The Best Philosophy Books of 2017

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Nigel Warburton in Five Books:

First on your list you’ve got a historical book, The Infidel and the Professor, about David Hume and Adam Smith. Why are you excited about this book?

I love Hume as a writer. He had a fascinating life that is pretty well documented considering he lived in the 18th century—probably because he was a prolific letter writer and many of his letters have survived. The odd thing about this book is that it’s about the friendship between Hume and Adam Smith of which there isn’t that much surviving evidence, in terms of letters. Smith was keen to destroy lots of personal writing, unfinished drafts and all kinds of manuscripts—and it was done pretty efficiently.

So this book is largely a speculative reconstruction based on published books and the little that is known about their friendship, which lasted for 25 years. Hume was 12 years older than Adam Smith, and something of a hero of his.

Apparently, Smith first read David Hume’s Treatise when he was a student at Balliol in Oxford. The authorities confiscated it, because it was too seditious. The reason was Hume’s ‘irreligion,’ his antipathy towards religion—what we would probably now call his atheism.

Some people claim that Hume was merely an agnostic, to be consistent with his philosophy: he was a mitigated sceptic. He didn’t think that there was absolute proof that God didn’t exist, though the balance of evidence was clearly against it. But, actually, in his posthumously published Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, he tears apart most of the classic arguments for God’s existence, so it’s pretty clear that Hume, if he wasn’t an atheist, was so close to it that we would probably call him one.

Interestingly Adam Smith, as he emerges from this book, probably shared many of Hume’s anti-religious beliefs, but kept much, much quieter about it. As a result, he was able to become a professor at Glasgow University—a professor of logic.

More here.