David Hume Treatise Of Human Nature

David Hume The Methodology Of Political Discourses

Treatise Of Human Nature

Having noted that Hume himself was motivated by a desire for literary fame, the initial question raised by the Political Discourses is how was such a work to accord with this desire? What was Hume's marketing strategy?

The Treatise on Human Nature appeared anonymously and, although in time it was a succes d'estime, it was hardly a literary success. His next major venture, Essays: Moral and Political (1742), appears to be modelled on the famous essays published in the London literary journal The Spectator by Joseph Addison (1672-1719). Like Addison and later Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), Hume writes his own marketing copy. In his essay 'On Essay Writing', he decries the separation of the world of learning from the con versible world, that is the world of the literary salon. The learned scholars lose by 'being shut up in Colleges and Cells, and secluded from the World of good Company'. The conversationists suffer from confining their attention to trivial and ephemeral issues. So Hume is going to bridge the gap by dealing with serious issues but using a manner of exposition which will appeal to the intelligent if not intellectual members of society. Like Johnson, he recognized that an appeal to the ladies was an essential part of the marketing strategy. He wrote in the same Essay: 'I am of Opinion, that Women of Sense and Education are much better Judges of all polite Writing than Men of the same degree of Understanding'. As we know, his strategy paid off, and, by all accounts, he had a distinguished female following!

In 'Of Commerce', the first essay in Political Discourses, Hume makes the same marketing 'pitch', but, encouraged no doubt by the success of his earlier essays, the tone is less ingratiating and the author exudes confidence. Hume attacks the 'shallow thinkers' who 'will never allow anything to be just which is beyond their own weak conceptions'. This is particularly true in the case of economic questions where generalizing from individual experience is a particular weakness, as we are all touched by commercial and financial matters. What is clearly needed is some guidance from an 'abstruse thinker' but one, of course, endowed with a good style and a clear mind. In order to disarm his critics in advance, Hume adds: 'there will occur some principles which are uncommon, and which may seem too refined for such vulgar subjects (i.e. commerce etc.). If false, let them be rejected: but no one ought to entertain a prejudice against them, merely because they are out of the common road.'
Hume's marketing problem is therefore similar to that of an economist today writing for the 'intelligent layman' in, say, a monthly periodical. He would have to wear his learning lightly in offering views on interesting subjects. There were, however, two important differences compared with a modern exponent of ideas looking for a wide audience. He wrote to convince his intellectual peers as well as an educated public, and, further, his ideas were likely to meet resistance by their very novelty.

Consider how a modern writer might approach such a subject as what causes economic growth to differ between countries. He would probably begin by defining growth, normally in terms of real income per head, presenting data on the growth in real income per head in different economies for a given period of time. He would then build a model of economic growth in which the most important constituent would be the motivation of individuals to accumulate the resources in order to produce growth, notably the accumulation of physical capital and human capital and the quantity of labour input. He would be bound to consider how far the organization of human institutions, notably the system of government and the system of production, might hinder or promote growth. He would then test his explanation of growth against the data, with reference perhaps to econometric investigations. This methodology would also underpin a popular exposition even though the audience would have to be spared the agony of following the intricacies of economic analysis found in the professional economics journals!

It is clear that Hume could not call upon an elaborate set of national and international statistics produced by governments and international agencies. Historically, such data became available as a by-product of the administrative process in government, and there might not even exist any incentive to make public the data itself. The first detailed statistical analysis of his own country, Scotland, did not take place until after his death and was a mammoth private undertaking by the Scottish landowner, Sir Archibald Sinclair, who used the parish Ministers of the Church as his rapporteurs. This is not to say that Hume was not interested in descriptive statistics. On the contrary, the longest essay in Political Discourses, 'Of the Populousness of Ancient Nations', is an exhaustive investigation of a wide variety of classical sources designed to disprove the thesis that the ancient nations were more populous than those of Hume's day. If, therefore, survival and growth of population were taken as an indicator of human well-being - a proposition supported, incidentally, by Adam Smith - then comparisons between some past golden age and a 'desolate' eighteenth century were false. The use of population growth as an indicator of economic welfare was to be a subject of much controversy in the nineteenth century during the famous Malthusian debate, and Hume anticipates Malthus by his appeal to the available data.

The much more striking part of Hume's methodology is the application of his views on human nature which were derived from his Treatise. Our actions are derived from our 'passions' - our tastes and sentiments as they are called in the Abstract - and our reasoning powers which are developed and sharpened by our knowledge of the world about us are employed in order to promote our happiness. In the preliminary essay in Political Discourses entitled 'Of Luxury' Hume argues that human happiness consists of three ingredients, 'action, pleasure and indolence', which are present in all of us though not necessarily in the same proportions. Moreover, these 'passions' are present in people at all times and in all countries. Hume has already laid the foundations on which the modern economic theory of human action is based, though the terminology has changed. We speak today of an individual 'utility function' in which the 'arguments' or determining forces are goods, leisure and work satisfaction. Moreover, his description of the 'passions' does not entail that individuals' satisfaction is independent of that of others. If individuals seeking happiness come into conflict with one another, they cannot change their natures but their reasoning powers sharpen their appreciation of the need to find ways of co­operating in order to resolve conflicts between themselves, otherwise, in the famous words of Thomas Hobbes, life may become 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short'. Hume's views on the origins of government were already developed before the Political Discourses and cannot be considered in detail here. Sufficient, I hope, has been said to indicate that his view of human action entails the institution of a system of justice and promotion of security as a precondition for human happiness which is to be anything more than transitory. It is also a view of government which is dramatically different from those who derived principles of justice and security from some moral order, divinely inspired. However, co-operation between individuals was not regarded by Hume as purely a matter of expediency. Individuals derive positive pleasure from helping their friends, from preserving their friends' good opinion of them, and so they have recourse, as the essay 'On Luxury' stresses, to continuous social intercourse once they have progressed beyond barbarism. As it would be put today in an economics treatise, individual 'utility functions' are interdependent, though much economic analysis neglects this rather important ingredient derived from the Classical works of Hume and Smith.

There is no identifiable growth model in Hume's work, as there is in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, but his emphasis on an examination of human motivation accords well with present-day presentations of the analysis of growth to both professional and lay audiences. The impetus to growth comes from the human desire for action - what Hume in the Treatise called the insatiable craving for exercise and employment. Moreover, such action complements the desire for pleasure and continuous pleasure throughout man's life span stimulates the desire to accumulate capital and to improve knowledge. The Political Discourses places more emphasis on the self-sustaining nature of the growth process, once resources accumulate. As the standard of living rises above subsistence levels, pleasures become more refined, and this stimulates a diversity of interests which 'carries improvements into every art and science ... men enjoy the privilege of rational creatures, to think as well as to act, to cultivate the pleasures of the mind as well as those of the body'. To Hume, using a crude indicator of growth such as real income per head masks the importance of the pleasures of growing diversity in human society. While Hume argues that it would be impossible for these benefits not to be widely diffused throughout all classes, he is conscious of the need to explain the international differences in the degree of diversity. Why do people in the tropics not attain the degree of 'art and civility' of nations in temperate climates? Presumably, argues Hume in 'Of Commerce', because the tropics encourage indolence. Clothes and houses are less necessary as protection against the elements and the benefits of climate being equally distributed promote more equality of real income. Fewer quarrels are likely to arise between individuals so that a settled system of government is less necessary.

The affinity between Hume's model of human nature and these models encountered in modern economic analysis means that his view would be strongly at variance with that of modern psychologists. Ernest Gellner, for instance, in his profound book The Psychoanalytic Movement (1985), pokes gentle fun at Hume who seems to view man as 'a gourmet crossed with an accountant, with a touch of compassionate sensibility thrown in. He conducted his life by studying his palate and seeking to arrange for its greatest satisfaction, and his imaginative sympathy for others inclined him to favour their satisfaction too, if to a lesser degree than his own' (p. 16). It is not that modern psychology would object to Hume's fundamental thesis regarding the dominant role of the passions in human action. The trouble is that Hume's passions are gentle and the impulses that they produce in us are easily brought into harmony with the world around us as our powers of reasoning and observation develop. This view of human nature could hardly explain the facts of history which Hume himself so ably presents, unless its many tragic episodes were caused primarily by natural disasters beyond man's control, which is clearly not the case. Indeed, it could be argued that the treatment of Hume himself by his fellow human beings, examples of which have already been given above, hardly accords with his own depiction of human action! The Political Discourses suggests at various points that economic progress offers the firm prospect that men will be more disposed to live in peace and harmony with one another but the evidence points in another direction. The anxieties associated with fear of poverty may disappear in affluent societies, but other anxieties are then more starkly revealed. Hence the grip on our imaginations of the ideas of Nietzsche and Freud which emphasize the dark instinctual drives which propel human beings into conflict with one another, and with themselves.

Economists confronted with criticism of the model of rational calculation embedded in their notion of human action are apt to take refuge in the proposition that they are only concerned with how people act in allocating their scarce resources and not with why they may act in a certain way. Such propositions as 'the quantity demanded of a commodity is sensitive to its price' or 'people's incentive to work depends on what they expect to be paid' contain reasonable hypotheses which are testable. If they fit the facts, then they can be used to explode common economic fallacies and to warn governments of the problems encountered in trying to control individual economic behaviour. It is not necessary to probe the dark recesses of the mind in order to support positive economic reasoning. It is when economists begin to speculate on broader questions such as the consequences of material advance that they are apt to get out of their depth. Hume's own approach to economic growth offers a clear illustration of these observations. In the essay 'Of Interest' he repeats the proposition that there 'is no craving of the human mind more constant and insatiable than that for exercise and employment'. He shows how the desire to accumulate resources leads to economic advance and how economic advance becomes associated with 'low profits and low interest'. His empirical checks may seem by today's standards to be rather casual, but his economic reasoning is both powerful and cogent. Hume is after 'bigger fish' than the majority of economists today, and his own audience certainly expected to learn how he would catch them. He wishes to demonstrate, as already indicated, that the growth of trade and commerce resolves conflicts within society and between nations. The debate on such a matter cannot be settled within the confines of an economic analysis which assumes that men are rational creatures.