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Streminger, Gerhard, David Hume, Sein Leben und sein Werk.
Paderborn: Schöningh 1994.
715 pages + 16 colour plates. Cloth

by Michael Szczekalla
British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Oxford (1995)

The publication of this voluminous biography is a major event in Austro-German Hume scholarship. The author, who teaches at the University of Graz, has combined a carefully researched biographical narrative with very readable summaries of virtually all of Hume’s works. In addition to this, Streminger provides good and reliable background information on the cultural history of Scotland. What he has to say on the Scottish Enlightenment and the legacy of Calvinism appeals mainly to the general reader. Thus there are lively biographical sketches of John Knox and Mary Stuart as well as an impressive account of religious life at Chinside, the parish Hume was born into. Yet, as modern Hume scholars tend to become oblivious of the social and cultural challenges and constraints that shaped Hume’s thought, the background sections of Streminger’s book are especially welcome. They help us to recover the seriousness as well as the sense of urgency pervading Hume’s critique of religion, attitudes which found expression in the famous statement, made in Book I of the Treatise, that the errors of religion are dangerous, but those of philosophy merely ridiculous. The attention given to this critique and its wider ramifications in Hume’s entire philosophy clearly constitutes one of the strengths of this new biography. Streminger makes us aware of the necessity to go beyond textual exegesis and take notice of, for instance, Hume’s temporary engagement as under-secretary in the Northern Department where he made use of his influence to strengthen the ‘liberals’ within the Kirk.

The scope of this biography goes far beyond Mossner’s Life of David Hume, to which Streminger is, however, much indebted. The indebtedness is freely acknowledged in a number of footnotes, though not without criticism. It is Streminger’s contention that Mossner gives us a somewhat idealized picture of Hume. The view that Mossner took the detached autobiographical account of My Own Life too much at face value thereby ignoring both the early period of depression as well as a remarkable penchant for ‘violent passions’ exhibited by the younger Hume, is, of course, a familiar one. Streminger sees the struggle and the toll it exacted. Equanimity was a hard-won achievement, not a gift freely granted. But he is not less enamoured of le bon David than Mossner. It would not, perhaps be going too far to speak of a case of intellectual osmosis. Whenever Streminger feels bound to criticize Hume he does so in the spirit of a philosophe – to the extent such a thing is possible for a scholar writing in the late 20th century. He does not pass over what has been notoriously labelled "Hume’s Doctrine". He calls the Letter from a Gentleman unworthy of the philosopher. He recognizes Hume’s shortcomings as a literary critic who was not even free from national bias as is revealed in his zealous promotion of John Home’s mediocre but successful drama Douglas. He carefully weighs the pros and cons of entrusting d’Alembert with the Rousseau letters and comes down on the side of Hume, who decided in favour of publication. It goes without saying that Streminger prefers Hume’s defence of commerce and civilization to the views of the French ‘paranoid’ unworthy of Hume’s generosity and friendship. Hume’s reservation about his friend and countryman Ferguson are convincingly explained by painting out the latter’s status as a theorist of ‘alienation’.

Streminger writes with a singleness of purpose that makes his bock good reading. This observation extends to both the life and the works. The author is widely read in Hume scholarship. It would, however, have been incompatible with the nature of such a book to give extensive coverage to major controversies. Streminger is a ‘harmonizer’ and there are certainly those who will, for instance, find fault with what he says about the ‘positivism’ of the First Enquiry. Focussing on Book I of the Treatise, he observes that Hume’s project of a "science of man" has foundered only to acknowledge in a footnote Annette Baier’s recently published A Progress of Sentiments as an important study. Yet Baier holds the view that the Treatise exhibits a "progress of thought and sentiment", that epistemology is "not done or finished with" in Book I, and that the work "acquires more force as it proceeds". Criticism of this kind, however, may soon deteriorate into pedantry. This biography, what with its wealth of information and attention to detail (thus every Humean should know that the philosopher wanted to complete Gulliver’s Travels with a book on ‘priestcraft’) and what with its carefully chosen and lavish illustrations (among them not only several portraits of Hume but also of other representatives of the Scottish Enlightenment; Reynolds’ atrocious "The Triumph of Truth"; places visited by the philosopher when he was abroad on diplomatic mission: acquaintances of his like Mme de Boufflers and many others), is a remarkable achievement.

Michael Szczekalla (Emden)