In my last few blogposts I have been examining some of the thinkers whose works influenced James Harrington's The Commonwealth of Oceana. There are more figures I want to explore in future posts, but this month I want briefly to digress, by looking at someone who was influenced by him: David Hume. This is prompted by the fact that on 3rd May I attended a stimulating workshop at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Edinburgh entitled 'David Hume as a Reader: The Authors who Provoked Hume'. The workshop was organised by Max Skjönesberg and Robin Mills and included excellent papers by various scholars each of whom examined the ways in which the works of a particular thinker or genre influenced - or, in the words of the workshop’s subtitle, provoked - Hume. Working on my own paper for this workshop, at the same time as thinking about the various authors who inspired Harrington, led me to reflect more generally on this approach to the history of political thought, what it reveals, and how it could be used to enhance and enrich more conventional studies.
Of course, focusing on authors as readers of other authors immediately brings to the fore various problems. Several speakers at the workshop raised the question of what might constitute reliable evidence of one author having read another. The catalogue of a thinker's personal library, or one to which we know that thinker had access (as in the case of Hume and the Advocates Library), can be useful in this regard. The presence in such a catalogue of a particular book makes it possible, in some cases even probable, that the thinker had read that work, but on its own it cannot prove that (s)he did so. Even when it can be established that a thinker did read a particular work - for example where annotations in their own hand are found in a copy of the work, or where references are made in a commonplace book, diary or correspondence - it does not necessarily follow that that reading then influenced their own thought or writings.
A more fruitful indication is evidence of one author borrowing (whether explicitly or implicitly) from another. In future, further advances may be made in this area as a result of improvements in digital technology, such as the development of sophisticated machine reading software. Yet it is also important to remember that a lack of critical engagement with a work does not necessarily constitute proof that the author has not been influenced or provoked by it. Furthermore, awareness of the ideas of a particular thinker may develop by reading abridgements or reviews rather than the work itself, or via discussions in settings such as debating societies or political clubs.
A second observation to be made is that influence itself does not always take a simple form. This is something that I was particularly aware of in exploring Hume's reading of Harrington. Occasionally it is possible to identify an example of one thinker directly appropriating an idea from another. Hume, for example, adopts Harrington's preference for the rule of laws rather than men, though we might query whether he derived this directly from Harrington's works or via an intermediary and, indeed, whether Oceana was the true origin of that idea. Elsewhere we can find examples of thinkers embarking from a similar starting point, but moving in different directions, or of them using different methods to achieve similar ends. Alexandra Chadwick offered an example of the former in her paper on Hobbes and Hume, where she showed that they started from similar foundations in terms of their views of human nature and psychology, but diverged with regard to the vision of mankind and society that they sought to paint. Working the other way around, I noted that Hume shared Harrington's concern with accountability, but rejected his mechanism of rotation of office, and instead sought alternative measures to achieve that end.
This idea shades into another way of thinking about influence, which was explicitly articulated by Tim Stuart-Buttle, whereby one thinker generates problems or questions that are then addressed by later generations. This astute observation raises further questions and complexities. It might equally be the case that two contemporary thinkers engage with similar problems or adopt similar approaches not because one has influenced the other, but simply because they are operating within a common political and cultural context. Tim Hochstrasser suggested that this perhaps explains at least some of the affinities between Voltaire and Hume. Richard Whatmore complicated the idea in a different way, suggesting that it sometimes appears as though an author is only influential when (s)he is totally misunderstood by the next generation. Among the papers at the workshop there were certainly several examples of reading against the grain. For instance, Danielle Charette suggested that Hume did not read Machiavelli in the traditional way, but instead sought to move beyond the moralism of many eighteenth-century accounts, modelling instead how Machiavelli might be read fruitfully in the modern world.
While undoubtedly complex, there can be no doubt that juxtaposing authors in this way and examining in detail the connections - and the divergences - between their ideas, can enrich our understanding of the thought of both thinkers. On the basis of this, I was led to wonder whether focusing on reading might provide us with a new dimension to the exploration of intellectual history. Reading offers a middle way between the traditional 'great thinkers' approach to the history of political thought and the contextual methodology pioneered by members of the Cambridge School. Cambridge School historians quite rightly challenged the assumption that the great thinkers of the past were simply conversing with each other and were unaffected by the historical events and more trivial and quotidian intellectual debates going on around them. They have shown, for example, that Hobbes was deeply affected by the experience of living through the English Civil War and was responding to contemporary debates, such as that surrounding the swearing of the Engagement Oath - an oath of loyalty to the new regime in the aftermath of the regicide. Yet this emphasis on historical and intellectual context can sometimes lead us to forget that these people also read and responded to the writings of prominent thinkers who had gone before them. By adding some consideration of who and what thinkers of the past were reading, alongside what they were experiencing and which intellectual debates they were engaging with, we can perhaps produce a richer and more nuanced understanding of the genesis of their ideas.