The Pursuits of Philosophy: An Introduction to the Life and Thought of David Hume
by Annette C. Baier
(Harvard University Press, 2011, 176 pages)
This is an insightful and accessible biographical and intellectual introduction to David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher. The format is very engaging and not only gives the reader summaries of Hume’s various writings, but it also grants an opportunity to sample one of his shorter works. Each chapter begins with an extended section from Hume’s autobiographical essay, My Own Life, and the chapters then follow the course that Hume set. The opening paragraphs of Hume’s essay recount his childhood and early life, and Baier’s first chapter deals with Hume’s family relations, education, and his early loss of religious faith. All seven chapters follow this format, dealing with Hume’s stints in France, the writing of his Treatise of Human Nature, his work as a historian and librarian, and various other aspects of his life.
Baier gives her readers critical analysis of Hume’s major works while offering an entertaining and insightful look at his personality. The format, which grounds literary analysis in the structure of a biographical narrative, helps to show how the events of Hume’s life and his personality influenced the shape and subjects of his literary career. Baier manages to do this without descending into psychological reductionism. She very much accomplishes the goal she sets for herself, which is “to bring life and works together, guided mainly by Hume’s own words” (132).
Baier is mainly interested in summarizing Hume’s work, and given this goal, coupled with the brevity of the work, there is not a lot by way of original contribution to Humean studies. However, she does have a specific take on Hume, and offers some of her thoughts about his contributions in the afterward. A particular point of interest for me was her commendation of Hume’s “true scepticism,” which involved “avoidance of advancing theses on controversial matters which are claimed as gospel truth, where we are asked just to trust his say-so” (143). Hume was a skeptic – regarding both the basic ability of humans to gain fully accurate knowledge of the world as well as the basic tenets of theism – but he never allowed his skepticism to become a simple reversal of the religious dogmatism that he rejected. I think that this Humean skepticism could serve as a good corrective to some of the vitriolic versions of religious skepticism prominent today, such as the “new atheism” of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett.
For those who are approaching Hume for the first time, but would like a brief summary of his thought to direct their reading, this book would serve very well. If, like myself, the reader has tackled some of Hume’s philosophical works (for which he is best known) but would like to get a broader perspective on the other genres in which he wrote, it is also very enjoyable.