The Unity of Hume’s Four Dissertations

The Unity of Hume’s Four Dissertations

Amyas Merivale

45th International Hume Society Conference
Budapest, 27th July

Hume’s Four Dissertations

… are his Enquiry concerning the Passions.

Hume on Art, Emotion, and Superstition:
A Critical Study of Hume’s Four Dissertations

Routledge, forthcoming

The History of the Four Dissertations

  • Natural History of Religion
  • Of the Passions
  • Of Tragedy
  • Of Geometry
  • Natural History of Religion
  • Of the Passions
  • Of Tragedy
  • Of Geometry
  • Natural History of Religion
  • Of the Passions
  • Of Tragedy
  • Of Geometry
  • Of Suicide
  • Of the Immortality of the Soul
  • Natural History of Religion
  • Of the Passions
  • Of Tragedy
  • Of Geometry
  • Of Suicide
  • Of the Immortality of the Soul
  • Of the Standard of Taste
  • ...
  • Of Tragedy
  • Of the Standard of Taste

  • First Enquiry
  • Dissertation on the Passions
  • Moral Enquiry
  • Natural History of Religion

The Unity of the Four Dissertations

Hume had… originally envisaged a different collection of essays, and it seems unlikely that he had a philosophical vision that integrally linked geometry, religion, and the passions. Any integrity he might have envisioned, at some point in its history of shifting contents, could have been a consequence of fortuitous circumstances.

Tom Beauchamp


  • It is only Of the Standard of Taste that was a late addition.
  • Nothing suggests that Hume didn’t initially conceive of the first three as a coherent set.
  • Nor is there anything to suggest that he didn’t then write Of the Standard of Taste with the other three in mind.
  • The links even extend to the abandoned dissertation on geometry…

Geometry and the Passions

The abandoned dissertation on geometry presumably included a reworking of Treatise Book 1, part 2, Of the ideas of space and time.

Book 2 of the Treatise contains two substantial sections (3,700 words) discussing the influence of space and time on the passions.

In the Dissertation on the Passions, these two sections are reduced to just a single sentence: What is distant, either in place or time, has not an equal influence [on the passions] with what is near and contiguous (P 6.18).

A Wild Conjecture

The abandoned dissertation on geometry included (an abridged version of) the discussion of the influence of space and time on the passions.

Editing Book 2, part 3

  • Liberty and necessity
  • Passion and reason
  • Causes of the violent passions
    • The conversion principle
    • Custom
    • The imagination
    • Space and time
  • The direct passions
  • Curiosity
  • Enquiry, section 8
  • Dissertation, section 1
  • [deleted]
  • Dissertation, section 5
  • Dissertation, section 6
    • paragraphs 1-11
    • paragraph 12
    • paragraphs 13-17
    • paragraph 18

The Standard of Taste

[F]ew are qualified to give judgment on any work of art, or establish their own sentiment as the standard of beauty… Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty.

ST 23

The Million-Dollar Question

What’s so special about the true judges? Why should their sentiments set the standard for the rest of us?

The Science of Criticism

The subjects of the understanding and passions make a compleat chain of reasoning by themselves; and I was willing to take advantage of this natural division, in order to try the taste of the public. If I have the good fortune to meet with success, I shall proceed to the examination of morals, politics, and criticism; which will compleat this Treatise of human nature.

T Ad1739

Men, in this country, have been so much occupied in the great disputes of Religion, Politics, and Philosophy, that they had no relish for the seemingly minute observations of grammar and criticism. And though this turn of thinking must have considerably improved our sense and our talent of reasoning; it must be confessed, that, even in those sciences above-mentioned, we have not any standard-book, which we can transmit to posterity: And the utmost we have to boast of, are a few essays towards a more just philosophy; which, indeed, promise well, but have not, as yet, reached any degree of perfection.

CL 8

The Rules of Art

Thus the hunt was on for the rules of art: general causal laws governing what features of art works give rise to which passions, and in particular which properties give rise to the positive sentimental responses.

Particularism: there are no rules

There is no a priori guarantee that a science of criticism, of the sort that Hume envisaged, will be possible. A science of this sort is concerned with uncovering general principles, but what if the relevant phenomena are simply too diverse to admit of any substantial generalizations?

Hume against the Particularists

But though all the general rules of art are founded only on experience and on the observation of the common sentiments of human nature, we must not imagine, that, on every occasion, the feelings of men will be conformable to these rules. Those finer emotions of the mind are of a very tender and delicate nature, and require the concurrence of many favourable circumstances to make them play with facility and exactness, according to their general and established principles. The least exterior hindrance to such small springs, or the least internal disorder, disturbs their motion, and confounds the operation of the whole machine.

ST 10

The organs of internal sensation are seldom so perfect as to allow the general principles their full play, and produce a feeling correspondent to those principles. They either labour under some defect, or are vitiated by some disorder; and by that means, excite a sentiment, which may be pronounced erroneous.

ST 23

The Big If

If, in the sound state of the organ, there be an entire or a considerable uniformity of sentiment among men, we may thence derive an idea of the perfect beauty[.]

ST 12

If not, presumably, the Humean is forced to acknowledge particularism, to abandon the science of criticism, and to accept the relativist’s conclusion.

But Do the True Judges Agree?

It is hard to see why we should grant the assumption that the ideal critics will, even for the most part, converge.

Matthew Kieran

The principle weakness of Hume’s account is his blithe optimism about the uniformity of response of his true judges.

Malcolm Budd

The Test of Time

The same Homer, who pleased at Athens and Rome two thousand years ago, is still admired at Paris and at London. All the changes of climate, government, religion, and language, have not been able to obscure his glory… It appears then, that, amidst all the variety and caprice of taste, there are certain general principles of approbation or blame, whose influence a careful eye may trace in all operations of the mind.

ST 11-12

It is sufficient for my purpose, if I have made it appear, that, in the production and conduct of the passions, there is a certain regular mechanism, which is susceptible of as accurate a disquisition, as the laws of motion, optics, hydrostatics, or any part of natural philosophy.

P 6.19

Outstanding Questions

  • Are there other explanations for Homer’s enduring fame?
  • Paris and London are one thing, but how does Homer fare in Tokyo or Pyongyang?
  • Could the mere exposure effect explain Homer’s reputation?
  • What about mere exposure to bad art?