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No Abiding City: Hume, Naturalism, and Toleration1

  • Samuel Clark (a1)

This paper rereads David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion as dramatising a distinctive, naturalistic account of toleration. I have two purposes in mind: first, to complete and ground Hume's fragmentary explicit discussion of toleration; second, to unearth a potentially attractive alternative to more recent, Rawlsian approaches to toleration. To make my case, I connect Dialogues and the problem of toleration to the wider themes of naturalism, scepticism and their relation in Hume's thought, before developing a new interpretation of Dialogues part 12 as political drama. Finally, I develop the Humean theory of toleration I have discovered by comparison between Rawls's and Hume's strategies for justification of a tolerant political regime.

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2 King Preston, Toleration (New York: St Martin's Press, 1976).

3 McKinnon Catriona, Toleration: A Critical Introduction (London: Routledge, 2006).

4 Forst Rainer, ‘Toleration’ in Zalta Edward N. ed., The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2007 edition),

5 I draw here especially on Rawls John, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993) and ‘The Idea of Public Reason Revisited’ in The Law of Peoples (Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999), 129–80.

6 Dees Richard, ‘ “The Paradoxical Principle and Salutary Practice”: Hume on toleration’, Hume Studies 31 (2005), 145–64, 159. I am indebted to this article in setting out Hume's explicit account.

7 As Robert Frost didn't quite say, ‘A sceptical tolerator is someone too broadminded to take her own side in directing public power’.

8 For instance: Nelson John O., ‘The Role of Part XII in Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion’, Hume Studies 14 (1988), 347–72; Dees Richard, ‘Morality Above Metaphysics: friendship and Philo's stance in Dialogues XII’, Hume Studies 28 (2002), 131–47; Danford John W., ‘ “The Surest Foundation of Morality”: the political teaching of Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion’, The Western Political Quarterly 35 (1982), 137–60.

9 Smith Norman Kemp, ‘The Naturalism of Hume’, Mind 14 (1905), 149–73 and 335–47.

10 Norton David Fate, David Hume: Common-Sense Moralist, Sceptical Metaphysician (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982). I draw on Norton for the account of the reception of Hume just given.

11 Empiricus Sextus, Outlines of Scepticism trans. Annas Julia & Barnes Jonathan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 9.

12 Hume David, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion ed. Popkin Richard H. (2nd edn, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998), 5.

13 Op. cit. note 12, 6–7.

14 I want to thank Martin Bell for pressing me on this point.

15 Op. cit. note 11, 11.

16 Perhaps in some technical sense of ‘opinion’: see Burnyeat Myles & Frede Michael eds, The Original Sceptics: A Controversy (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997).

17 See Battersby Christine, ‘The Dialogues as Original Imitation: Cicero and the nature of Hume's skepticism’ in Norton David Fate et al. . eds, McGill Hume Studies (San Diego: Austin Hill Press, 1979), 239–52.

18 Philo: Norman Kemp Smith, Introduction to Hume David, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963), 175. Cleanthes: Laing B. M., ‘Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion’, Philosophy 12 (1937), 175–90. Pamphilus (!): Hendel Charles W., Studies in the Philosophy of David Hume (new edn, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963), chapters X–XII.

19 Nelson, op. cit. note 8.

20 Op. cit. note 12, 77.

21 Atheism: perhaps the most obvious interpretation of the Dialogues. Deism: Laing, op. cit. note 18. Agnosticism: Noxon James, ‘Hume's Agnosticism’, Philosophical Review 73 (1964), 248–61. Spinozism: Nathan George J., ‘Hume's Immanent God’ in Chappell V. C. ed., Hume (London: Macmillan, 1968), 396423.

22 Tweyman Stanley, Scepticism and Belief in Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (Dordrecht/Boston: M. Nijhoff, 1986). For counter-argument, see Gaskin J. C. A., Hume's Philosophy of Religion (2nd edn, London: Macmillan, 1988).

23 Penelhum Terrence, ‘Natural Belief and Religious Belief in Hume's Philosophy’ in Themes in Hume: The Self, the Will, Religion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), 204221, 205.

24 Price John Valdimir, The Ironic Hume (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965).

25 Hume David, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding ed. Beauchamp Tom L. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). This last suggestion gains plausibility from some of Hume's private remarks about his own lack of religious practice. In a letter to James Edmonstoune, for instance, Hume drily regrets that he isn't able to bring himself to the harmless hypocrisy of playing along with religious observance: ‘I wish it were still in my power to be a hypocrite in this particular. The common duties of society require it; and the ecclesiastical profession only adds a little more to an innocent dissimulation, or rather simulation, without which it is impossible to pass through the world. Am I a liar, because I order my servant to say, I am not at home, when I do not desire to see company?’ (letter from Paris, April 1764, in Greig J. Y. T. ed., The Letters of David Hume (2 vols, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932), vol. 1, 439440. I owe this reference to Dees, op. cit. note 8.

26 I agree, then, with Bricke John, who argues that ‘it is a fundamental mistake to assume that one of the characters in the Dialogues serves as the author's primary spokesman’ (‘On the Interpretation of Hume's Dialogues’, Religious Studies 11 (1975), 118, 3). Bricke argues for this conclusion on quite different grounds: ‘[N]either Philo nor Cleanthes could speak for Hume, for each is less of a philosopher than Hume is, each at times expresses distinctly un-Humean views, and neither develops a reasonably clear, well-argued, and consistent position’ (13). Although Bricke argues for the same hermeneutic as I do, he does not apply it to draw any conclusions about the message of the Dialogues.

27 Op. cit. note 12, 4.

28 Hume David, History of England (8 vols, London: Talboys and Wheeler/W. Pickering, 1826); The Natural History of Religion ed. James Fieser (London: Macmillan 1992); ‘Of Superstition and Enthusiasm’ in Selected Essays ed. Stephen Copley & Andrew Elgar (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 38–43.

29 Op. cit. note 12, 85.

30 Op. cit. note 12, 85.

31 Op. cit. note 12, 4.

32 Hume David, Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals ed. Beauchamp Tom L. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

33 Op. cit. note 12, 82.

34 Op. cit. note 12, 82.

35 Op. cit. note 12, 83.

36 See for instance Sandel Michael, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (2nd edn, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), and more generally Mulhall Stephen & Swift Adam, Liberals and Communitarians (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996).

37 This paragraph draws particularly on Rawls John, ‘Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory’ in Freeman Samuel ed., Collected Papers (Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999), 303–58 and on Rawls, Political Liberalism, op. cit note 5, Lecture III. It ignores a range of interpretative and historical questions about the development of Rawls's views, but is, I believe, accurate to the spirit of his eventual position. It further ignores Rawls's suggestion that ‘political liberalism applies the principle of toleration to philosophy itself’ (Political Liberalism, 10) simply because I don't understand what that means.

38 Wiggins David, ‘Claims of Need’ in Needs, Values, Truth: Essays in the Philosophy of Value (3rd edn, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 158.

39 Hobbes Thomas, Leviathan ed. Curley Edwin (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), 74.

40 Rawls, ‘Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory’, op. cit. note 37, 306. This increasing particularism is, I believe, partly a consequence of Rawls's encounter with Michael Walzer. I have argued against Walzer's distinctive version of particularism in Clark Samuel, ‘Society Against Societies: the possiblity of transcultural criticism’, Res Publica 13 (2007), 107125.

41 David Brink has argued that Rawls attempts, illegitimately in his own terms, to make the ideal of the citizen exempt from this process of modification towards consistent reflective equilibrium: ‘Rawlsian Constructivism in Moral Theory’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 17 (1987), 71–90.

42 A stable and successful theocratic regime might not physically harm anyone (although this seems unlikely on the historical record of such regimes). Even if so: first, there are long-standing and plausible enlightenment arguments that such regimes do psychological and developmental harm; second, there are arguments I have already canvassed in discussing Hume, above, that theocratic regimes are inherently unstable and must expect to face internal opposition which will eventually lead to violence.

43 I want to thank Derek Edyvane for pressing me on this point in several conversations.

44 Rawls John, A Theory of Justice (revised edn, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), section 21.

45 Op. cit. note 12, 53.

1 I have given versions of this paper at POLIS, University of Leeds; at the Department of Politics and Philosophy, Manchester Metropolitan University; and at the Philosophy Department, Lancaster University. I want to thank my audiences for their kind attention and helpful questions.

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