Sense and Sensibility

It is a welcome turn — one should more accurately say: return — for our culture that philosophy is once again a possession of what David Hume called the “conversable” and not just the scholarly part of mankind. An increasing abundance of popular works both of and about philosophy (genuine philosophy, not just the upliftingly platitudinous sort published in pastel covers and odd shapes) is one part of the reason; this reprises the way philosophy was once read by all educated folk, for whom it was written in clear language. This was before the twentieth century revival of a jargon-rich scholasticism which shut out the general public and made a studious philosophical apprenticeship necessary before one could engage in it.

Another part of the reason for the return is the appearance of an increasing number of satisfying biographies of philosophers, and even more satisfying books that take us into philosophical lives and thought by hooking themselves to notable moments in philosophy’s history. The account by Robert Zaretsky and John T. Scott of the bitter falling-out between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the man who had befriended and helped him, David Hume, falls into this category. As the latest in the happily growing line of such, its arrival at the bookstores is a welcome event.

At first one might think that biographies of philosophers must be dull stuff, for what did they do of note but sit and think, and sometimes write? George Bernard Shaw would appear to sum up matters on their behalf: “I have had no heroic adventures,” he said. “Things have not happened to me; on the contrary it is I who have happened to them; and all my happenings have taken the form of books. Read them, and you have my whole story; the rest is only breakfast, lunch and dinner.” But to think this would be to miss much. Socrates perverted the youth of Athens and had to drink hemlock. Abelard suffered castration for his illicit romance with Heloise. Descartes was present both at the Battle of the White Mountain and the subsequent massacres of Bohemian Protestants and might have been a spy for the Jesuits. Locke had to flee into political exile. Bertrand Russell went to prison for opposition to the First World War, while his pupil and later nemesis Wittgenstein served in the Austrian army and wrote his Tractatus on the Eastern Front. Nietzsche and Althusser went mad; the latter strangled his wife, while the former’s sister strangled his reputation. Sartre was a Communist, Heidegger a Nazi. Camus played football and died in a car crash. Not a few of them were preternaturally amorous. On the whole, many philosophers seem to have been more rather than less energetic, even though some (Berkeley, Kant) led meditative lives of exemplary quietness.

Thus it is that the recent spate of absorbing biographies of philosophers turns out to be not just a valuable but a lively addition to the conversation of mankind. Until they began to appear there were a few one-offs: Ernest Mossner’s mighty 1946 account of David Hume, Maurice Cranston’s 1957 biography of John Locke, Ronald Clark’s 1975 biography of Bertrand Russell. But then Ray Monk changed everything with his remarkable account of Wittgenstein in 1991, and the floodgates opened. Between 1999 and 2006, readers were offered Terry Pinkard on Hegel, Manfred Kuehn on Kant, Rudiger Safranski on Heidegger and Nietzsche, Joachim Kohler’s more controversial perspective on the latter, Curtis Cate on the same, Rebecca Goldstein on Spinoza, and my own biography of Descartes — no one can claim that there is not a freeway into philosophy through this accessible route.

And even more so is the developing genre of philosophy by crux event. The trigger for this was the entertaining Wittgenstein’s Poker (2002) by David Edmonds and John Eidenow, which they followed with Rousseau’s Dog in 2006. The first tells the story of an evening in Cambridge when Karl Popper came to speak, and during the disagreements that followed Ludwig Wittgenstein waved a poker — at him? Accounts of the event differed; Edmonds and Eidenow use the occasion as a way of telling us about Popper, Wittgenstein, their views, the state of philosophy at the time of the encounter, and more. Their second book tells the story of Rousseau and Hume and the former’s paranoia-driven, egoism-fuelled attack on the latter, who had done nothing but help him in his crisis of exile.

The Edmonds-Eidenow success with fire iron as philosophy prompted Matthew Stewart to write The Courtier and the Heretic (2006) about Leibniz’s one and only visit to Spinoza, which took place in 1676 and led to later allegations of plagiarism by Leibniz, who saw some of Spinoza’s unpublished manuscripts while waiting in his living room. The nub of their meeting was a profound disagreement about God: they thus reprised one of the commonest sources of dispute in mankind.

Zaretsky and Scott know the Edmonds-Eidenow book about the quarrel between Rousseau and Hume, because they quote it — rather sparingly. Both books tell the story well; the difference is that Edmonds-Eidenow have the better prose and Zaretsky-Scott the fuller detail. Also, Zaretsky-Scott are ambitious to use the story as a way of making a philosophical point about (as their subtitle tells us) “the limits of human understanding.” In this they fail, because the flaw in their otherwise fascinating account is that they get the philosophy somewhat wrong.

Rousseau had a knack for annoying the authorities wherever he happened to be, and if not the authorities then the neighbors or his host’s servants — or indeed his hosts — and as a result was driven from pillar to post more than most people of a controversial and difficult disposition are; and Rousseau was emphatically one such. When he was obliged to quit his native Switzerland in 1765 he had a choice: one of the German states of Frederick the Great, or England. After much hesitation he chose the latter. David Hume was then coming to the end of a diplomatic posting in Paris and happily accepted the task of taking Rousseau — whom he had not yet met — to England and settling him there, confident that many people would be willing to help the famous and widely admired exile, and that King George III could be prevailed upon to give him a pension. In every respect Hume was right. What he was utterly and disastrously wrong about was Rousseau himself.

Not that he was not warned: Voltaire, the Baron d’Holbach, indeed almost everyone Hume knew in France, advised him to watch out. When Hume told d’Holbach how quickly he and Rousseau had bonded in their first meetings in Paris, and how much he looked forward to being with Rousseau in England, d’Holbach said, “Though I am sorry to dispel your pleasant hopes and illusions, you will see before long that you were deceived. You do not know your man. I tell you plainly that you are nursing a viper in your bosom.”

And so it proved. Rousseau was a genius, but he was a genius who was also selfish, paranoid, at least half mad, an egomaniac, painfully sensitive on his own behalf and crassly indifferent to others, towards whom his needy effusions of affection could — and habitually did — turn in an instant into malevolence and spite. Hume was a benevolent man, a genial proponent of common sense and civility; what he was himself he assumed others to be, and this was his fateful error with Rousseau. When, after placing Rousseau, his dog, and his concubine in a delightful country retreat and arranging a pension for him from the king, Hume’s reward was to receive long epistolary ranting accusations from Rousseau about betrayal, conspiracy, and blackness of heart, he was bewildered and then — uncharacteristically — angered. He defended himself; the exchange of letters between them was published in France and England to feed the curiosity of an avid pubic, for they were both famous men and had followings, Hume among the salonnières and Rousseau among the romantics. Zaretsky and Scott tell the story skillfully, treating it as it should be treated: as drama, full of sound and fury indeed — and in this case signifying much.

The much in question is the conflict between two deeply different outlooks. Here is where Zaretsky and Scott get the philosophy wrong. They start by thinking of Hume and Rousseau as equally giants of the Enlightenment. But Rousseau was, of course — and as the book proceeds, so its authors more and more have to concede — far from an Enlightenment figure. He was a Romantic, and a full-blooded one. For him it was not knowledge, empirical reason, or the common-sense beliefs prompted by the structure of human psychology that should guide one both in philosophy and life — this was Hume’s view — but instead one’s feelings, sentiments, passions, impulses. Hume early spotted that Rousseau had little reading and little knowledge but was all native genius; genius of a high order, but undisciplined, uninformed, and subjective. In a letter to a friend written before the debacle, while he was still extolling Rousseau’s genius (which by the way, he always did, even afterward), Hume wrote, “He has read very little during the course of his life?he has seen very little, and has no manner of curiosity?. He has reflected, properly speaking, and studied very little; and has not indeed much knowledge.” And Hume then identified exactly what made Rousseau the man he was: “He has only felt, during the whole course of his life and in this respect, his sensibility rises to a pitch beyond what I have seen any example of.”

Hume was an opponent of the Rationalist’s belief that a priori reason can reveal ultimate truths about the universe, man, and God. In place of this traditional philosophical view he extolled empirical reason and common sense, the true Enlightenment virtues. Zaretsky and Scott do not quite see the distinction between the reason of the Rationalists and the reason of the Empiricists (which is the reason of the Enlightenment), and thus make a paradox, where one does not exist, out of Hume’s being an Enlightenment man who attacked reason. For his part, Hume did not see, because he did not take seriously, the growing counter-Enlightenment mood of Romanticism. When Rousseau suddenly and viciously attacked him with the full strength of this subjectivist logic of emotion — Rousseau felt abused, so he was abused; he sensed Hume’s betrayal, so Hume had betrayed him — Hume was momentarily stunned. His friends advised him not to retaliate; but even so sanguine and composed an individual would find it hard to bear that depth of ingratitude and calumny.

Baron d’Holbach described Rousseau as a “philosophical quack, full of affectation, pride, oddities and even villainies.” It does Hume credit that he never thought Rousseau a quack, though he now agreed with the rest of d’Holbach’s analysis, and he continued to admire Rousseau’s genius and eloquence even as he predicted — rightly — that the extravagance of Rousseau’s ideas would reduce their value in the eyes of posterity.

From Zaretsky and Scott we learn much about Hume, Rousseau, Voltaire, and others in the constellation of talents that made the Age of Enlightenment, even if (like Rousseau) some of them were in it rather than of it. There cannot be enough such books, or enough readers for them. They bring the time and its debates vividly into focus and remind one that what mattered then still matters now: not least the dangers of a philosophy of sentiment and passion — Rousseau’s prescription — in which what one feels is justification for anything, though the world around one, if it has improved at all, has been improved by empirical common sense — Hume’s prescription. That is the real quarrel, which the quarrel between Rousseau the feeler and Hume the philosopher perfectly illuminates.