Rousseau vs. Hume: Hilarity In Action.


UPDATE: The book mentioned below is now available as a torrent on The Pirate Bay.

I believe this is my very favorite philosophical beef of all time, if you haven’t had a chance to read wonderfully entertaining and accessible Rousseau’s Dog you must do it this summer or die.  This story has so many cool twists and turns and almost none of them are philosophical. There’s a new book on the subject – The Philosophers’ Quarrel: Rousseau, Hume, and the Limits of Human Understanding – and I am hoping to read it very soon:

The rise and spectacular fall of the friendship between the two great philosophers of the eighteenth century, barely six months after they first met, reverberated on both sides of the Channel. As the relationship between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume unraveled, a volley of rancorous letters was fired off, then quickly published and devoured by aristocrats, intellectuals, and common readers alike. Everyone took sides in this momentous dispute between the greatest of Enlightenment thinkers.

In this lively and revealing book, Robert Zaretsky and John T. Scott explore the unfolding rift between Rousseau and Hume. The authors are particularly fascinated by the connection between the thinkers’ lives and thought, especially the way that the failure of each to understand the other—and himself—illuminates the limits of human understanding. In addition, they situate the philosophers’ quarrel in the social, political, and intellectual milieu that informed their actions, as well as the actions of the other participants in the dispute, such as James Boswell, Adam Smith, and Voltaire. By examining the conflict through the prism of each philosopher’s contribution to Western thought, Zaretsky and Scott reveal the implications for the two men as individuals and philosophers as well as for the contemporary world.

Here’s a review of the above book:

At midnight on 6 September 1765, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was wakened by the sound of breaking glass. A hail of stones was coming through the windows of his home, a modest house in the village of Môtiers, in the Jura mountains. When his landlord later visited the scene, he looked at the pile of stones and said, “Good God, it’s an absolute quarry!”

Rousseau had moved to this village to escape persecution in France, where the Archbishop of Paris had whipped up a campaign against him. Môtiers had seemed the ideal safe haven. Its inhabitants were Protestant and it belonged not to France but to the principality of Neuchâtel (today part of Switzerland, but then a territory ruled by Prussia). Yet the philosopher’s talent for making enemies transcended all national and confessional boundaries. His latest book, Letters Written from the Mountain, had scandalised pious Calvinists and had insulted the government of Geneva for good measure. Now the minister of Môtiers was denouncing him from the pulpit. It was time to go.

But where to? Various unlikely options were considered, including Corsica and Silesia. One country, however, offered the two things Rousseau most strongly desired: freedom from persecution and an appreciative public. That country was Great Britain, already famed as a land of liberty (thanks to its idealisation by Voltaire) and increasingly respected as a vibrant centre of intellectual life.

By good chance, one of the most famous British intellectuals, David Hume, was not only living in Paris at the time, but was also sympathetic to Rousseau’s cause. A few years earlier, at the request of a Parisian literary lady, Hume had written out of the blue to Rousseau, offering him refuge on British soil. That offer was now at last taken up and, in January 1766, the two men travelled together from Paris to London.

8 thoughts on “Rousseau vs. Hume: Hilarity In Action.

  1. I’ll definitely pick that up. I enjoyed “Wittgenstein’s Poker” which is an attempted reconstruction of the argument between Wittgenstein and Popper, in which W- supposedly threatened him with a poker from the fireplace. The argument itself was interesting to me because it has to do with the question of whether there are “real” (non-“game” or -“puzzle”) philosophical problems. I’m sympathetic to both positions.

    • This is the same book that popped into my mind. Not the same “quality” of quarrel, but an excellent and well written treatment, putting a little flesh on those oracular Wittgensteinian bones.

      Another book of quarrels that comes to mind, and certainly quite under-read, is Stephan Nadler’s Arnauld and the Cartesian philosophy of ideas. Not colorful at all, but Nadler painstakingly and so clearly teases out the Arnauld and Malebrache debate over the ontology of Cartesian Ideas, at the time quite followed. Though the debate is largely forgotten it is likely that Malebrache’s winning out in terms of history (through Reid), largely severely distorted our conception of Descartes, giving rise to the entire “veil of ideas” problematic.

      • To that last Arnauld vs. Malebranche book I would add an excellent Nadler’s recent The Best of Possible Worlds: A Story of Philosophers, God and Evil.

  2. Rousseau vs Hume is basically an educational tale of paranoia and awkwardness. Unfortunately, it seems to me that such strange characters as Rousseau (as great as his influence was and continues to be) give people ideas about how they should behave while trying to be philosophers – I would call it “eccentricity without substance”: “so I see Rousseau was a crazy paranoid weirdo who thought everyone was scheming against him, so I can do the same, right?” “Well, Rousseau was also brilliant…”

    Rousseau’s Dog is well-written and fun. Philosophers’ Quarrel is also written by two people, so I wonder if this story somehow requires two authors to present properly?

  3. Ooh, that’s a good point more generally. You can insert any number of famous difficult eccentrics for Rousseau.

    This has led to a whole cult of getting away with it in certain parts of academia. If you can get away with being dysfunctional in various ways that must mean you are really smart because some really smart people have been dysfunctional in those ways.

    It’s really destructive to those who get away with it, even the really smart ones. You can get kind of a Caligula syndrome, when nobody is willing to tell the genius that they are being an a-hole and as a result the genius gets weirder and weirder.

  4. M.E. : To that last Arnauld vs. Malebranche book I would add an excellent Nadler’s recent The Best of Possible Worlds: A Story of Philosophers, God and Evil.

    Kvond: Nice.

    • Yeah, Critchley’s been pushing for Rousseau lately, I read an essay some weeks ago about Rousseau’s civil religion by Critchley. A related question: why is Critchley writing for a blog called “Happy Days”?

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