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Interpreting Hume's Dialogues1

  • Dorothy P. Coleman (a1)


This paper provides a methodological schema for interpreting Hume's Dialogues concerning Natural Religion that supports the traditional thesis that Philo represents Hume's views on religious belief. To understand the complexity of Hume's ‘naturalism’ and his assessment of religious belief, it is essential to grasp the manner in which Philo articulates a consistently Humean position in the Dialogues.



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page 179 note 2 The following abbreviations are used to identify Hume's works in the body of the text: T = A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. Selby-Bigge, L. A. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1888, rev. ed. P. H. Nidditch, 1978); E = Enquiries concerning the Human Understanding and concerning the Principles of Morals, ed. Selby-Bigge, L. A., 3rd ed. (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1902, rev. ed. P. H. Nidditch, 1975); NHR = Natural History of Religion, ed. Colver, A. Wayne [with Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, ed. J. V. Price] (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976); and D = Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, ed. Smith, Norman Kemp (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill Co., 1947).

page 179 note 3 Bricke, John, ‘On the Interpretation of Hume's Dialogues’, Religious Studies XI (1975), 118.

page 179 note 4 The Letters of David Hume, ed. Greig, J. Y. T. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932), 1, 154.

page 179 note 5 Bricke, , pp. 1516.

page 180 note 1 These are the passages most frequently cited by those who challenge the traditional view, supported by Kemp Smith, that Philo is Hume's primary spokesman in the Dialogues. Laing argued that Cleanthes is Hume's primary spokesman, Hendel argued for Pamphilus, and Bricke, as has already been mentioned, argues none is. See Smith's, Norman Kemp introduction to the Dialogues, pp. 5575;Laing, B. M., ‘Hume's Dialogues concerning Natural Religion’, Philosophy XII (1937), 175–90;Hendel, Charles, Studies in the Philosophy of David Hume, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963), Chaps. X–XII; and John Bricke, op. cit. A more recent example of the view that Cleanthes best represents Hume is found in Pike, Nelson, ed., Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970), pp. 204–38. For a recent defence of the traditional view, see Gaskin, J. C. A., Hume's Philosophy of Religion, 2nd ed. (Macmillan Press, 1988).

page 180 note 2 The outline I give in this paper of Hume's account of belief in external existence is developed in greater detail in an earlier article, ‘Hume's “Dialectic”’, in Hume Studies X (1983), 139–55.

page 184 note 1 The thesis that belief in God is, for Hume, a natural belief is persuasively challenged by (Gaskin, J. C. A. in ‘God, Hume and Natural Belief’, Philosophy XLIX 1984), 281–94.

page 185 note 1 A similar thesis is advanced by Pakaluk, Michael in ‘Philosophical Types in Hume's Dialogues’, in Philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, ed. Hope, V. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1984), pp. 116–32.Pakaluk, , like myself, argues that ‘Philo is a true philosopher, Cleanthes, a false philosopher, and Demea a vulgar reasoner’, p. 120. Whereas I support this thesis by outlining a methodological structure common to the Dialogues and Hume's account of external existence in the Treatise, Pakaluk supports his interpretation through an examination of different philosophical types described in Hume's popular essays and of different species of scepticism delineated in the Enquiry. The two approaches make a good case for the continuity between the Treatise and the Enquiry, contrary to those who believe the Enquiry marks a new direction in Hume's thinking.

page 187 note 1 That Philo speaks here for Hume receives confirmation within the text itself where Hume, speaking in his own voice in a footnote, similarly asserts that the dispute between sceptics and dogmatists ‘is entirley verbal’ (D, 219). Noxon, however, argues that there is a significant difference between their remarks on this subject. I find the difference too subtle to cast any doubt on the identity of Hume's views and Philo's. See Noxon, James, ‘Hume's Agnosticism’ in Hume: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Chappell, V. C. (University of Notre Dame Press, 1968), p. 379.

page 187 note 2 Nelson Pike argues that Philo is described as ‘confounded and confused’ because the argument for design provides justifiable, even if irregular, grounds for religious belief. For a convincing criticism of this view, see Bricke, , pp. 811. However, I believe Bricke wrongly dismisses the significance of this passage by maintaining that its function is merely literary.

page 188 note 1 In the Enquiry, sec. XI, Hume appears to take the view of Cleanthes rather than of Philo, arguing that religious belief has a good moral effect:

Men… draw many consequences from the belief of divine Existence, and suppose that the Deity will inflict punishments on vice, and bestow rewards on virtue…. Whether this reasoning of theirs be just or not, is no matter. Its influence on their life and conduct must still be the same. And, those, who attempt to disabuse them of such prejudices, may… be good reasoners, but I cannot allow them to be good citizens and politicians. (E, 147)

I am inclined to agree with Noxon's assessment that ‘the chapter gives so strong an impression of being contrived’ that one hesitates to accept this statement at face value, particularly in light of Hume's ambiguous remark that the sceptical position that he is opposing (and which agrees with Philo's) embraces ‘those principles, to which I have always expressed a particular attachment’ (E, 142). See Noxon, , p. 371.

Hume speaks directly and without ambiguity on this topic in the Natural History of Religion where he clearly takes the side of Philo: ‘The greatest crimes have been found, in many instances compatible with a superstitious piety and devotion: Hence it is justly regarded as unsafe to draw any certain inference in favour of a man's morals from the fervour or strictness of his religious exercises’ (NHR, Chap. IV).

page 189 note 1 Bricke, , 78.

page 189 note 2 Smith, Kemp, p. 63.

1 An earlier version of this paper received the 1985 Richard M. Griffith Memorial Award from the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology.


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