College of Humanities and Social Sciences
College of Humanities and Social Sciences

Hume and Smith on Reason, Political Economy, and the Spirit of Philosophy

Erik W. Matson

Major Professor: Daniel B Klein, PhD, Department of Economics

Committee Members: Tyler Cowen, Peter J. Boettke, Thomas Merrill

Buchanan Hall (formerly Mason Hall), #D150
November 09, 2017, 03:45 PM to 05:45 PM


This study consists of four chapters that highlight connections between David Hume and Adam Smith’s thinking on knowledge, politics, and political economy. The study emphasizes the non-foundational character of Hume and Smith’s thinking and its implications for their attitude in philosophy, politics, and political economy.

In Chapter One, I examine Hume’s dialectical recognition of the faculty of reason in Book I of his Treatise of Human Nature. I show how Hume’s thinking on reason limits his expectations about the potentialities of human understanding and informs his thought with high regard for robust conventions.

In Chapter Two, I present an interpretation of Smith’s posthumously published essay, ‘The History of Astronomy’ (HA). I argue that HA can be read as a rhetorical exercise in Humean epistemology. Throughout the essay, Smith illustrates (1) the sentimental and unverifiable backbone of scientific inquiry in terms of Humean natural belief and (2) consequent reasons for skepticism. HA culminates in an ironic self-contradiction that illustrates the psychologically ineluctable character of natural belief and the instability of skepticism. Smith’s program in HA is to emphasize the deepest-to-date nature of scientific inquiry and the non-foundational character of understanding.

Chapter Three, coauthored with Colin Doran, explores some striking and heretofore unnoticed textual connections between the famous conclusion to Book I of Hume’s Treatise and the parable of the poor man’s son in Part IV of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. We show Hume and Smith both inverting the classical relationship between contemplation and action, nesting contemplation within action. Each text shows a narrative development of attitude in philosophy in light of the problems of reason.

In Chapter Four, I consider the political and economic implications of Hume’s epistemology. Drawing on Chapter One, I show how Hume’s thinking on reason dovetails with Hume’s premium on political stability (what Duncan Forbes called “establishment political philosophy”). Yet, within a framework of constitutional stability, in matters of (non-constitutional) policy reform Hume combines a presumption of liberty and a presumption of the status quo—two presumptions that must be balanced against one another when the reform is a liberalization. 

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