Socratic Deformation

This review of Rousseau’s Dog is odd.

How silly can clever men be? For anyone on more than nodding acquaintance with university professors, the answer is clear: ‘very silly indeed’. For the fortunate majority denied first-hand experience, this account of the relationship between two of the wisest fools in Christendom will fill the gap.

Well, of course, clever university professors can be extremely silly, especially moderately clever ones who think they’re more than moderately clever, as moderately clever university professors often do, on account of spending several hours every week looking at the upturned faces of dear little undergraduates who know less than they do (see ‘Socratic deformation’ in The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense). But some are sillier than others, and not all are silly. Let’s not get carried away here. Just because clever people can be silly, it doesn’t follow that Hume was as silly as Rousseau.

There are plenty more such good moments in this wonderfully readable account of two very silly men.

That’s a silly concluding sentence on this subject; it’s a lot sillier than anything Hume ever wrote. (Yes, I have; every word.)

Carole Angier is much better. Much less, one might say, silly.

…our authors seek to discover what really happened between Rousseau and Hume, and to adjudicate between them. The debate, as they present it, is between sense and sensibility, rationality and feeling, and they come down on the side of feeling. In the case of Hume, the opposition is simplified. But if, like me, you choose sense, you’ll want to argue with E and E on almost every page.

I do choose sense. Feeling (of course; obviously; indisputably) is essential, but it needs to be checked by rationality. Rousseau wasn’t always terribly good at that, and he certainly wasn’t always generous. Hume was immensely generous to Rousseau, and Rousseau was immensely ungrateful and vindictive in return. There is no contest between the two of them.

It’s the accepted view of Hume they want to challenge: le bon David, universally admired for his decency and serenity. They certainly show that, about these events at least, he was far from serene; and not always decent either…we’d probably all agree that he behaved badly in publicly attacking poor, tormented Rousseau, instead of maintaining a charitable silence. They show that Hume was human. But they go much further than this. They always find the best possible explanation for Rousseau, and the worst possible one for Hume.

The trouble is…wanting to challenge an accepted view is an agenda like any other, and it can cause one to distort the evidence just as any other agenda can. It’s yet another distortion-device that one needs to be careful about.

Rousseau’s Dog traduces and misinterprets Hume like this throughout. He grounded his moral philosophy on the human capacity for altruism and fellow-feeling, and he practised both in his life. He failed with Rousseau, but so did everyone else. E and E suggest that the encounter with brilliant, unbalanced Rousseau made Hume temporarily unbalanced himself. I fear the same has happened to them.

Funny that it didn’t occur to them that there might have been a reason that Hume was universally admired for his decency and serenity and that people ended up fleeing from Rousseau. Maybe they’re rather silly clever people too.

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