Hume’s Political Theory (Part 3 of 3)


At the end of the previous post I claimed that understanding language as a fundamental convention helps us to understand Davidson’s controversial conclusion that language does not exist. More precisely, language as ordinary convention does not exist but language as a fundamental convention, I argued, does exist. This does not appear, however, to be Sabl’s claim. Sabl’s concern, as he states from the beginning (and as cited above), is to show how Hume’s History can be understood as a continuous meditation on ‘how conventions of political authority arise, change, improve by various measures, and die.’ (HP 7). Language tends to be treated as a convention, but as ‘equilibrium case’ that is ‘relatively static’ (6). 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: speak the same language, meet at the same rendezvous, use the same measurements, accept the same authority for choosing officers and making laws.’ (ibid.) The philosophers such as David Lewis and others who focus upon language as a convention, or the game theorists who accept that the identities and expectations of the relevant actors is already known, are each beginning with a static convention as the basis for their explanations. Sabl, however, turns to the challenges that arise in times of historical crisis when we do not have reason to think what it is others will do. It is in times like this when one turns to the focal points – the prominent, obvious markers that one can use to orient oneself (following Schelling as discussed in the previous post). Sabl argues that these are temporary, however, for as the fundamental convention that constitutes the political authority of government comes into being, these focal points increasingly become ignored and unnecessary. But it is this process that we seek to understand, and I think the account offered in the previous post concerning Davidson’s rejection of language is illuminating, even if the fundamental conventions that concerned Sabl were those concerning political authority and not language (he may even reject the very idea that language is a fundamental convention and follow Lewis and others and accept that it is an ordinary convention).

What I would argue, and admittedly this is venturing away from the main themes of Sabl’s book, is that the focal points are indeed absolutely critical to understanding the emergence of a fundamental convention. Moreover, I think there is an entire metaphysics that one can find in Deleuze, and in a Deleuzean reading of Hume (see my Deleuze’s Hume), that provides a basis for understanding the emergence of the fundamental conventions that are the concern of Sabl’s book. One of the many strands of political theory that Sabl uses Hume’s History to criticize, in addition to the game-theoretic approaches discussed in the previous posts, is the Kantian and neo-Kantian attempt to establish political theory on notions of dignity and respect above all other human capacities. Hume refuses, as Sabl rightfully notes, to distinguish between moral and nonmoral capacities and virtues, and Sabl quotes the following famous passage from Hume for good measure: ‘[w]ho did ever say, except by way of irony, that such a one was a man of great virtue, but an egregious blockhead?’ (EPM App. 4.2.23-5, SBN 314; cited HP 229-30). Sabl then adds the following criticism of the Kantian approaches: ‘It is a striking fact about those who assume that politics must be about autonomy or respect that they rarely defend the Kantian metaphysics that would render that assumption plausible…Similarly, the “politics of recognition” has Hegelian origins but hardly posits rigorous Hegelian arguments.’ (HP 230)  What is needed, I would argue, is precisely a metaphysics that ‘renders plausible’ Sabl’s argument that the fundamental conventions of political authority arise out of a process whereby the focal points of localized power and common knowledge come to be ignored and unnecessary. This metaphysics, moreover, can be found in Hume, albeit in an admittedly unorthodox Deleuzian reading of Hume, and it can be used to account for both Sabl’s claim that political authroit is a fundamental convention and for the reasons behind Davidson’s rejection of language.


So what is this metaphysics? Put briefly, the focal points are to be understood as composing a problematic space, and this problematic space is precisely the condition for the emergence of that which is unproblematic – the determinate, identifiable solutions, or the fundamental conventions such as the rule of hereditary succession. Sabl shows, for instance, how Henry VII, who was heir to the throne in the Lancastrian line of succession, sought to secure his place on the throne despite equally legitimate claims of the more ancient Yorkist line of succession, such as Richard III who Henry defeated and killed on Bosworth Field. To maintain his claims to the throne, given that the rules of hereditary succession pointed equally in two directions, Henry ‘makes artful use of convention’ (160). More precisely, Henry assembled a number of focal points and conventional habits – ordinary conventions for Sabl – that all pointed, though not fundamentally so as fundamental conventions do, to Henry as rightful monarch. As Sabl puts it, ‘Henry clearly acted so as to marshal any conventional source of authority that he could—birth [Lancaster dynasty], force, conquest [defeat of Richard III], marriage [Henry married Elizabeth of York, the other royal line], present possession [he was first to declare himself monarch]’ (162). Although these focal points did maintain Henry’s place on the throne, especially his marriage to Elizabeth of York, his position was insecure and problematic. It was only when Elizabeth bore Henry’s son, the future Henry VIII, that the position on the throne was fully secure and the focal points could be safely ignored.


In a Deleuzian reading of Hume, one can find a more general, and metaphysical account of the nature of problems and how these problems are the conditions for that which appears, and appears as the solutions to these problems. Deleuze turns to Hume to lay this out in the very beginning of the second chapter of Difference and Repetition, where Deleuze argues that ‘Repetition changes nothing in the object repeated, but does change something in the mind which contemplates it. Hume’s famous thesis takes us to the heart of a problem: since it implies, in principle, a perfect independence on the part of each presentation, how can the repetition change something in the case of the repeated element?’ (DR 70). The crucial word in this passage, and crucial as well to Deleuze’s understanding of the relationship between a problem and its solution, is contemplation. On the surface, at least, Deleuze’s reading appears to be quite in line with what Hume says. After all, Hume explicitly recognizes that ‘From the mere repetition of any past impression, even to infinity, there will never arise any new original idea, such as that of a necessary connexion’ (T, SBN 88), and yet this new original idea of a necessary connexion does arise, without however changing the impressions themselves. What does change, however, as Deleuze points out, is something in the mind, and on this point Hume is quite explicit: ‘Tho’ the several resembling instances, which give rise to the idea of power [that is, necessary connexion], have no influence on each other, and can never produce any new quality in the object, which can be the model of that idea, yet the observation of this resemblance produces a new impression in the mind, which is its real model.’ (T, SBN 164-5) What Deleuze does is he takes Hume’s account of the emergence of something new (e.g., the idea of necessary connexion) that is irreducible to that from which it derives (e.g., impressions), and turns it into a metaphysical account of the emergence of all new phenomena, whether language, plants, sedimentary rock, or fundamental conventions. Problems become the basis from which that which is derived from them, what Deleuze will call solutions but also contemplations (in a nod to the influence of Hume on this point), and derived in a way such that they are irreducible to the problems from which they arise. In fact, problems maintain their status as real and do not vanish with the emergence of solutions. Let me now briefly summarize what one might call Deleuze’s metaphysics of multiplicity which can be used to show how something new emerges from a problematic space, including the historical problematic spaces that are the subject of Hume’s History (as Sabl reads Hume at least).


Another term Deleuze uses for problems is multiplicity. Although this term is initially used as a point of contrast with the one and the multiple, that is, a multiplicity is neither a unified one nor is it a collection of countable unities, Deleuze will go much further and use the term in quite the traditional metaphysical sense of substance as that which constitutes the nature of the real. Deleuze is quite explicit on this point: ‘“Multiplicity,” which replaces the one no less than the multiple, is the true substantive, substance itself…Everything is a multiplicity in so far as it incarnates an Idea.’ (DR 182) A few lines later Deleuze will add that it is perhaps ‘ironic to say that everything is a multiplicity,’ but then he goes on to say that ‘irony itself is a multiplicity – or rather, the art of multiplicities: the art of grasping the Ideas and the problems they [multiplicities] incarnate in things, and of grasping things as incarnations, as cases of solutions for the problems of Ideas.’


Key to understanding the nature of multiplicities, and hence Deleuze’s metaphysics, is understanding the relationship between multiplicities as substance and problems and the manner in which multiplicities are incarnated in things, in everything (‘everything is a multiplicity’). Put briefly the reason a problem or multiplicity is understood by Deleuze as ‘the true substantive’ is because it is the condition necessary for the determinate things that are simply the actualizations and solutions that incarnate the problem without resolving or eliminating the problem itself. To take a simple example, in learning to drive a stick shift car, the substantial nature of the problem comes to be constituted when the elements that will be brought together for knowledge to occur are brought together but brought together as a problem. It’s not until one realizes the nature of the problem – in this case, the problem of bringing the clutch, brake, accelerator, and stick shift together in a single coordinated process – that one can then learn as the problem comes to be solved. Although this case simplifies the metaphysical implications that will loom large for Deleuze by focusing on an experience common to many of us here in this room, the process whereby multiplicities or problems are incarnated as things and states of affairs is probably at the heart of Deleuze’s metaphysics, as evidenced by the statement that ‘everything is a multiplicity.’


Let us conclude by returning to Sabl’s book on Hume. Earlier we saw Sabl argue for what might be called threshold points whereby ‘If enough people decide to recognize a given form of government, it becomes “the government” and those who hold positions under it will be able to get people to do things without threatening physical harm each time.’ (17). Through the ‘artful use of convention,’ as Sabl puts it, Henry VII was able to maintain his problematic place on the throne, or there was always a question about whether enough people recognized Henry, but with the birth of his son, the future Henry VIII, the further artful use of focal points became unnecessary. The focal points such as threats of violence become displaced and replaced by something new, a fundamental convention that is “government,” or in Henry VII’s case the clear applicability of the hereditary rule of succession. In Deleuze’s metaphysical understanding of the relation between problems (multiplicities) and their actualization (or incarnation) as solutions, the elements of the problem – for instance, the clutch, brake, accelerator, and stick shift of our earlier example – need to be brought together in a way that allows, once a threshold point is reached, the actualization of the knowledge or skill associated with driving a stick shift car. This manner in which the elements are brought together is referred to by Deleuze and Guattari as a plane of consistency and it is the point where the relation of elements is such that it is neither random nor does it follow the rules that are codifiable. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze offers the example of a monkey who learns to find food under boxes of a particular color. In his summary of the experiment, Deleuze highlights the fact that ‘there comes a paradoxical period during which the number of “errors” diminishes even though the monkey does not yet possess the “knowledge” or “truth” of a solution in each case.’ (DR 164). In this paradoxical period the monkey is no longer picking up boxes at random, but yet they have not yet gotten the rule that would lead them to predictably pick the correct box. This paradoxical period is the problematic state that conditions the possibility of the threshold point whereby the problem becomes actualized as a solution (knowledge in this case). This paradoxical period is precisely the plane of consistency, which can thus be thought of as a dynamic system that is neither chaos nor is it a predictable system. In short, it is the type of fundamental convention that we argued Davidson presupposes in his rejection of language.


At this point, however, we are clearly breaking from a key point of Sabl’s book. In his critique of rational choice theories, as we have seen, Sabl argues that these theories already presuppose the fundamental conventions that enable us to identify and predict the values and choices of the relevant actors. As Sabl argued, ‘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). Fundamental conventions provide this predictability, but a problematic plane of consistency, however, is not a predictable system, but it is what is necessary, I would argue, if we are going to understand how new fundamental conventions (conventions that are predictable) will come to be. This also brings us to the heart of what Hume’s political theory sets out to achieve. Sabl himself even seems to welcome such an approach when he argues that we should play with conventions, or engage in an ‘artful use of conventions,’ in order to expand the possibilities and capacities of our civic, political society – this is the ‘enlarged liberalism’ Sabl finds in Hume’s political theory. We cannot know which conventions and practices may work in advance, much as the rules protecting property rights, as Hume discusses it, were not known in advance but as their benefits became clear it reached a threshold point where everyone believed in it and it became an established convention. In his History Hume provides a similar analysis, as Sabl shows, of the way in which independent barons and lords give up their right to violence and replace it with the goal of becoming an honorable gentlemen, and the pursuit of military glory comes to be replaced by a professional military. In both cases, the passions once directed to violence and glory become redirected towards becoming a gentleman or a disciplined soldier when the benefits of the new convention become clear and provide even more useful results than the previous convention. To put this point in Deleuze’s metaphysical terms, our political task it to engage in ‘the art of multiplicities: the art of grasping the Ideas and the problems they incarnate in things…’ (DR 182). Within any established thing, therefore, there remains the problematic state this thing presupposed as its condition of possibility, and the ‘art of multiplicities’ entails experimenting with those elements that may restore the problematic nature of the thing and thereby bring about a change or transformation in it. The same is true in the political sphere, as Sabl himself recognizes when he claims that ‘the politics of convention is a politics of invention’ (HP 239). The artful use of convention is not necessarily an effort to restore a fundamental convention, although this is often the case and is true of many of the examples Sabl discusses from Hume’s History. The ‘artful use of convention’ may also become a politics of invention and allow for the emergence of new conventions. As Sabl states the desired goal for a politics of invention, or an enlarged liberalism, its mandate should be that ‘Whatever conventions work to bring more people together for their mutual benefit should be embraced…’ (HP 232). We do not know in advance what these conventions will be, but the art of multiplicities, and the metaphysics we get form Deleuze’s reading of Hume that clarifies the nature and plausibility of this art, provides us with a very Humean basis for Hume’s political theory.


One thought on “Hume’s Political Theory (Part 3 of 3)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s