Left alone with merely the lead title of Dennis Rasmussen’s wonderful and welcome new book, The Infidel and the Professor, one might be forgiven for anticipating the pages within to contain a familiar tale of conflict and confrontation—the sort of strife with which philosophical discourse has become so regrettably identified since, at least, Socrates was put to death for his contributions. Such an expectation might easily be amplified by certain popular receptions of the two Scottish Enlightenment thinkers who serve as Rasmussen’s primary subjects: In this corner, we have David Hume (the Infidel), modernity’s irreligious, philosophical skeptic; in that corner stands Adam Smith (the Professor), modernity’s progenitor of conventional thought. Very fortunately, Rasmussen’s historically instructive and philosophically discerning work has no truck with such easy caricatures. And despite the suggestion of its title, what we are offered is an account centered much more on concord than conflict—an extremely engaging book that unveils one of the more loving and mutually encouraging personal and philosophical friendships in the history of Western thought.
In unfolding Hume and Smith’s relationship, Rasmussen’s book charts a chronological path. After some initial stage-setting, the various chapter divisions of the book delineate the different chapters of their respective lives and developing friendship, each signposted by moments of significance—major publications, changes of employment, travel, and personal encounters. Regarding the latter, it is notable how infrequently Hume and Smith were actually in each other’s company. So much of their relationship unfolds through correspondence, and much like the substance of the letters between Hume and Smith, Rasmussen’s writing offers an amiable and insightful interweaving of biographical detail with philosophical examination.
Regarding philosophical examination, it bears noting that scholars of Hume and Smith may find themselves dissatisfied should they turn to this book for sustained or controversial readings of either author’s more famous arguments. But analytic polemics of this sort are neither the primary intent nor chief virtue of this excellent work. When he does intervene, Rasmussen’s reflections are sensitive and helpfully focused on highlighting the constructive influence each thinker had on the other, even when their positions sympathetically diverge. It is, after all, Hume and Smith’s relationship that lies at the heart of this book. With regard to their respective moral and political-economic positions in particular, Rasmussen’s reconstructions are apt and, thankfully by now, well represented in the literature. This is due, not in small part, to Rasmussen’s own excellent, previous work on these topics. That said, Rasmussen’s careful attention to canonically marginal texts like Hume’s History of England and Smith’s Principles (as well as their correspondence) should be useful to any scholar. Moreover, those unfamiliar with the major works and thought of these two thinkers will find in this book a charitable and helpful introduction to many of the core ideas of both.
Perhaps most illuminating, to both scholars and the uninitiated (and particularly to readers here), is Rasmussen’s analysis of Hume and Smith’s respective relationships with religion. It is not a stretch to say that religion is the book’s most consistent thematic thread. This is fitting given the significant role that religiosity played in shaping Hume and Smith’s lives as well as their contemporaneous reception. During their lifetimes, Hume was by far the more vocal and religiously critical, characteristics that garnered him the epithet of infidel. There is little doubt that his skepticism was the reason that he never received an academic post—a position he so assuredly deserved. By contrast, Smith’s discussions of spiritual matters were tempered if not evasive, and he was, not coincidentally, the more institutionally rewarded of the two. Rasmussen’s analysis of the ramifications of these divergent approaches to openly discussing and critiquing religion culminate in his closing chapters when he considers the circumstances surrounding the posthumous publication of Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion as well as of Smith’s supplementary completion of Hume’s autobiography. Rasmussen is at his interpretive best here, and his reading of how these events affected the friendship between Hume and Smith is both novel and persuasive.
Early in the book, Rasmussen recognizes that it is a nice question as to whether Hume or Smith would have endorsed the aspects of his book comprised of epistolary biography. Both were very private with respect to their writings, each requesting that (many, but not all) unpublished works be destroyed when they died. And while having their personal letters laid bare does contravene their explicit wishes, Rasmussen makes a good case for the contention that our appreciation of both thinkers—and, less explicitly, for the practice of philosophy itself—is only augmented by our access to these exchanges. To be sure, Rasmussen’s subtitle too boldly asserts that their friendship “shaped modern thought.” However, to the extent that Hume and Smith’s friendship (and particularly the correspondence comprising so much of it) provided some of the proving grounds for the enduring ideas that later found their way into their respective published works, one can excuse this overstatement. Perhaps more urgently, what Rasmussen has provided us with is an academic template: an exemplar of a philosophical relationship grounded in genuinely reciprocal intellectual support. In a world increasingly marred by ideological discord and polarization, Hume and Smith’s relationship stands out as a hopeful, but more importantly as a helpful, beacon. Whether or not Hume and Smith’s friendship did shape modern thought, it ought to shape ours.
Jon Rick is Lecturer in Philosophy at the Univeristy of Toronto.
Date Of Review:
July 18, 2018
Dennis C. Rasmussen is Associate Professor of Political Science at Tufts University. His books include The Pragmatic Enlightenment. He lives in Charlestown, Massachusetts.
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