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A pillar of western thought, or flawed political thinker? An 18th-century engraving of David Hume. Image: Science & Society Picture Library/Getty images

The Hume paradox: how great philosophy leads to dismal politics

The Enlightenment genius showed how admirable scepticism in the world of ideas can translate into a miserable reactionary stance in the world of practical affairs

How did one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived get so much wrong? David Hume certainly deserves his place in the philosophers’ pantheon, but when it comes to politics, he erred time and again. The 18th-century giant of the Scottish Enlightenment was sceptical of democracy and—despite his reputation as “the great infidel”—in favour of an established church. He was iffy on the equality of women and notoriously racist. He took part in a pointless military raid on France without publicly questioning its legitimacy.

In unravelling the Hume paradox, what we find is that the very qualities that made Hume such a brilliant philosopher also made him a flawed political thinker. There are implications here for contemporary academic philosophy—whose much-vaunted “transferable critical skills” turn out not to transfer so well after all. Styles of thinking that work brilliantly in some domains fail miserably in others: indeed, some of…

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