no means rejects "philosophical theism"; in fact, Livingston maintains, he held it superior to atheism. Philosophical theism holds that the world is guided by a rational plan. But this plan cannot be fully grasped by philosophers. It is a speculative ideal that guides future inquiry.

Most radically, Livingston states: "Hume appears to be saying that religion, viewed as sacred story and tradition, is acceptable to a true philo-sopher as long as it is disentangled from its speculative philosophical content. If so, this suggests that Hume could accept a Biblical form of Christianity purged of its claim to philosophical legitimacy" (p. 116).

By now, I fear readers may be asking: why is this book being reviewed in The Mises Review? However fascinating the reviewer may find Hume scholarship, why is it relevant to the political and economic areas that ostensibly form the subject matter of this journal?

Fortunately for me, the objection may readily be answered. As reference to the principle of dominion has already suggested, philosophers who ignore the limits of their subject do not confine themselves to what F.H. Bradley termed "an unearthly ballet of bloodless categories." Instead, to a large extent motivated by resentment against the world of ordinary life, they devise schemes to overthrow the foundations of society. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, once Hume's friend but later his bitter enemy, ranks as Livingston's chief villain in this regard.

Hume by no means confined himself purely to negative criticism of Rousseau and other purveyors of imaginary social worlds. In addition, he tried to elaborate a better alternative, one that did not flout the common life. In his view, the best form of government was a small republic that adhered to the principle of free trade. Such a republic, of course, rested on custom, preferably stemming from a homogeneous population.

Very fine, one might say, but are not small republics subject to invasion by more powerful states? Hume was not to be denied. A federal system might enable a small republic to survive. "It would appear...that the best regime would be an extensive republic with equal rights for the provinces" (p. 210).

A system of commonwealths united in a federal system has an unmistakable resonance to students of American history. It precisely describes the American constitutional system before the Civil War. Our author thus asks the provocative question: was Hume a founding father? The union of sovereign states before 1860 rested on custom, not abstract ideology, just as Hume mandated.

Of course not all customs are good, and Livingston is no friend of slavery. But the centralism and militarism of Abraham Lincoln and his cohorts were hardly the ideal response to slavery. Rather, Lincoln's policies virtually ended the American republic as it had been founded, and his barbarous methods of warfare led to loss of life unparalleled in our history. A free society, Livingston holds, must accept the right of secession. (Inci-dentally, Livingston is a contributor to an excellent recent volume devoted to this theme: Secession, State, and Liberty [New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1998].)

Livingston's masterly analysis seems open to objection on one point. He has very convincingly shown that Hume believed that speculative philosophy apart from custom leads to intolerable paradox and skepticism. But it does not follow from this that Hume was right; and only if he is do Livingston's conclusions about the proper political order follow. But Livingston does not here show that Hume's arguments are correct. This is not to say that Livingston is wrong, merely that his provocative argument is incomplete. (In fairness, Livingston has attempted some, though not all of this Herculean task in his earlier book, Hume's Philosophy of Common Life.)

I shall conclude by giving in to temptation and quarreling with a detail. John Rawls does not deduce liberty in "from a theorem game theory" (p. 175), although a game-theoretical argument plays a part in his argument for the difference principle. But even someone as picky and unfair as I can find little to dispute. Livingston has written a truly outstanding book.


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