UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Reason, virtue and politics, David Hume and the classical republican tradition Neville, Robert Charles


The relation between David Hume's political ideas and the formal philosophical structures of Book I of his Treatise is an area of long-standing difficulty in the world of Hume studies. Similarly, the relation between Hume's work as a whole and the general tradition of 18th century political writing has proven difficult to characterise. In particular, it has not been easy to find systematic connections between Hume's political writing and those of the classical republicans, the tradition of political discourse to which Hume's political works display the most obvious connections. In an effort to solve this difficulty, and in the absence of such connections, James Moore has argued that we ought to consider Hume as outside of the republican tradition, principally because he abandoned the central republican notion of virtue in his politics. This thesis argues that Moore is mistaken in this, and for two reasons. First, that he, with others, has misunderstood the nature of republican virtue. This virtue was not identical with political independence, as is widely supposed, but actually consisted of an ability to exercise disinterested reason in the public interest. Second, that Hume's philosophy, contrary to an almost universal opinion, made central the operation and protection of disinterested reason in the political process. The discovery of the centrality of a similar form of reason in both Hume and in the classial republican tradition allows the connections between the two to be seen with much great clarity. It will be shown, then, that the classical republican tradition was marked by a structure which made the exercise of reason the sine qua non of a stable republic. And it will be shown that a widely held view of Hume's philosophy is incorrect: Hume did believe that reason could influence both belief and the passions. In the Treatise Hume described how a very particular and important kind of reason, the natural consequence of his psychological and epistemological analysis, could overcome human passion and interest. Hume's described the formation and maintenance of civil society as the direct consequence of certain psychological facts. He saw the structures of government as external parts of a social reasoning process. They served to prevent inevitable failures in individual virtue from ruining civil society and to provide for the existence in society of individuals who could administer laws in freedom from self interest. Hume's psychology and epistemology can thus be seen to penetrate to the core of his political analysis. The kind of reason supported by Hume's philosophy shows deep affinities with that required by the classical republican tradition. A recognition of the importance of reason in Hume's political thought allows us to see more clearly the nature of his reaction to an ancient tradition of political discourse.

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