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David Hume


by Charlie Finch
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We should not allow the year 2011 to slip by without noting that it is the 300th anniversary of the birth of the revolutionary Scottish philosopher David Hume. Without Hume's fundamental insight that causation and, indeed, all rational discourse are closed functions of human subjectivity, the works, to cite a small example of Hume's influence, of Bruce Nauman and his apostle Ryan Trecartin, which play copious games with our assumptions about cause and effect, would not exist.

Born in 1711, David Hume wrote his basic text Treatise on Human Understanding at 25 (it was published three years later), with immediate plans for a second edition. There were still copies of the first edition available in 1756, when an advertisement was proffered for them in conjunction with Hume's sale of his bestseller History of England, with no takers, and a second edition emerged only after Hume's death in 1776.

"The Treatise" itself was not fully appreciated, after Heisenberg and Sartre, in the mid-20th century, and, considering Governor Rick Perry's attack on Galileo's reputation at the Republican Presidential debates this summer, obviously continually refuted, with its companion classics, if known at all, by even the privileged and prosperous, who should know better, but don't.

Hume himself, in middle age, briefly denounced his own Treatise. He was the first Western author to profit exclusively from the sale of his books, without the advanced subscriptions from the nobility of Alexander Pope, for example, and the pressure of continued sales tempted Hume away from the insight of his youthful genius. Throughout his life Hume was subject to, and the victim of, the duality that often marks a critic's existence.

Denounced as "the infidel" and "the atheist," Hume's amiability was nevertheless celebrated in the salons of Europe. Invited to publish and lecture everywhere, Hume was blackballed from endowed chairs at the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. Hume was a favorite with duchesses and comtesses, but his corpulence and weakness for port and cheese left him ridiculed by their swains.

What Hume was most about was the exercise of freedom and its fellow riders, inquiry and pleasure. The essence of the Treatise is that the world always begins again in the next moment of life and today's artists follow this dictum with a vengeance. Think of Allan Kaprow's happenings, Thomas Hirschhorn and Jason Rhoades' installations, Marina Abramovic's endurance tropes with their constant conflation of time and suffering. All are centered on Hume's perception that human experience is a contingency based on the future and not orderly assumptions about the past. That Hume achieved monumental success as a historian in his lifetime, while his breakthrough philosophy was largely ignored (except by Voltaire and a passel of anti-Hume clerics), might be interpreted as the ironic tweet of a Deity, in Hume's mind the most significant fallacy of all.

CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).