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David Hume's "Dialogues concerning Natural Religion": Otherness in History and in Text

Author(s): Robert John Sheffler Manning

Reviewed work(s):
Source: The Journal of Religion, Vol. 70, No. 4 (Oct., 1990), pp. 589-605
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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Journal of Religion.

David Hume's Dialogues Concerning

Natural Religion: Otherness in History
and in Text
RobertJohnShefler Manning /


In the autumn of 1915 at Princeton, the graduate student Charles Hendel

and the professor Norman Kemp Smith went for a walk. Hendel thought
the time auspicious to announce his desire to write a dissertation on
Rousseau. As happens not infrequently between an adviser and a student,
Kemp Smith attempted to dissuade his student from his intention and
advised him to look into David Hume's Dialogues ConcerningNatural Religion instead. The professor noted that a "deadlock" had long existed
between those who thought the skeptic, Philo, spoke for Hume and those
who thought the theistic views of Cleanthes most nearly echoed Hume's
true opinions on religion. Perhaps through researching the problem,
Kemp Smith suggested, Hendel could "resolve that impasse and establish
Hume's position on the religious question."'
Hendel took his mentor's advice and concluded that what Hume was
really doing in The Dialogues was giving vent to the uncertainties in his
own mind, so that not any one of the characters but only the narrator,
Pamphilus, who expresses the views of all the characters, can be identified
as Hume. As to how Hume actually did finally answer the religious question, Hendel modified the traditional "Cleanthes is Hume" argument by
stating that we may take Pamphilus's endorsement of Cleanthes to mean
that Hume himself agreed with the "anthropomorphic theism" expressed
by that character.2
Not only did Hendel's clever solution fail to settle the issue, but it actually stimulated further debate in that it provoked Kemp Smith's quite different answer to the problem. In the introduction to his 1935 edition of
The Dialogues, Kemp Smith insisted that the answers to the unresolved
I Charles Hendel, Studiesin the
PhilosophyofDavid Hume(Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University
Press, 1925), p. vii.
2 Ibid, p. 347.
? 1990 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0022-4189/90/7004-0004$0


The Journal of Religion

questions concerning The Dialogues "are to be found in certain considerations peculiar to the period in which Hume lived."s If Hume's own historical place and time are considered, he argued, it becomes apparent that
"Philo, from start to finish, represents Hume."4
Since then, the view of Kemp Smith has most often prevailed, but as
some recent articles illustrate, the deadlock is far from resolved.5 In this
paper, I hope to show that a purely textual interpretation of TheDialogues
is inadequate and that, if we take into account the text's historical context,
we must agree with Kemp Smith that Philo is to be identified as Hume's
chief spokesperson. More than this, however, I shall analyze the history of
reception of Hume's text to explore why nearly all interpreters of TheDialogues have resisted the notion that Hume's own historical situation
affected how he wrote his text. This will lead us to analyze our most common presuppositions about how texts are written, how they are to be
interpreted, and how they are related to history. It is my hope that this will
enable us to perform what Gadamer called the truly critical task of
hermeneutics, which is to distinguish "the true prejudices by which we
understand, from the false ones by which we misunderstand."6 The history of reception of TheDialogues can reveal to us, I believe, what our prejudices regarding the relation between history and text enable us to see
and what they prevent us from seeing.
Hume's Dialogues are a three-way conversation among Demea, Cleanthes, and Philo narrated by Cleanthes' young student, Pamphilus. Demea
represents Christian orthodoxy in that he maintains that, although God's
existence is obvious to all, his essence and his attributes are so far superior to those possessed by humans that we would never know of them
were we not aided by revelation: "The essence of that mind, his attributes, the manner of his existence, the very nature of his duration; these
and every particular, which regards so divine a Being, are mysterious to
men" (p. 141).
To Cleanthes this is mere mysticism, for his faith is not in revelation but
in the power of human reason, which regards design in the universe and
correctly concludes therefrom the existence and nature of the designer.
Thus, the basis of his anthropomorphic theism is the argument for God's
existence from the design in the universe: "The curious adapting of means

3Norman Kemp Smith, ed., Hume'sDialoguesConcerningNatural Religion(1935; 2d ed., New

York and London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1947), p. 25. References to the Dialoguesin text are to
this edition.
4 Ibid., p. 59.
5 See Jeffrey Wieand, "Pamphilusin Hume's Dialogues,"Journal of Religion65, no. 1 (January
1985): 33-45; also see H. S. Harris, "The Naturalness of Natural Religion," HumeStudies13, no.
1 (April 1987): 1-29.
6 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truthand Method(New York: Crossroad
Publishing, 1985, p. 266).

Hume's Dialogues
to end throughout all nature resembles exactly, though it much exceeds,
the productions of human contrivance, of human design, thought, wisdom, and intelligence. Since therefore the effects resemble each other, we
are led to infer, by all the rules of analogy, that the causes also resemble,
and that the Author of Nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man....
By this argument a posteriori, and by this argument alone, do we prove at
once the existence of a Deity and his similarity to human mind and intelligence" (p. 143).
It is much more problematic to determine Philo's position. In the first
eleven dialogues he voices skeptical views opposed to Cleanthes' argument from design. However, at the beginning of the twelfth and last dialogue he says he is actually in agreement with Cleanthes and gives his
assent with great enthusiasm to the argument from design. By the end of
the twelfth dialogue, however, he has changed again and concludes that
we can deduce from the universe only the most dubious and nebulous theism, which only makes more pronounced our need, not for philosophical
reasoning, but for revelation: "A person, seasoned with a just sense of the
imperfections of natural reason, will fly to revealed truth with the greatest
avidity" (p. 227). At this point in our discussion, suffice it to say that Philo
either is, or pretends to be, a philosophical skeptic, and at least in the first
eleven dialogues all the rhetorical cleverness he can muster is directed
against Cleanthes' use of the argument from design: "Is the world, considered in general and as it appears to us in this life, different from what a
man or such a limited being would, beforehand, expect from a very powerful, wise, and benevolent Deity? It must be strange prejudice to assert
the contrary. And from thence I conclude that, however consistent the
world may be, allowing certain suppositions and conjectures, with the idea
of such a Deity, it can never afford us an inference concerning his existence" (p. 205).
The battle lines seem to be fairly clearly drawn. Hume is either supporting the positive and theistic arguments of Cleanthes or the much more negative and skeptical arguments of Philo. Since The Dialogues are Hume's last
word on religion, they have always been thought to provide the secret as to
what Hume himself really believed, and this is why for the last two hundred
years the question has been asked over and over again, but always with
urgency: which views did Hume himself really hold, Cleanthes' positive and
theistic beliefs or Philo's negative and skeptical ones?7
A first reading of The Dialogues all but forces us to agree with Hendel
7James Noxon, e.g., in his essay "Hume's Agnosticism" (in Hume, ed. V. C. Chappell [Notre
Dame, Ind.: Notre Dame University Press, 1968], p. 363), writes that, unless the question of who
speaks for Hume can be answered, "Hume's last philosophical testament provides us with no clue
to his own religious convictions."


The Journal of Religion

that Cleanthes expresses Hume's true views. There are four obvious reasons why it is immediately apparent that this must be. These four reasons
are all textual, all clearly based on and supported by the text itself: (1) As
The Dialogues are in the form of a letter from Pamphilus to his friend,
Hermippus, they are a more elaborate account of what Pamphilus has
already discussed with his friend. Since Hermippus has already been
exposed to the conversation, he has already judged the arguments, and
views amount
Pamphilus presents to us Hermippus'sjudgment-Demea's
to "rigid inflexible orthodoxy," while Philo's skepticism is judged to be
"careless," but Cleanthes' views are said to illustrate his "accurate philosophical turn" (p. 128). Thus, at the very beginning of The Dialogues, we
are presented with Hermippus's judgment that affirms Cleanthes' views
over those of Philo. (2) Philo's arguments seem to contend not only with
the belief in God's nature and attributes but also with the belief in God's
existence, even though Hume himself in The Natural History of Religion
and the narrator and both Philo and Demea in The Dialogues have already
stated that the existence of God is self-evident and beyond dispute. Since
much of Philo's polemic is directed toward questioning what even he has
agreed is beyond question, it appears as though Philo is only pretending to
be opposed to Cleanthes' position. (3) After his arguments grow to such a
pitch of impiety that they send Demea out of the room, Philo admits that
he was really just jesting, and he confesses his belief in the argument from
design. Even though you know I love to argue, Philo says to his friend
Cleanthes, you also know that "no one has a deeper sense of religion
impressed on his mind, or pays more profound adoration to the divine
Being, as he discovers himself to reason, in the inexplicable contrivance
and artifice of nature" (p. 214).8 (4) At the very end of The Dialogues,
Pamphilus confirms Hermippus's view that Cleanthes' arguments are to
be most highly esteemed: "I cannot but think, that Philo's principles are
more probable than Demea's; but that those of Cleanthes approach still
nearer to the truth" (p. 228).
In arguments for identifying Cleanthes' views as Hume's own, one or
more of these reasons is certain to appear. B. M. Laing, for instance, concludes on the basis of reasons 2 and 4 that there is no difficulty in deciding
that Cleanthes is Hume-Hume in an earlier work, The Natural History of
Religion, and in The Dialogues says that the existence of God cannot be
questioned, and at the conclusion of The Dialogues Pamphilus endorses
Cleanthes' views.9 Although Gabriel Campayre admits that at times Philo
8 T. E. Jessop rightly points out in his
essay, "The Present-Day Relevance of Hume's Dialogues
concerningNatural Religion"(AristotelianSupplement18 [1939]: 1-46), that Philo's conversion in
the last dialogue is the primary problem in explaining the work as a whole.
9 B. M. Laing, David Hume (London: Ernest Benn, 1932), pp. 174-82.


Hume's Dialogues
sounds like Hume, he too invokes the fourth reason. "The last words of
the book," says he, "do not permit any doubt" that Cleanthes is actually
Hume.'0 Similarly, Bruce McEwen refers to Pamphilus's endorsement of
Cleanthes as Hume's "last utterance in speculation" concerning religion."
The conclusion of Charles Hendel and, following Hendel, Rudolf Metz
and most recently Jeffrey Wieand, that it is Cleanthes who primarily
speaks for Hume, depends to a very great extent on Pamphilus's endorsement of Cleanthes at the end of The Dialogues.
It is, in fact, Jeffrey Wieand who presents most clearly the hermeneutical presuppositions on which the "Cleanthes is Hume" interpretation
must depend. In his article entitled "Pamphilus in Hume's Dialogues,"
Wieand discusses the deadlock over the question of which character
expresses the views of Hume, and he presents two hermeneutical options
employed to resolve the deadlock. We may be able to solve the problem by
consulting Hume's other writings on religion, or Hume's letters, or the
works Hume might have consulted in constructing The Dialogues. Thus,
the key to the correct interpretation of The Dialogues may lie in the
intertextual relation between The Dialogues and other texts. This
hermeneutical option is employed quite often by the "Cleanthes is Hume"
proponents. In fact, they nearly always appeal both to Hume's Natural
History of Religion, in which he states that no reasonable person can doubt
"the primary principles of genuine religion," and to a letter Hume wrote
in 1751 to his very good friend Gilbert Elliot, declaring, "You wou'd perceive by the sample I have given you, that I make Cleanthes the hero of
the dialogue."''2The second hermeneutical option Wieand outlines entails
that the real clue to understanding TheDialogues is entirely within the text
itself. Wieand recommends this hermeneutical option when he dismisses
other texts by saying that, if we "return to the text," it will become apparent that "the text supports the view advocated by Charles Hendel."'3
Wieand then argues for Hendel's reading by employing some of the four
obvious textual reasons we have already advanced.
Whatever else might be said about The Dialogues, it must be said that
Wieand's statement is absolutely correct: the text does support the view
that Cleanthes' views are superior to Philo's in that they are "nearer to the
truth." This is, after all, exactly what the text says. It also says that
Cleanthes exhibits an "accurate philosophical turn" and that Philo retracts
all his arguments against his good and learned friend, Cleanthes. This is
Gabriel Campayre, La Philosophie de David Hume (Paris: Ernest Thorin,

1'0 Quoted

in Kemp Smith, p. 59.

1873), p. 324.

David Hume, The Natural History of Religion, ed. H. E. Root (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Uni-

versity Press, 1957), p. 12; John Hill Burton, Life and Correspondence
of David Hume(New York:
Garland, 1983), 1:331.
's Wieand,

p. 34.


The Journal of Religion

why Wieand and all the others who argue either that "Cleanthes is Hume"
or that "Pamphilus is Hume in recommending Cleanthes' views" base
their argument on the evidence in the text, on the four obvious and textual reasons we have already outlined.
However, the problem with this straight or purely textual interpretation of The Dialogues is that there are many other aspects within the text
that throw into serious question the legitimacy of a purely textual interpretation. If Cleanthes' views are really to be preferred, then why are The
Dialogues given over so predominantly to the voice, not of Cleanthes, but
of Philo? Is it not true, as Kemp Smith has labored to show,14 that Philo
consistently counters Cleanthes arguments, whereas Cleanthes' responses
to Philo often amount to repeating what he has already stated? And if the
last dialogue is decisive for demonstrating that Cleanthes' views are
Hume's own, then why is Philo so dominant here to the extent that in the
last dialogue Hume gives Pamphilus 8 lines, Cleanthes 66, and Philo 458?
And if Philo really does recant in dialogue 12 all of his arguments made in
the preceding eleven dialogues, thereby giving Cleanthes the victory and
admitting that Cleanthes has been right all along, then why does he
express in his concluding statement a very obscure and minimalist theism
with which Cleanthes would certainly not agree?
If the whole of natural theology, as some people seem to maintain, resolves
itself into one simple, though somewhatambiguous,at least undefined proposition, that the cause or causesof order in the universeprobablybear some remote
analogy to human intelligence: If this proposition be not capable of extension,
variation, or more particularexplication: If it afford no inference that affects
humanlife, or can be the source of any action or forbearance:And if the analogy,
imperfect as it is, can be carried no farther than to the human intelligence;and
cannot be transferred,with any appearanceof probability,to the other qualities
of the mind: If this really be the case, what can the most inquisitive,contemplative, and religious man do more than give a plain, philosophicalassent to the
proposition as often as it occurs; and believe that the arguments on which it is
established, exceed the objections which lie against it? [P. 227]
Certainly we can agree with Hendel, Wieand, and the "Cleanthes is
Hume" proponents that the text itself does support the notion that Hume
is recommending Cleanthes' use of the argument from design. In fact,
from Hermippus's judgment with which the text commences, to
Pamphilus's verdict, which serves as its conclusion, TheDialogues have created the expectation that Cleanthes' views are triumphant. The problem
is, however, that expectations The Dialogues create they also frustrate; the
text leads us to expect that Cleanthes will have the better of the argument,


Kemp Smith (n. 3 above), pp. 69-76.

Hume's Dialogues
but that is precisely what does not occur. That is why in reading The Dialogues we have the feeling that something strange is going on here, that we
are being played with. We have that unusual experience of having the text
build up expectations only to confound them, which Gadamer so aptly
describes as the experience of "being brought up short by the text."'5
Since Philo's cavils often go unanswered by Cleanthes, we are led to ask
whether Philo is really sincere when he says he is only jesting in arguing
against Cleanthes. Might this be one place where Hume is being ironic?
And how can we take Pamphilus's endorsement of Cleanthes seriously as a
reflection of Hume's true views, and can Cleanthes truly be the hero of
The Dialogues since it is Philo who dominates the discussion and always
gets the better of the argument? AsJohn Nelson puts it, "how can the loser
in every match be in truth the hero of a tournament?"'6 Might this not be
another instance of Hume's irony? Even Wieand recognizes this is a possibility when he admits that "clearly, there is some irony in The Dialogues.
The question is where and how much.""7
The moment Wieand admits that there is some irony in The Dialogues,
he immerses himself in a dilemma from which the hermeneutical strategy
he recommends is by no means equipped to extricate him. How can we
both take seriously the possibility of irony in the text and also return with
Wieand to the text and put our trust in the interpretation that the text
supports? If we concede to Wieand that the key to the correct interpretation of The Dialogues is within the text, then what else can we do but listen
to the text closely and hope that it is being straight with us? If our reading
of The Dialogues is purely textual, then on what grounds can we evaluate
just where and exactly how much irony is in The Dialogues? A straight or
purely textual reading must proceed from the confidence that, even
though the text may be ironic, it is not so ironic that it is untrustworthy.
A straight reading proceeds from the confidence that the true meaning
of the text is still discernible within the text itself. But it is precisely this
confidence that our feeling of being played with, of being brought up
short by the text, robs from us. Without this confidence, we cannot be
nearly so sanguine as is Wieand about returning to the text, doing a
purely textual reading, and trusting the results of that reading. After all,
how much confidence can we have in a straight reading of what we suspect is a crooked text?
The other possible way of interpreting The Dialogues that Wieand
points out, that is, by consulting Hume's other works on religion and his
'5 Gadamer, p. 237.
'6John Nelson, "The Role of Part XII in Hume's Dialogues,"HumeStudies, 14, no. 2 (November 1988): 361.
17 Wieand (n. 5 above), p. 37, n. 8.


The Journal of Religion

letters, appears to be a much more reliable way to evaluate the irony in
the text than is a purely textual interpretation. Perhaps we may be more
secure in trusting that Hume really is recommending the theistic views of
Cleanthes since he endorses the argument from design in The Natural
History of Religion. The problem with this, however, is that we cannot be
sure that Hume is not being ironic when he says this in The Natural History of Religion. We cannot solve the problem of how ironic The Dialogues
are by resorting to The Natural History of Religion until we have solved
the problem of how ironic The Natural History of Religion is. The move to
other Hume texts may seem like it puts us on more solid footing, and
many are the critics who have made this move,'8 but in reality it only puts
us on ever thinner ice.
Neither of Wieand's two possible hermeneutical options-the textual
much help in solving the problems of just
and the intertextual-offer
where The Dialogues are ironic and just how much irony they include. A
more fruitful and helpful way to approach the question of irony in The
Dialogues is to ask not where and how much, but why. Why might Hume
in The Dialogues be ironic when he has the characters say certain things?
Might Hume have had any reason for being ironic when composing The
Dialogues so that they appear to be supporting Cleanthes and making him
the hero while actually giving Philo the better of the argument? This is to
ask, Is it possible that we can find in Hume's own particular place and time
a reasonable explanation for why he employed irony in TheDialogues, and
can we thereby gain some clue as to where and how much?
The question of why The Dialogues are ironic leads to a third
hermeneutical option, a third way to interpret the text and to come to
some reasonable conclusion about who speaks for Hume. Perhaps the key
to interpreting The Dialogues is not in the text itself, or in its relation to
other texts, but is in its own unique historical context. This third
hermeneutical option, the contextual or historical approach, is not even
mentioned by Wieand. This oversight is in keeping with the work of
Hendel and of the other "Cleanthes is Hume" proponents, for whom historical considerations have no place in the interpretation of TheDialogues.
In fact, those who think that it is Cleanthes who speaks for Hume never,
or almost never, mention the specific historical situation in which Hume
wrote, and in interpreting TheDialogues straightforwardly they treat them
as if they were just like any other text.
18James Noxon states in his Hume's PhilosophicalDevelopment(Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1973), p. 175, that "the reservations which many commentators on TheDialogueshave felt
about identifying Philo's position as Hume's are mainly owing to the difficulty of reconciling the
sceptic's damaging analysis of the design argument with Hume's own endorsement of it


Hume's Dialogues
If we look into the historical situation in which The Dialogues were written, however, it is evident that they are not at all exactly like any other
text. The fact that they are a posthumously published work, even though
Hume completed them fifteen years before his death, is indicative of the
many ways in which The Dialogues are different and unusual. A text substantially completed by 1761 at the latest but withheld from publication
until 1779, three years after Hume's death, because it wasjudged too subversive to appear during the author's lifetime, is decidedly not like every
other text. A fact always to keep in mind when interpreting The Dialogues
is that, even though there is no agreement about which character speaks
for Hume, still they were considered so threatening to the society in which
they were written that Hume never dared to publish them in his lifetime.
The facts surrounding the composition and the long-delayed publication of The Dialogues are well known, thanks largely to Kemp Smith, but
are rarely mentioned by those who argue that Cleanthes expresses
Hume's true views on religion. Hume completed a shorter version of The
Dialogues by 1751 and circulated it among his friends, every one of whom,
so far as we know, urged him to suppress it for fear of the abuse and perhaps even criminal prosecution it might bring on its author. Dr. Hugh
Blair, for instance, wrote from Paris in 1763 that, if Hume in his writings
had gone "one step farther" and openly declared his lack of religious
beliefs, the atheistic French philosopheswould have erected a statue in his
honor. Blair then shrewdly cautions: "If you showed them the MSS of certain Dialogues perhaps that honour may still be done you. But for God's
sake let that be a posthumous work, if ever it shall see the light: Tho' I
really think it had better not."19 That same year Hume complained in a
letter to Sir Gilbert Elliot: "Is it not hard and tyrannical in you, more hard
and tyrannical than any act of the Stuarts, not to allow me to publish my
Dialogues? Pray, do you not think a proper dedication may atone for what
is exceptionable in them?"20
Hume heeded his friends' advice and refrained from publishing The
Dialogues. He did not desire to offend those members of the moderate
clergy whom he considered friends, and he did not want to increase the
controversy his earlier writings on religion had already caused. "Scotland
is too narrow a place for me," he wrote to Adam Smith in 1759, "and it
mortifies me that I sometimes hurt my friends."21 He hints at the controversy his writings have caused in a letter to his publisher in 1762: "I am

19Raymond Klibanskyand Ernest C. Mossner, eds., NewLettersofDavid Hume(New York: Garland, 1983), 1:72-73, n. 4.
20 Burton,


21Quoted in E. C. Mossner, The Life of David Hume (New York: Nelson,

1934), p. 354.


The Journal of Religion

beginning to love peace very much, and resolve to be more cautious than
formerly in creating myself enemies."22
To ensure that The Dialogues would eventually be published appears to
have been one of Hume's primary concerns during the last few years of his
life. In 1776, when Hume knew his life to be nearing its end, he stipulated
in his will that to Adam Smith "I leave all my manuscripts without exception, desiring to publish my Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion."'23
Smith still maintained that The Dialogues should not be published, so
Hume determined to publish them himself. By this time, however, the
illness that claimed his life was too far advanced, and he knew he would
never live to see his Dialogues come to light. Anxious to make certain that
The Dialogues would not be suppressed after his death, Hume altered his
will and left the manuscript to his publisher. Hume had the foresight to
stipulate that, if The Dialogues were not published within two and a half
years of his death, they would become the property of his nephew, "whose
Duty in publishing them as the last Request of his Uncle, must be
approved by all the World."24 If Hume had not made this last stipulation
just before he died, we might never have had The Dialogues in our literature, for as Hume suspected, none of Hume's friends nor his publisher
would sponsor their publication, and they went unpublished until they
became the possession of Hume's nephew in 1779.
We may better understand the reluctance of Hume's friends to become
associated with The Dialogues if we remember the experiences of Adam
Smith. His antipathy toward The Dialogues was such that after Hume died
he confessed that, if the manuscript had been left to him, "it never should
have been published in my lifetime." Perhaps to relieve some guilt about
this, Smith published the well-known "Letter to William Strahan," where
he describes the admirable qualities of his very good friend, David Hume.
What is not so well known, however, is the great regret the author of The
Wealth of Nations expressed for having done so: "A single, and as I
thought, a very harmless Sheet of Paper, which I happened to write concerning the death of our late friend, Mr. Hume, brought upon me ten
times more abuse than the very violent attack I had made upon the whole
commercial system of Great Britain."25
Bearing in mind the controversy Hume caused in his own place and
time by his writings on religion, and the fact that Hume twice applied for
professorships and twice was denied because of his unorthodox religious
views, and the fact that, while Hume was circulating the manuscript
22Burton (n. 12 above), 1:130.
23Quoted in Kemp Smith,
p. 88.
Ibid., p. 90.
25Mossner, p. 605.


Hume's Dialogues
among his friends in the 1750s, the General Assembly was debating
whether or not to censor his writings,26 and the fact that while Hume was
writing The Dialogues his friends among the moderate clergy were being
attacked for defending him,27 and if we note the quite unusual circumstances surrounding the publication of The Dialogues, we deem it quite
plausible that Hume may not only have wanted The Dialogues to look like
Cleanthes' views are triumphant, but that he even may have had to do
this. Kemp Smith has pointed out that attacks on belief in God and on
Christianity were not permitted by eighteenth-century British society.28
Thus, when historical considerations are taken into account, it seems
fairly certain that Philo's views must be defeated and that Cleanthes' views
must be judged "nearer to the truth" if The Dialogues are to remain dans le
vrai, as Foucault has it, within the boundaries of what a society permits to
be said and written.29 It may not, in fact, be too much to say that The Dialogues are in dialogue form, not because Hume liked the genre, but
because he had to use it. The dialogue form afforded him the best chance
at being permitted to say ironically what he wanted to say. And The Dialogues are ironic, not because of some inveterate but accidental trait of
Hume's character,30 but because they had to be. Since Hume could not
have said straightforwardly what he said ironically in The Dialogues, it
seems likely that he did not choose the irony as much as he had it forced
on him. Historical considerations suggest that the irony in The Dialogues
exists not for the literary reason of preserving the dramatic interest, but
for the practical and ultimately political reason that The Dialogues had to
be presented ironically if Hume were to have any chance of publishing
them without bringing on himself more calumny and perhaps even criminal prosecution.
As we have already said, the historical data concerning both Hume's life
and The Dialogues are well known. The fact is, however, that critics have
exhibited a curious reluctance and, at times, hostility toward believing
that Hume's historical situation might have influenced the manner in
26See Anand Chitnis, TheScottish
A SocialHistory(London: Croom Helm, 1976),
p. 57. When the General Assembly of 1755 did not censor him by name, Hume wrote to Allan
Ramsay:"Mydamnation is postponed for a twelvemonth. But next Assembly will surely be upon
me" (quoted in Richard Cher, Churchand Universityin theScottishEnlightenment[Princeton, N.J.:
Princeton University Press, 1985], p. 66).
27According to Cher, p. 67, "The primary targets of the infidelity campaign of 1755-1756
were not Hume and Kames but their best friends among the Presbyterianclergy-the Moderate
literati of Edinburgh."
28Kemp Smith (n. 3 above), p. 39.
29Michel Foucault, The Archaeologyof Knowledge(New York: Pantheon, 1972), p. 224.
3oSee John Price, TheIronicHume(Austin: University of Texas Press, 1956). In an otherwise
excellent work, Price explains the irony in TheDialoguesprimarily as a literary device and as an
aspect of Hume's character, at the expense of seeing how the irony was forced on Hume by the
societal constraints under which he wrote.


The Journal of Religion

which he composed The Dialogues. James Noxon, for instance, contends
that Hume did not craft The Dialogues to conform with social conventions
because he had not done it in any other work."' This is a curious remark in
light of some interesting historical facts: Hume omitted his essay "Of Miracles" from A Treatise of Human Nature for fear it would offend the religious; he agreed to suppress his essays "On Suicide" and "On the
Immortality of the Soul," which were not published until 1783; he suppressed his 1757 open letter to John Home praising Home's controversial
play Douglas because he decided that the group of moderate literati of
which Home was a member would be more hurt than helped if he publicly
associated himself with them;32and when he criticized the argument from
design in "Of A Particular Providence and A Future State," he used the
oldest and most obvious trick in the book, "I was lately engaged in conversation with a friend who loves sceptical paradoxes ..."33 Noxon also wonders why Hume would "pay so much deference to social convention in a
work planned for posthumous publication"34even though there is no evidence that Hume wrote The Dialogues intending to publish them
posthumously. Quite to the contrary, he queried his friends for a number
of years as to whether it would be wise to publish them and seems to have
always retained some hope despite the controversy that they would evoke
that someday he himself would be able to publish them. In fact, three
months before his death, he wrote to Adam Smith, "If I live a few Years
longer, I shall Publish them myself."35
John Nelson writes that, if Hume "ever was in fact concerned to placate
his religious opponents, he had long since ceased to be" by the time he
began writing TheDialogues.36As we have seen, there is a great deal of evidence that Hume was concerned about his writings creating enemies for
himself. There is no evidence, however, to support Nelson's claim that
Hume's concern for this ceased. In fact, the letters suggest that Hume
actually became more concerned about not making enemies and not
injuring his friends as he tired of controversy in the last two decades of his
life.37 Also, since Nelson contends that Hume was not at all concerned to

31See Noxon, "Hume's Agnosticism" (n. 7 above), p. 375.

32 Cher, p. 80.

33David Hume, An EnquiryConcerningHuman Understanding(LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court, 1958),

p. 146.
34See Noxon, "Hume's Agnosticism," p. 375.
35J. Y. T. Greig, ed., The Lettersof David Hume (New York: Garland, 1983), 2:316.
36Nelson (n. 16 above), p. 351.
37See nn. 21 and 22 above. Hume's growing concern for the controversy his writings
embroiled him in is also seen in his 1755 letter to Dr.John Cleophance, in which he declares that
the treatment of religion in the first volume of his Historyof GreatBritain "should have received
more softenings" (quoted in Cher, p. 66).


Hume's Dialogues
placate his religious opponents, the onus is on him to explain then why
Hume opted not to publish TheDialogues when he finished them in 1761.
Nelson Pike provides another very interesting reason for not believing
that Hume would craft The Dialogues to make them more acceptable to
society. He says that this would amount to "intellectual subterfuge" and
that it is "a big step to accuse any author" of this.38If Hume's historical situation were such that the only way he could publish what he wished to
publish was to make Cleanthes, rather than Philo, look like the hero of The
Dialogues, it is hard to understand how this necessary action can be taken
as "intellectual subterfuge." If Hume did in fact make Cleanthes his hero
not because he really believed in that character's views but because he had
to to get The Dialogues published-which is at least possible considering
that even so he still never published them-this provides us with no
grounds for accusing Hume of anything. If anything, it bestows on us not
the right to accuse, but the responsibility in our interpreting to penetrate
beyond the mere textual meaning to the historical exigencies that burdened the author when he wrote. It bestows on us the responsibility to
take seriously the historical context of the text and to respond to the text
out of, as Gadamer has it, "the ethic of the historical consciousness, the
conscientiousness of the historical mind."39
Even those critics who believe that Hume did compose The Dialogues to
look like they support Cleanthes even though Philo actually voices
Hume's true views have shown an inability to take seriously the exigencies
of Hume's historical situation. James Orr, for instance, writes that Hume
often included in his writings certain pious passages that certainly did not
reflect his own beliefs. He did this, Orr thinks, not because he had to to
get his work published, but because he had a penchant for mocking Christianity, which Orr calls "reprehensible."40Greig says Hume made TheDialogues look less subversive because "he was desperately anxious to get the
book published." According to Greig, this amounted to "weakness" on
Hume's part.41 Even John Price, who notes that, when one is criticizing a
society's most cherished beliefs, "irony is frequently the best method of
keeping one's skin," still says quite naively: "Hume could have easily constructed an ending in which Philo's superiority was announced." Hume
made Cleanthes the hero of TheDialogues, Pricejudges, not out of a desire
to keep his skin but, rather, to exhibit "admirable artistic

38See Nelson Pike's

commentary in his edition of The Dialogues(New York: Bobbs-Merrill,
1970), p. 223.
39Hans-Georg Gadamer, PhilosophicalHermeneutics(Berkeley: University of California Press,
1977), p. 204.
4oJames Orr, David Hume (New York: Scribner's, 1903), p. 207.
41 Greig, ed., pp. 237-38.
42Price (n. 30 above), pp. 131 ff.


The Journal of Religion

The questionwe are pressedto askis, Whyhavethe criticsfoundit so
difficultto believethatHume'shistoricalsituationaffectedhowhe composedTheDialogues?
Whyhavetheybeenreluctantto believethatHume
madeCleanthesthe herobecausethiswasthe onlywayhe couldeventry
to get hisworkpublished,andwhyhavetheypreferredto believeinstead
eitherthatHumedid thisbecausehe wasmalicious,or weak,or because
he reallydid believethat Cleanthes'viewsare "nearerto the truth?"In
otherwords,whyis therein the historyof receptionof Hume'stext such
an obviousresistanceto believethathistoricalforcesactuallyimpingedon
and affectedthe writingof the text?
Perhapswe canfinda clueto thisin RolandBarthes'scritiqueof traditionalliteraryhistoryin hisOnRacine.43
historicismnot onlyfor being"authorcentered"butalsofor viewingthe
authoras a greatmanwhorisesabovethe limitations
of hisownhistorical
situationto producethe timelesstext.44The greatwriter,the authorof
the classic,is not one whois immersedin hisowntime,butone whotranscendshis own time.The beliefthatgreatwriterstranscendtimerather
thanmakeconcessionsto it and are affectedby it perhapsexplainswhy
somecriticshavethoughtthatto saythatin somewayHumehadto comso asto conformto theacceptedconventionsof hisown
reallyto attackhim or to accusehim of something.
Anotherplausiblereasonwhycriticshaveresistedthe notionthathistoricalforcesimpingedon andaffectedthe writingof Hume'stext hasto
do with the way in whichwe as twentieth-century
readersmost often
understandthe meaningof a text. The meaningof a text, we mostoften
contend,is accessibleto uspreciselybecauseit is not lockedupbackin the
past,in the relationbetweenauthorandhisor herhistoricalsituation,but
is presentin the wordsof the text. The pastof the authoris irretrievably
past,gone, dead.But the text is neverpast,is alwayspresentin thatit is
alwaysquickenedwiththe life of language.The life of languagegivesthe
text its meaning.
Thisis, of course,the viewof textsthatwascertainlynot originatedby,
but canonizedby the New Critics.Forthem,the text is an autonomous
artifactwitha life of its own, cut off fromthe historicalsituationout of
whichit comes.45
Althoughthe heydayof NewCriticismis nowlongpast,
43Roland Barthes, On Racine, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill & Wang, 1964).
44Frank Lentricchia, in commenting on On Racinein his AftertheNew Criticism(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 135, notes that "even the most casual perusal of the tables of
contents of books that are presented as literary histories will confirm his [Barthes's] point that
traditional historicism, in its granting of privilege to the author, is largely driven by the idealist
notion that the so-called major writer is one who transcends his times."
45See Lentricchia's treatment of New Criticism in his After the New Criticism.Also, Terry
Eagleton in his LiteraryTheory(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), p. 48, states


Hume's Dialogues
the various literary theories that have since arisen to take its place have
accepted much more than they have challenged the notion that the meaning of a text is to be found, not in the relation between text and author,
but in the text itself. For example, the meaning of a text for Derrida and
the Yale deconstructionists is within the play of the signifiers, a fact that
has led Frank Lentricchia to label the deconstructionists "the newest generation of New Critics"46and has led Terry Eagleton to suggest that in a
sense "Anglo-American deconstruction is no more than the return of the
old New Critical formalism."47Similarly, even a discourse analyst such as
Paul Ricoeur declares his agreement with the view of a text as "a kind of
atemporal object, which has, so to speak, cut its ties from all historical
development."48 Understanding the meaning of a text, writes Ricoeur,
"has less than ever to do with the author and his situation."49
Perhaps not surprisingly, it is the harshest critic of contemporary literary theory's New Critical inheritance who reminds us of what our tendency to view authors as somehow transcendent to history and texts as cut
off from history causes us to forget. In his The World, the Text, and the
Critic, Edward Said declares: "nearly everyone producing literary or cultural studies makes no allowance for the truth that all intellectual work
occurs somewhere, at some time, on some previously mapped-out and
permissible terrain, which is ultimately contained by the state."50 It is precisely this truth that TheDialogues force us to confront. Wieand's call for a
return to the text reveals the inadequacy of a purely textual interpretation
and the need for a hermeneutical strategy that considers the text's historical context. The Dialogues force on the reader, not a return to the text, as
Wieand and so many others recommend, but a return to context, a return
to history, to that "previously mapped-out and permissible terrain, which
is ultimately contained by the state."
Frank Lentricchia argues that an antihistorical view of texts is
tied to an idealistic conception of history that sees history, not as the scene
of disruption and change, but of continuity and sameness.5' One ramificathat for the New Critics "rescuingthe text from author and reader went hand in hand with disentangling it from any social or historical context. ... The poem must be plucked free of the wreckage of history and hoisted into a sublime space above it."
46Frank Lentricchia, Criticismand SocialChange(Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1983),
p. 39.
47Eagleton, p. 146.
48Paul Ricoeur, Interpretation
Theory:Discourseand theSurplusof Meaning(Fort Worth: Texas
Christian University Press, 1976), p. 91.
49Paul Ricoeur, "The Model of the Text: Meaningful Action Considered as a Text," Social
Research38, no. 3 (Fall 1971): 557-58.
50 EdwardSaid, TheWorld,theText,and theCritic(Cambridge, Mass.:Harvard
University Press,
1983), p. 169.
51See Lentricchia's After the New Criticism,pp. 109 ff.


The Journal of Religion

tion of conceiving of history as the repetition of the same is that the texts
coming to us from the past are regarded as equally free, equally permitted. History as the repetition of the same means that all times and all
places grant all authors the freedom to write what they wish and to
inscribe their meaning within the words of the text, there to be discerned
by the reader. What is forgotten when history is viewed as the repetition
of the same is difference, otherness within both history and text.
The inadequacy of an ahistorical, purely textual interpretation of The
Dialogues enables us to recover otherness in history and in text. The Dialogues are not at all just like any other text, and their difference results
from their rootedness in another time and another place very different
from our own. A place and a time in which Hume was not permitted to
write whatever he wished about religion, in which he had to use the dialogue form and irony to make the character who expresses views acceptable to society at the time appear to be the hero of the work to even have a
chance of getting it published, is genuinely other than our own, perhaps
more so than we most often realize. The Dialogues are different because
they are a product of this otherness in history. The otherness of the text
results from and, if our reading will allow it, testifies to the otherness of
the past, the otherness within history.
If The Dialogues return us to history, by doing so they also bestow on us
the responsibility and the obligation to try to decipher as best we can the
difference between the historical context in which Hume wrote and the
one in which we read and interpret. If we are correct in thinking that historical considerations are decisive in determining which character speaks
for Hume, then we have the responsibility and the obligation to be conscientious in our historical research. This responsibility and this obligation
mean that there is an aspect of our interpreting which could rightly be
called ethical. Gadamer points us toward this when he writes of "the ethic
of the historical consciousness, the conscientiousness of the historical
Wayne Booth, in his recent book on ethical criticism, entitled The Company WeKeep, asks if the reader is obligated in any way to the author, owes
the author "any special kind of reading conduct."53 To really answer this
question, Booth readily admits, "would require a different kind of book,
one that would come back with the good news that obligations to others,
dead or alive, have rational force."54
Doubtless, no contemporary philosopher has insisted more strongly on
52Gadamer, PhilosophicalHermeneutics(n. 37 above), p. 204.
5 Wayne Booth, The CompanyWeKeep (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California
Press, 1988), p. 165.
54 Ibid.


Hume's Dialogues
our obligations to others than Emmanuel Levinas. He, too, has been concerned with the ethical aspect of interpretation. For Levinas, the primary
task of interpretation is, not to echo the meaning of the text, but to link
the text to the real history of the person who created it.55 Only by doing
this, says Levinas, can we hope to discover that in the process of interpretation, not only is there within the words of the text a meaning to be discerned, but there is also an obligation to and responsibility for another
person, for the person who, across the miles and the years, first gave life to
the text.
Hume's Dialogues are particularly illuminative of this obligation and
this responsibility. By revealing the inadequacy of a purely textual interpretation, they return us to the text's context in place and time, to history.
They also reveal and return us to the ethical aspect of interpretation, to
what Gadamer calls the "ethic of the historical consciousness," which
springs, as Levinas always reminds us, from our ethical obligation to and
responsibility for the other person. For it is ultimately this obligation and
this responsibility that drives us beyond what the text merely says in order
to come to the most plausible interpretation as to what Hume himself
really thought regarding the religious question, so as to fulfill our obligation to him and to render a just interpretation of his (and our) text.
55See Emmanuel Levinas's 1948 essay, "Realityand Its Shadow" in his CollectedPhilosophical
Papers, trans. A. Lingis (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987).