The Humorousness of Hume

by Will on September 10, 2010

Tyler Cowen doesn’t usually find novels funny, whereas I think the best novels are usually the ones that manage to be funny while also being perceptive about the human condition. So his sense of humor is obviously different from mine. But I have to agree with him when he says:

I do find David Hume, and other classic non-fiction authors, to be at times hilarious.

Yes. Hume is persuasive in a way that few writers are, and I have to wonder to what extent it’s because of his skill as a writer. He’s funny because he’s simultaneously quite blunt and and somewhat understated. Take the first paragraph of his essay, “Of Commerce“:

THE greater part of mankind may be divided into two classes; that of shallow thinkers, who fall short of the truth; and that of abstruse thinkers, who go beyond it. The latter class are by far the most rare: and I may add, by far the most useful and valuable. They suggest hints, at least, and start difficulties, which they want, perhaps, skill to pursue; but which may produce fine discoveries, when handled by men who have a more just way of thinking. At worst, what they say is uncommon; and if it should cost some pains to comprehend it, one has, however, the pleasure of hearing something that is new. An author is little to be valued, who tells us nothing but what we can learn from every coffee-house conversation.

He’s saying, as though it’s totally obvious to him and should be obvious to everybody, that basically everybody in the world is wrong. His nuanced way of saying this is that the majority of people are wrong because they don’t think hard enough, and a small few are wrong because they think too hard and come up with BS. Hume thinks it’s obvious that it’s BS, but nonetheless concedes that it’s more interesting, and potentially fruitful, than what the “shallow thinkers” come up with, even if it’s only interesting as something to think about to pass time. He also assumes that we, the readers, are dumb enough that he must italicize “shallow” and “abstruse” so we’ll really think about what he means by them — that follows logically from the idea he’s expressing, that people are mostly pretty intellectually lazy. He exhibits a willingness to completely write off the abilities of mankind, while at the same time being cheerfully optimistic about its potential for improvement. I think he’s mostly right. But do I maybe just enjoy the amusement he gives me?

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