Dear Mr Hume,
I write regarding your recently submitted MS “A Treatise of Human Nature: Being An Attempt To Introduce The Experimental Method of Reasoning Into Moral Subjects”. I regret to inform you that after receiving reviewer reports, we will not be proceeding with publication.
Thank you for considering the Review of Philosophy. I hope this does not deter you from publishing with us in future.
The author proposes to advance a ‘science of man’ based on ‘experience and observation’, claiming in his introduction to march up to, and even conquer, the ‘central fortress’: ‘human nature itself’. Perhaps predictably given such bold claims, the pudding lacks proof in the eating. This MS promises much, but achieves little.
Problems start in the introduction. The account of Bacon’s scientific method is a caricature, whilst the claim that human understanding can be experimentally verified in the mode of the sciences is simply assertion without fact. Moreover, the author claims a hotchpotch of recent authors – Shaftesbury, Locke, Mandeville, Butler, Hutcheson – as having put this so-called ‘science of man’ on a ‘new footing’. Yet these writers share no common method, let alone the author’s, and would all be scandalised to be put on a par with the notorious Dr. Mandeville.
Regarding the main body of the work, there are three separate projects presented here, unconvincingly run together as one unified ‘scientific’ argument. The main problems stem from the author’s idiosyncratic account of causation. The author seems to believe that causation depends not upon the facts of the physical world, but upon his own imagination. (Hardly very scientific…) This peculiar doctrine that there is no such thing as causation appears to be presupposed by the author in all his subsequent reasonings, and yet is clearly undermined by those very reasonings. The author admits that human actions have consequences and we attach moral judgements to these – is this not to re-admit causation in its most blatant form? One despairs of such self-defeating arguments. Much the same could be said of the author’s self-refuting attack upon reason, one clearly dependent upon the faculty he wishes to call into question.
The middle part of the MS is perhaps the most doggedly earnest, but by turns equally unsatisfying. The author appears to subscribe to some sort of Epicurean framework of psychology, whereby we are propelled from pains and drawn to pleasures. Pride and humility get particularly extended treatment, though I frequently failed to see the relevance of the discussion. The author goes so far as to state that entering into the debate ‘that has so much excited the curiosity of the public’ is wide of his present purposes. This seems on the one hand clearly false, and on the other frustrating: why not tell us something relevant to frontline research, rather than offering long digressions into psychological speculations that cannot be proven? As for the author’s innovation of the concept of ‘sympathy’, I fail to see how this improves upon Professor Butler’s recent work on non-egoist motivation and our correlate reasons for action.
The third part of the MS seeks to discuss moral and political questions. Altogether far too much is attempted. The best parts here relate to the claim that reason cannot motive us to moral action. Alas, these arguments border on plagiarism: they have clearly already been advanced by Mr Hutcheson in his Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections. The rest of the argument asserts that moral distinctions are a function of taste, and that politics is nothing more than a product of human opinion. What results is not a theory of morality, or a theory of politics, but a sociology of human conduct with a recommendation for good breeding. There is ultimately no normative pay-out here, so I do not see how it can be considered a contribution. (As for the claim that justice is an ‘artificial’ virtue, this is simply Hobbes’s political theory newly clothed – and false for the same well-known reasons.)
I can therefore recommend only rejection. In future, the author might help him or herself by writing in a less inaccessible manner. Shorter sentences couched in the format of easily digestible essays for a non-specialst audience might be a better vehicle for those ideas here that are worth salvaging.