Cohen, A. (2005) In defence of Hume's historical method. British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 13 (3). pp. 489-502. ISSN 1469-3526
Available under licence : See the attached licence file.
A tradition among certain Hume scholars, best known as the ‘New Humeans’, proposes a novel reading of Hume’s work, and in particular of his conception of causality.2 The purpose of this paper is to conduct a similar move regarding Hume’s historical method. It is similar for two reasons: firstly, it is intended to reintegrate Hume’s theory into present-day debates on the nature of history; and secondly, the reading I propose is directed against the standard interpretation of Hume’s history. This interpretation claims that in spite of being a historian, Hume misunderstands the nature of both historical knowledge and the historical enterprise. In other words, the Humean methodology would be incompatible with a genuine historical practice. This censure is based upon three particular criticisms:
(1) The criticism of ahistoricalism: Hume believes human nature is an unchangeable substratum, and thus cannot account for historical change.
(2) The criticism of parochialism: Hume is trapped in his own historical province3, and thus understands other times in the light of his own.
(3) The criticism of moral condescension: Hume presumes the same standard is applicable throughout history, and thus judges the past according to his own moral standard.
I shall argue that these criticisms are the result of a misunderstanding of what Hume means to accomplish through his investigation of history and that moreover, he is aware of these pitfalls.