The Philosophers' Quarrel

The Philosophers' Quarrel: Rousseau, Hume, and the Limits of Human Understanding

Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    The Philosophers' Quarrel
    Book Description:

    The rise and spectacular fall of the friendship between the two great philosophers of the eighteenth century, barely six months after they first met, reverberated on both sides of the Channel. As the relationship between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume unraveled, a volley of rancorous letters was fired off, then quickly published and devoured by aristocrats, intellectuals, and common readers alike. Everyone took sides in this momentous dispute between the greatest of Enlightenment thinkers.In this lively and revealing book, Robert Zaretsky and John T. Scott explore the unfolding rift between Rousseau and Hume. The authors are particularly fascinated by the connection between the thinkers' lives and thought, especially the way that the failure of each to understand the other-and himself-illuminates the limits of human understanding. In addition, they situate the philosophers' quarrel in the social, political, and intellectual milieu that informed their actions, as well as the actions of the other participants in the dispute, such as James Boswell, Adam Smith, and Voltaire. By examining the conflict through the prism of each philosopher's contribution to Western thought, Zaretsky and Scott reveal the implications for the two men as individuals and philosophers as well as for the contemporary world.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15624-9
    Subjects: Philosophy, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. CHAPTER ONE An Enlightenment Quarrel
    (pp. 1-7)

    March 18, 1766, was meant to be the day for thanks and farewells between Europe’s two most celebrated philosophers. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was set to leave London, with his companion Thérèse Le Vasseur, for Wootton Hall, an estate deep in north England. David Hume had arranged for this asylum, as he had most everything since he had accompanied Rousseau from France to England more than two months before, when Hume had first come to Rousseau’s rescue. Though he had never before met the Swiss thinker and novelist, Hume had been moved by his plight: Rousseau’s writings had been burned and his...

  5. CHAPTER TWO The Wild Philosopher
    (pp. 8-36)

    The peaks of the Swiss Jura were sheathed in snow, but the road bordering the eastern foothills was bare and hard. Among its travelers early on the morning of December 3, 1764, was a young Scot, James Boswell. Boswell had set out from the town of Neuchâtel, cradled between the frozen sliver of lake that took its name from the city and the mountains rising behind it. As his horse ’s hooves echoed against the frozen ground of the high mountain valley called the Val de Travers, the twenty-four-year-old heir of an ancient Scottish family whistled a brisk French tune....

  6. CHAPTER THREE The Great Scot
    (pp. 37-55)

    David Hume would have been well placed to warn Rousseau about Boswell’s mixture of brazen innocence and disarming geniality. The two men had first met in 1757, when Boswell, scarcely seventeen and already driven by the desire to meet the great thinkers of his age, arrived unannounced at the philosopher’s door near High Street in Edinburgh. Talking his way past Hume’s protective servant, Peggy Irvine, Boswell penetrated into the philosopher’s rooms. The portly host welcomed the young bounder with such easygoing humor that Boswell later declared Hume to be “as affable a man I had ever met with.”¹

    Settled in...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR The Lord of Ferney
    (pp. 56-71)

    Having successfully bound his soul to Rousseau, even if by a hair, Boswell set out from Môtiers on the morning of December 16, 1764, followingla bise, the icy wind that swept southward through the Jura. His next stop was Ferney, Voltaire’s estate on the outskirts of Geneva. Fortunately, the voluble Scot did not mention Voltaire’s name during his stay with Rousseau. By then he knew that they were not just immortal thinkers but also mortal enemies.

    When Rousseau fled Paris in 1762 for Môtiers, he became a neighbor of sorts to Voltaire, another exile who had recently settled nearby...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE Le Bon David
    (pp. 72-89)

    I have hitherto been a wanderer on the face of the earth, without any abiding city.”¹ By the early 1760s both Rousseau and Voltaire had acquired experience enough as exiles to have uttered this lament. Yet it was David Hume who wrote these words little more than a month after the Citizen of Geneva fled from Paris and Voltaire was settling down in Ferney. While his predicament was not nearly as dire as those of his fugitive counterparts, both of whom risked losing their freedom and health, Hume could nevertheless sympathize with their plight. The Scottish philosopher had always felt...

  9. CHAPTER SIX A Stone’s Throw from Paris
    (pp. 90-103)

    It was midnight when the first salvo of stones struck the cottage. Rattling like hail against the front door and window, it jolted Sultan from his sleep. Awakened by the dog’s howls, Rousseau was groping for his bedroom door when a large stone sailed through the window, crashed against the door, and rolled to the foot of his bed. Had he gone to the door a moment earlier, he realized, the stone would have struck him. Springing through the doorway into the kitchen, he was met by a terrified Thérèse. They threw themselves against the kitchen wall, neither knowing what...

  10. CHAPTER SEVEN First Impressions
    (pp. 104-113)

    Rousseau left Strasbourg as he had arrived: a celebrity despite himself. Ever jealous of his independence, he spurned several offers of private carriages despite his worries about the effects the long trip might have on his fragile health. Instead, in the company of fellow travelers gaping at his costume, the fugitive philosopher headed for the capital by post chaise. One week after having quit Strasbourg, and one year after Boswell had first knocked on his door at Môtiers, Rousseau reached Paris on the evening of Monday, December 16, 1765. By then, though, word had spread that the philosopher was returning...

  11. CHAPTER EIGHT A Public Spectacle
    (pp. 114-127)

    The public avidly followed the stages of Rousseau’s journey to London. William Rouet, a retired Scottish professor of Oriental languages and Hume’s fellow lodger at Lisle Street, for one, excitedly reported to his cousin on January 10, 1766, that the Genevan philosopher was expected in London any day.¹ Several London newspapers reported his arrival on the thirteenth, with thePublic Advertisercrowing: “’Tis with pleasure we find he has chosen an asylum amongst a people who know how to respect one of his distinguished talents.”² His movements were reported as far away as Holland, where theGazette d’Utrechtannounced: “His...

  12. CHAPTER NINE Poses and Impostures
    (pp. 128-148)

    From late February to early March 1766, a carriage daily clattered to a halt in front of a house at 10 Soho Square in the fashionable Westminster district of London. Muffled by his caftan and fur hat against the gusts of the winter air that had frozen the Thames solid, Rousseau stepped out. The portraitist Allan Ramsay met him at the door, and the two men entered the house and chatted as they walked to the studio. There, amid dozens of portraits of George III in various stages of composition, Rousseau exchanged his caftan for an even darker robe. Assuming...

  13. CHAPTER TEN Hume, Judge of le Bon David
    (pp. 149-169)

    In March 1766 Boswell returned to his ancestral home, Auchinleck. Although his attitude toward Rousseau had begun to change in the wake of his amorous apprenticeship under Thérèse, his need to be remembered and reassured by others had not. With his habitual mix of audacity and gregariousness, Boswell wrote twice to Rousseau in July, gently reprimanding him for neglecting their correspondence.

    In his reply, Rousseau revealed that he was not a clueless cuckold. With brittle aplomb, he thanked Boswell for asking after his and Mlle Le Vasseur’s health: both of them were as healthy as their age, circumstances, and, well,...

  14. CHAPTER ELEVEN An Enlightenment Tragedy
    (pp. 170-182)

    In theTreatise, Hume compares the emotional impact of his skeptical investigations to having “struck on many shoals . . . having narrowly escaped shipwreck.”¹ That youthful experience was a ship in a mere squall when set against the shock of Rousseau’s behavior. Rousseau’s accusations were like great waves: the first was the accusatory missive of June 23, 1766, followed by the broadside of the thirteen lies of July 10. What sort of man is this? Were these the letters of a fiend or a madman? How, or whether, to respond? While Hume pondered the riddle as the summer wore...

  15. CHAPTER TWELVE So Great a Noise
    (pp. 183-197)

    After months of hesitation on Hume’s part and the solicitous stewardship of the friends in Paris who had urged him to publication, theExposé succinct de la contestation qui s’est élevée entre M. Hume et M. Rousseau avec les pieces justificativesreached the Paris booksellers on the afternoon of October 21, 1766.¹ The collection of Rousseau’s and Hume’s correspondence with accompanying commentary was rapidly (and poorly) translated a month later in England asA Concise and Genuine Account of the Dispute Between Mr. Hume and Mr. Rousseau.

    The danger of appealing to an audience fashioned in large part by Rousseau...

  16. CHAPTER THIRTEEN How Philosophers Die
    (pp. 198-210)

    By 1776 little had changed for Boswell: now a husband and father, he still ran as frantically from death and as he did into the arms of women, seeking certitudes in the bedroom missing from the church pew. On Sunday, July 7, doubts about the final disposition of his soul brought him to Hume’s door in Edinburgh. Along with the rest of the Republic of Letters, Boswell had learned that his old friend was dying from stomach cancer.

    Seven years earlier, shortly after his quarrel with Rousseau finally died down, Hume had finally decided to settle in Edinburgh, disappointing the...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 211-238)
  18. Index
    (pp. 239-247)