The Philosophers' Quarrel: Rousseau, Hume, and the Limits of Human Understanding
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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.
Voltaire himself entered the fray with an open letter to Hume, “Letter from Monsieur de Voltaire to Monsieur Hume,” dated October 24, 1766, in which he commiserated with Hume, declaring that Rousseau’s charges against his former patron constituted “the proceeding of ingratitude against generosity.” After reviewing his own sad history with the ungrateful Genevan (now admitting that he had been misinformed about Rousseau’s service as a lackey, but nevertheless managing to turn his actual role as
Geneva’s Discourse on the Sciences and Arts in mind when he wrote “Of Reﬁnement in the Arts,” which he included in the 1752 edition of the Essays, published a year after the appearance T H E G R E AT S C O T of the discourse that made Rousseau famous.26 While Rousseau wrung his hands over the enervating eﬀect of the arts on our minds and bodies and feared the incompatibility of liberty and the arts, Hume was reassured by the march of human ingenuity. Evidence abounds that industry and art are
that the philosophes, and above all Voltaire, were hurling against the established religion.41 “Ardent missionaries of atheism and very imperious dogmatists,” Rousseau later wrote in the Reveries, “there is no way that they would, without anger, put up with anyone daring to think other than they did about any point whatever.”42 For Voltaire, then, Rousseau was no better than Charles Palissot, whose plays, including Les Philosophes of 1760, mocked the Encyclopedists (most of all Rousseau) and who
them to the post oﬃce and recover the costs. Unable to reason with Rousseau, yet unwilling to entrust the letters to the postal service, Hume decided to cull the important ones to forward to his friend. “I am indeed ashamed to ﬁnd myself obliged to discover such petty circumstances,” Hume concludes his note.27 159 160 H U M E , J U D G E O F L E B O N DAV I D Rousseau’s longest note to his letter, in turn, also raises the question of Hume’s handling of his letters. Having just arrived at
greatly disturbed me. To get rid of the embarrassment I lay under, I endeavored to look full at him in my turn; but, in ﬁxing my eyes against his, I felt the most inexpressible terror, and was obliged soon to turn them away. The speech and physiognomy of the good David is that of an honest man; but where, great God! did this good man borrow those eyes he ﬁxes so sternly and unaccountably on those of his friends? Just as Rousseau will separate “Jean-Jacques” and “Rousseau” in his Dialogues in