The Infidel and the Professor

David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought

[Amazon Link]

A surprisingly entertaining book about the relationship between David Hume (aka "the infidel") and Adam Smith (that would make him "the professor".) A much more interesting subject than I would have guessed.

Here's the basic math: Hume (1711-1776) met Smith (1723-1790) in 1746. They remained steadfast friends until Hume's death. It may sound like an odd-couple deal; Hume was a famed near-atheist religious skeptic; Smith was (at least perceived as) more devout. Hume was a conservative Tory, Smith a liberal Whig. Hume was an airy philosopher, Smith a hard-nosed economist.

The author, Dennis Rasmussen, corrects these and other misperceptions. What's not a misperception, however: Hume had a big, gregarious personality; Smith was more reserved, had odd habits, and tended to be absent-minded. Still, their relationship was a true bromance.

The book works not only as a story of a relationship between two Scotsmen, but also mini-biographies of both, and a picture of their times, especially about the philosophical/religious controversies. Making cameo appearances are Ben Franklin and Voltaire. A chapter is devoted to Hume's misadventures with Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Rousseau comes across as more of a lunatic than I had previously thought. James Boswell and Samuel Johnson come across as a couple of snotty prigs.

One major theme is Hume's death; it was widely speculated that, as a well-known religious skeptic, Hume might see the error of his ways as the end drew near. He did not; in fact, Smith wrote a letter chronicling Hume's cheerfulness and unrepentant irreligiousity to the end, and also detailing his opinion that Hume was one of the most ethical men he'd known.

Publication of this letter cause a lot of vituperation to be directed at Smith for conveying his accurate impressions. He wrote that he experienced "ten times more abuse" from that short letter than he had received for "the very violent attack" he had made against "the whole commercial system of Great Britain" (aka The Wealth of Nations).

One last point: Hume was funny, even to modern ears. Rasmussen's quotes bring a number of chuckles. One example: when asked whether he would extend his series of books on the history of England, Hume demurred: "Because I'm too old, too fat, too lazy, and too rich."

URLs du Jour

2017-11-24

Proverbs 18:8 seems familiar…

8 The words of a gossip are like choice morsels;
    they go down to the inmost parts.

Ah, yes: because it's the exact same as Proverbs 26:22 which we looked at back in May. I didn't think it made a lot of sense then, and see no reason to change my opinion now.

But I hope you got a lot of choice morsels for Thanksgiving. I did.


■ Arnold Kling writes on a discussion between Jordan Peterson and Jonathan Haidt. Haidt is a scholar who's notable for elucidating the differences between peoples' moral visions and how that plays out in their political views; Jordan Peterson is a politically-incorrect Canadian scholar; as noted yesterday, an instructor up north got in some hot water over daring to show a three-minute video clip of a "gendered pronoun" debate in which he participated.

At the end, Haidt predicts that there will be a split in the academic world. There will be a “University of Chicago model,” which underlines a commitment to truth and spurns indoctrination, and a “Brown University model” that does the opposite. He predicts that the market will reward Chicago and punish Brown.

I didn't watch the discussion. Because: one hour, thirty-four minutes, fifty-four seconds. Kling is less optimistic than Haidt about which model would win out.


■ At Power Line, John Hinderaker asks the important question: Were You Influenced By Russian Propaganda? Spoiler: almost certainly not, Facebook's absurdly inflated claims about the "reach" of the ads they host. But:

Meanwhile, if you really want to know whether you have been influenced by Russian propaganda, just ask yourself two questions: 1) Did you support the nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s? 2) Are you opposed to fracking? If you answered either question Yes, you almost certainly have been influenced by covert Russian propaganda.

People weak-minded enough to be swayed by Russian propaganda would certainly be equally swayed by any other propaganda. Show me that isn't a wash.


■ Jeff Tucker is pretty jazzed about the FCC's Internet regulation rollback: Goodbye Net Neutrality; Hello Competition.

Net Neutrality had the backing of all the top names in content delivery, from Google to Yahoo to Netflix to Amazon. It’s had the quiet support of the leading Internet service providers Comcast and Verizon. The opposition, in contrast, had been represented by small players in the industry, hardware providers like Cisco, free-market think tanks and disinterested professors, and a small group of writers and pundits who know something about freedom and free-market economics.

I use Google, Netflix, and Amazon (and strongly avoid Yahoo!); they are best-in-breed. But alarm bells go off for me when they cheerlead for increased government regulation. As they should have, but didn't, for "Net Neutrality" advocates.


■ But just because I use Google doesn't mean I love Google. My impression is that its page-rank algorithm tilts left. That's not great, but I can route around it. Here's something else to note, from John Samples at Cato: Censorship Comes to Google

At Saturday’s Halifax International Security Forum, Eric Schmidt announced that Google will alter its search algorithm to “de-rank” results from Russia Today.

Why did Google do this? Perhaps they were concerned about Russia meddling in American elections or they thought their customers wished to see less of Russia Today. It matters not. Generally Google has broad power to police its platform. We might not like the decision, but it is not ours to make.

There is a second possibility. Government officials may have threatened Google to bring about this “de-ranking” of Russia Today. If so, the First Amendment poses questions for us. We need answer such questions, however, only if government officials did in fact threaten Google.

Samples notes the bullying tone of Senator Feinstein questioning a Google exec during Senate Intelligence Committee hearings on Russian influence in the 2016 election. Post hoc, propter hoc? Samples suspects yes, maybe.


■ And here's a suggestion in our Tweet du Jour

I'm hunkering down for the day.