Postlude to Adoption of the Constitution and Berkeley and Hume

This week’s blog is a breather and chance to take stock of where we are in this review of political philosophy and theology and to look just a bit at the way forward. The adoption of the United States Constitution was the high-water mark of the Enlightenment’s contribution to politics. The establishment of the United States created for the first time a government born of the theories at which we have been looking from Hobbes through Locke (especially), Rousseau, Montesquieu, as well as other 18th century thinkers we have not been able to review. The American Revolution was successful and a high point in the development of the modern world and modern democracy. History, however, never stops—and difficulties were to come.

French Revolution

Immediately after the Constitution was enacted, the French Revolution (1789-1799) erupted, with its nihilistic violence and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, causing thinking people everywhere to question its revolutionary idealism. The French Revolution, like other revolutions since, did not produce in France the stable democratic government and prosperity for which Enlightenment thinkers hoped. Instead, it produced deadly and erratic violence followed by a dictatorship that was a return to an imperial form of government characteristic of Alexander the Great and the Roman empire. Inevitably, the nations of Europe were engulfed in a long war against an aggressive military conqueror. Despite the progressive ideals of the Enlightenment, history seemed to be moving backwards.

American Unresolved Questions

The American Constitution, as critics often point out, left unresolved the question of slavery. During the first two-thirds of the 19th Century, after a brief period of solidification of the national government and its structures, the question of slavery was the dominant political issue of the day—and an issue that American politicians found impossible to resolve peacefully. This led to the American Civil War and the adoption of the several amendments to the Constitution that both permanently outlawed slavery and eventually vastly expanded the powers of the national government. The Civil War and its amendments will be the subject of future blogs this fall.

The Civil War settled the questions of slavery and of whether the states were sovereign and free to leave or sovereign but subordinate to the Federal Government. Furthermore, the Civil War began the rapid emergence of the United States as an industrial, economic, and military power. This set the stage for American involvement in the two great world wars of the 20th Century and what has been called, “The American Century.”

Political Philosophy After Locke

Philosophically, in my view, two thinkers brought the first phase of the Enlightenment to a close: George Berkeley (1685-1753) and David Hume (1711-1776). In particular, Hume’s radical skepticism threatened the entire Enlightenment project. [1] Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who credited Hume for “waking him from his dogmatic slumbers,” and Fredrich Hegel (1770-1831) represent attempts to salvage Enlightenment on idealistic grounds. With Hegel the stage was set for the work of Karl Marx and the rise of 20th Century Marxism. This period is what I will call the second stage of the Enlightenment Project.

Interestingly from the point of view of political philosophy, Hume and Kant represent a continuation of the hopeful political thought of Descartes, Newton, Locke and others. They tacitly accept the division of the universe into matter and energy (force) and the division sponsored by Descartes between mind and matter, as two sperate things. They are suspicious of revealed religion and especially the Roman Catholic Church. They supported republican democracy, and their work was designed to defend the social and political achievements of the Enlightenment.

Naïve Idealism

George Berkeley was a critic of the materialism of Hobbes, the rationalism of Descartes, and the empiricism of Locke. Faced with the stark mind body dualism of Descartes, Berkeley defended a kind of naive idealism in which the fundamental reality is not matter but mind. There is no mind body dualism because everything is mind. Berkeley saw the weakness of Lockean empiricism in the fact that all the ideas and knowledge human beings possess comes from the senses via the mind. There is no necessary connection in Locke’s empiricism between the material world and our ideas of it. We do not know things, only sense impressions.

In Berkeley’s system, there is no stable external reality, only ideas. The ground of the continuity of our ideas is God, who functions for Berkeley as the ground of reality and the guarantor of the validity of human perception and thought. Politically, Berkeley viewed God as the source of the moral and laws. As one author notes, “Berkeley conceived of his immaterialism as part of his lifelong struggle against what he variously called atheism, skepticism or free-thinking – the challenge to religious authority over the social world.” [2] Politically, he was a supporter of the status quo, of slavery, and of social stratification. His political thought has never been popular or important

Hume’s Skepticism

The radical idealism of Berkeley was gleefully and most people think successfully attacked by David Hume. Hume died the year tyear the American Revolution began, and in this sense he is a thinker that preceded the Constitution. His work, however, has been more influential in years since the American Revolution. Born in Scotland, Hume was the leading thinker of what is sometimes called the “Scottish Enlightenment. He was the son of a Presbyterian minister, who gave up his faith for a kind of radical skepticism. Although Hume was a congenial person, his conclusions made him anathema to the Scottish leaders of his day, and he was twice denied professorships. Early on he published his Treatise on Human Nature (1737-8) which did not receive the notice for which its author hoped. Only later was his work appreciated, which is why he appears at this stage of our study.

No less a skeptical thinker than Bertrand Russell found the conclusions of Hume convincing but horrifying, and could only hope for a valid refutation, none being forthcoming up to his lifetime. [3] Hume accepted Berkeley’s notion that all we know are sense impressions. In Hume’s system, however, there is no God to guarantee the stability of the world and human perception, nor is there any necessary connection between successive sense impressions. His radical disjunction between the human mind and the material universe led to conclusions that undermined the validity of all human knowledge, including Newtonian science.

In this regard, most philosophers focus on Hume’s denial of causality. Hume denies that we can know causes. We only observe a succession of impressions and infer cause from that succession, but that inference is not a direct observation of cause. In other words, Hume uses empiricist idea that all of our ideas are based on sense impressions to eliminate one of the foundations of modern thought, the notion of cause. Thus, he concludes:

In a word, then, every effect is a distinct event from its cause. It could not, therefore, be discovered in the cause, and the first invention or conception of it a priori, must be entirely arbitrary. [4]

Taken at face value, this conclusion makes scientific thought impossible. All science could conceivably do is establish wholly arbitrary connections among sense impressions. [5] Here we see the beginnings of Positivism, which will emerge in the 19th and early 20th Centuries.

From the standpoint of moral and political thought, Hume’s skepticism has two other results. First, is Hobbes conclusion that there is no human “self”. Remember that Descartes began his philosophical system with the observation that the thinks therefore he must exist. [6] Hume denies that this is a valid conclusion. According to Hume, all we can know is successive perceptions which succeed on another. In this, as in other areas, Hume is a forerunner of the radical denial of a stable “self” characteristic of some forms of modern and post-modern thought. [7] Although his common sense approach to morals and politics ignores the implications of his conclusions, in the end if there is no stable self, there can be no stable moral actor in personal or public morality.

Second, Hume is a radical nominalist. All generals are illusory. They are simply names we give successive sense impressions based upon future expectations, which are often unwarranted. All of our general ideas are simply terms annexed to successive sense impressions that enable us to recall those sense impressions. Thus, ideals such as the good, the true and the beautiful, the notion of virtue and other transcendental ideals are emptied of content except for their base in sense and expectation. C. S. Peirce, as readers may recall, viewed this as the end of all thinking and a gigantic error. Once again, Hume raised in Christian Europe and in a traditional Scottish household accepted the common early Enlightenment hostility towards tradition and attitude that Christianity could be stripped of all its supernatural aspects, such as miracles without undermining morality. He did not grasp that the emotional response that a middle-class 18thCentury Scottish intellectual would have towards murder and other crimes might not be sustainable on the basis of a common human feeling of revulsion against such crimes.

Finally, Hume was a religious sceptic. As a child, he seems to have been religious, but in his adult life he rejected the miraculous and any form of orthodox Christianity. His radical empiricism and nominalism resulted in a denial of the rational validity of religious belief. He does not seem to have been an atheist so much as an agnostic, that is a person who does not believe that the question of whether there is or is not a god can be answered. His most famous religious conclusion is that no amount of evidence could possibly be created for miracles since some other natural explanation, however incredible, would be more likely to be true on empirical grounds. This view was based upon his definition of a miracle as something that transgresses a law of nature, a definition that many philosophers of religion reject.

Hume’s Political Thinking

Hume rejected both the notion of social contract maintaining that no government has ever been formed based on the universal consent of those governed, and any supernatural, divine source of government. Historically, Hume sees the contract theory as impossible, since there is no historic evidence for such a contract and many governments have been formed without such a contract, for example by conquest. In any case, even if there had been such a contract, no such contract would bind a future generation. Hume also rejects Locke’s notion of tacit consent, waging at attack on the idea that is nearly impossible to refute.

Hume grounds his political thought on the notion that people are loyal to a political system out of self-interest in the maintenance of a stable society. However a government is formed, it establishes a stable rule by creating conditions acceptable to its subjects. Once a stable government has emerged, it is founded on convention, that is on the mere fact that it exists and is performing the duties of a government. As such, Hume believes that there is no duty to support a government that is not performing its duties on behalf of society.

Hume’s practical, moral reasoning was empirical based upon the utility of an action. [8] Similarly, his political thought is utilitarian. Human governments are matters of convention based upon the need for protection from violence and justice in human relationships. Political legitimacy is based upon a government furthering the interests of its people. Government is legitimate only insofar as it promotes the common good. Once again, Hume seems not to have grasped that the notion of common good in his day was profoundly impacted by the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian tradition, and would not be able to be defended on Enlightenment principles alone.

Hume’s thought is also evolutionary. His view of political life is based upon his understanding of the gradual emergence of existing governmental forms, which was his own experience in Great Britain and its long history of the gradual evolution of democratic institutions. Hume was a political moderate, believing that excessive political conflict is ruinous to government. He supported the mixed form of government characteristic of Great Britain in his day.


I have placed Hume here in our philosophical wanderings because his thought, though not important during his lifetime contains the seeds of the final end of the Enlightenment project that emerges by the end of the 19th Century. His radical skepticism will eventually win the day. Fortunately, by the early 20th Century, a new physics and philosophical approach to fundamental issues will emerge, and with it hope to reconstruct a sound basis for freedom on somewhat different grounds. I am out of time and space, but hope to return to Hume again before this series of blogs is complete.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] When I refer to the Enlightenment Project, I am referring to the Age of Reason and the early enlightenment philosophers and their followers, who believed that human reason would liberate the human race from religious prejudice, monarchy, limited liberty, and usher in an era of unlimited progress. This period ended with the work of Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud whose work undermined confidence in human reason and exposed the psychologically dark materialistic, power-worshiping side of modernity. We will cover the “Four Horsemen” of the end of modernity in the Fall of 2021 Spring of 2022, I think.

[2] Tom Jones, On the necessity of obedience (downloaded, September 10, 2021).

[3] Bertand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (New York, NY: Simon and Shuster, 1945), 659

[4] David Hume, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Part I, Section 25 in Hutchins, Robert Maynard. 1955. Great books of the Western World. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume 35: “Locke, Berkeley, Hume”

[5] This was Alfred North Whitehead’s conclusion concerning the impact of Hume’s reasoning. See, Science and the Modern World (New York, NY: Beacon Press), 1925. We will examine Whitehead’s response to Hume when we look at process thought and its political implications.

[6] “Cognito Ergo Sum” or “I think, therefore I am.”

[7] Once again, Whitehead’s philosophy contains an explicit, and I think convincing answer to Hume, which will be dealt with in due time. Our personal identity does evolve under the pressure of all the incidents of our lives, which the self absorbs and integrates all of the experiences of our life, occasionally with fundamental results, but the notion of personal identity is fundamental in the self-identity experienced by human beings. See, Whitehead, Adventures in Ideas (New York, NY: Beacon Books, 1933) 186-187. From a religious point of view, a transforming moment of faith changes the human person in fundamental ways, but also leaves present the person who has come to faith.

[8] In this sense Hume is a forerunner of Utilitarianism, which will be dealt with later in these blogs. In passing, I note that Hume can also be seen as the forerunner of logical positivism.

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