The Politics of Custom
PHILOSOPHICAL MELANCHOLY AND DELIRIUM
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.