Rediscovering Hume: Philosophy, custom, and political life in the “Treatise”

Joseph K Vetter, Fordham University


Hume's elevation of custom and the passions as the guiding forces of human judgment and action is commonly seen as a conservative response to the radical propensities of Enlightenment rationalism. In this sense, his philosophy is thought to provide a defense of established customs and institutions against calls for change. A careful analysis of Hume's epistemological project in the Treatise, however, casts doubt on this view. The conservative interpretation emphasizes the centrality of custom in Hume's thought. But in the Treatise custom is presented in an ambiguous and often negative light. By providing the basis of causal judgment, custom is essential to all thought and action. Yet at the same time, it is the source of prejudices that generate erroneous judgments. Together with the passions it forms a tangled web of subjective experiences which distort our thinking. Custom thus emerges as both a helpful guide which enables thought to proceed, but also as a powerful ideological force which constricts thought. Paradoxically, by revealing the pervasive presence of custom in our thinking, Hume's philosophy diminishes its influence over us, enabling us to more clearly see things in themselves. His epistemology thus serves a deeply reformist purpose. Rather than encouraging acceptance of inherited beliefs, it generates a philosophic self-awareness that frees us to critically examine and correct them. The reformist character of Hume's epistemology is mirrored in his politics. Hume argues that the fundamental institutions of political life have no natural basis independent of society, but are created by convention and maintained through custom to promote societal interest. The recognition that a custom-driven psychological attachment to established institutions is crucial to stability is typically seen as a hallmark of Hume's conservatism. But by revealing their dependence on mere custom and the subjective properties of human psychology, Hume weakens the hold of these institutions over our consciousness. Through this demystification of political authority, Hume frees us to evaluate inherited institutions in terms of their effectiveness in advancing the public good. Thus Hume's political thought does not constitute a conservative defense of the establishment, but rather opens the door to philosophic reevaluation and reform.

Subject Area

Political science|Philosophy

Recommended Citation

Vetter, Joseph K, "Rediscovering Hume: Philosophy, custom, and political life in the “Treatise”" (2001). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3017562.