Between Rationalism and Postmodernism: Hume's Political Science of Our "Mixed Kind of Life"

By Yenor, Scott | Political Research Quarterly, June 2002 | Go to article overview
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Between Rationalism and Postmodernism: Hume's Political Science of Our "Mixed Kind of Life"


Yenor, Scott, Political Research Quarterly


Many recent studies of David Hume emphasize his criticism of Enlightenment rationalism, but these studies risk making Hume into a paleoconservative advocate of local attachment. This article suggests that Hume's political science can best be seen as advocating a middle position between Enlightenment rationalism and postmodern relativism in its Rortyan and paleo-conservative manifestations. In his criticism of rationalism, Hume concedes much to postmodern views on foundations, history, and subjectivity Hume, however, still defends the possibility of philosophic detachment and therefore political science as against post-- modern theories. Hume's criticism of Enlightenment rationalism permit him to affirm important truths about the human condition: that ours is a "mixed kind of life." Based on this understanding of our mixed condition, Hume argues that the modern world is the home of the virtues most attuned to our complex and mixed nature.

Critics of contemporary liberal theory worry that the abstract language of rights does not do justice to our moral experience (see, e.g., Sandel 1982, 1996; Glendon, 1993; Taylor 1992: 89-90). The problem is traceable to a strain of Enlightenment political science. Enlightenment thinkers reject the teleological approach of ancient political thought and dismiss the guidance of revelation in politics. One particular strain of enlightenment science is modeled on the rational deductive approach of geometry.1 It attempts to order the chaos of political experience by providing simple principles and systems to guide political action. Hobbes announced the beginning of this new science in De Homine, where he writes that "politics and ethics (that is, the sciences of just and unjust, of equity and inequity) can be demonstrated a priori" (1991: 42. X.5; see also Descartes 1998: 34; and Locke, ECHU 3.11.16 and 2.22.12). Such thinkers hoped that these clear and certain rational principles would introduce a politics of peace, tolerance, and humanity.

A simulacrum of this approach to understanding political life persists in today's political science in rational choice theory and in the tendency of some contemporary theorists to adduce systematic teachings about politics from abstract principles such as the "original position" (Rawls 1971) or "rights as trumps" (Dworkin 1977). This rationalist way of thinking can give rise to dogmatic and dangerous partisanship as some attempt to reshape the political world in light of a speculative system. Such simple systems can do damage to that which is not assimilated to the system, as those who have lived through the twentieth century know.2

Postmodern theorists have exposed what they believe to be a hidden partisanship in Enlightenment rationalism. According to the most prominent American postmodern, Richard Rorty, Enlightenment rationalism is a manifestation of a persistent human "urge to escape the vocabulary and practices of one's own time and find something ahistorical and necessary to cling to." This search for "metaphysical comfort" fails because "our inheritance from, and our conversation with, our fellow-humans [is] our only source for guidance" (Rorty 1982: 165-66). Postmodern theory is the contention that all attempts to apprehend the world or to justify a particular set of political arrangements are fundamentally shaped by historical perspective. Postmodernism rejects the possibility of philosophic detachment or objectivity3 Liberal postmodernists like Rorty, Sanford Levinson (1988) and others suggest that our commitment to political liberalism be understood as akin to religious faith. Postmodern theory believes the world is occupied by more or less hostile "fighting faiths," and cannot stop itself from collapsing into partisanship.

This postmodern dismissal of reason flows from the rationalist promise of certainty Postmodernists accept the rationalist account of reason, but they contend that such certainty is unattainable in political reasoning.

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