Hume’s Political Theory (part 1 of 3)

Few would deny that Hume regards both private and public law as matters of convention; Hume repeatedly uses the word himself. But few have recognized that he regards certain conventions as fundamental; immune to alteration (except in the extremely long term, at least generations and more likely centuries) by the usual methods of political power and social change. The claim that Hume does believe in fundamental conventions, that he rests a distinctive form of constitutionalism on the foundations of custom and mutual advantage. It finds little support in Hume’s philosophical works, only in the less familiar History…The development of fundamental conventions…could be seen as the central story of the History of England. These conventions are both below and above ordinary laws. Below, because their fundamental status can never be codified as such. Above, because they limit, at least arguably, the authority of the lawmaking body, whose own right to enact positive law itself derives from fundamental conventions. (Andrew Sabl, Hume’s Politics [hereafter, HP], 121-2)

In his book, Hume’s Politics, Andrew Sabl provides a fresh look at Hume’s History that not only makes a strong case for reconsidering the importance of Hume’s political theory but also, and perhaps more importantly, he offers a critique of a many of the presuppositions of contemporary political theory. Central to doing all of this is Sabl’s reading of Hume as one who develops a concept of fundamental conventions to address the coordination problem associated with who ought to have political authority, and thus government, as a fundamental convention, is an answer to a coordination problem.

Hume’s answer, in short, is that the person who has authority, and thus the person to whom we owe allegiance, is the person others also recognize as having authority and to whom they, too, give allegiance. As Sabl puts it, ‘In some of life and a great deal of politics, the right thing for each person to do is that which he or she has reason to think others will do…’ (6) As Sable admits, he reads Hume’s History ‘as if it were a treatise on this one subject: how conventions of political authority arise, change, improve by various measures, and die.’ (7). These conventions of political authority are precisely the fundamental conventions that one finds most clearly articulated in Hume’s History, and fundamental conventions are to be contrasted with the conventions one finds being discussed in the Treatise and Essays, which includes ordinary conventions – e.g., conventions concerning ‘property, promising, justice, allegiance to government, chastity…and good manners’ (31) – and what Sabl calls pseudo-conventions – e.g., the conventions Hume primarily associated with religious belief and practice primarily, and thus conventions Hume believed served no real purpose. Ordinary conventions serve practical purposes, by contrast to pseudo-conventions, but ordinary conventions in turn presuppose fundamental conventions for these conventions ‘serve ends that are so basic that securing them is the prerequisite for furthering all other purposes.’ (33)


Sabl recognizes that the emphasis Hume places upon the role conventions play in addressing coordination problems in society and politics is not new. David Lewis, David Gauthier, Annette Baier, David Miller, and Russell Hardin are each mentioned by Sabl as having already highlighted the importance for Hume of using convention to address coordination problems crucial to social and political life. Much has been made, for instance, of Hume’s claim that ‘Two men, who pull the oars of a boat, do it by an agreement or convention, tho’ they have never given promises to each other.’ (T, SBN 490). In this case, and in most others that have received attention by the likes of Lewis, et. al., Sabl argues that what is presupposed is a common framework whereby the actors have already settled on a common goal or aspiration. The rowers, for instance, want to row straight ahead rather than off to one side or the other as would occur if they were not in sync. It is precisely this common framework that fundamental conventions establish, and what interests Sabl in Hume’s History is that in the History Hume focuses upon the circumstances where the common framework, the fundamental conventions, were in doubt. How did historical actors resolve coordination problems that get to the heart of the social and political itself? This becomes the guiding question of Sabl’s treatment of Hume’s politics.


We can now begin to see how Sabl’s reading of Hume situates Hume in a unique position relative to a number of contemporary approaches to political theory. As Sabl puts it in his conclusion, ‘Hume provides a bridge between a non-rationalist strand of “Enlightenment” and postmodernism’ (HP 246-7). The non-rationalist bridge Hume provides follows from the fact that for Hume times of crisis are times where fundamental conventions no longer provide the common framework that would allow one to make a rational decision, for as Sabl argues, ‘I cannot know what is “rational” in pursuit of my ends unless I have reason to expect a certain predictablility in what others will do’ (39), and in times of crisis regarding fundamental conventions this predictability is lacking. Sabl argues that Hume also provides a bridge between ‘postmodernism and so-called rational choice, which have in common the determination to work with rather than against human passions…’ (247) As Sabl puts it with respect to game theory (which is integral to rational-choice theory), the formal models they typically use ‘assume that the relevant actors are fixed and known,’ whereas Hume’s History ‘treats situations in which they are uncertain, ever-changing, or the occasion of political controversy’ (2). Rational choice theory, however, does work with passions and sets out to model solutions to coordination problems by tracking the desires, passions, and values of the relevant actors. The same is true for Hume as well, but the problem is deeper for Hume in that it is unclear where one is to look to solve the coordination problem. Contrasting Hume with Hobbes, Sabl argues that if for Hobbes the ‘first law of nature is “seek peace, and follow it”,’ then for Hume it ‘might be “seek opportunities for gains from coordination, and follow the conventions that provide them”’ (89). The problem, however, is that during the times of crisis Hume examines in his History we may set about ‘seeking peace, [but] the usual problem is that we do not know where to look’ (125).


By turning to a study of periods of crisis in Hume’s History of England, one can begin to discern a theory of the genesis and potential transformation of fundamental conventions. The details of this genesis, and Sabl’s account of it, will be the subject of Part II.

2 thoughts on “Hume’s Political Theory (part 1 of 3)

  1. Pingback: Hume’s Political Theory (Part 2 of 3) | Aberrant Monism

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