Hume’s Lesson of Moderation in Political Action

When:5 Dec 2016, 12pm - 2:30pm
Venue:Morven Brown 310 (map ref C20)
Who:Oliver Feltham (American University of Paris)
Oliver Feltham

The School of Humanities and Languages invites all interested staff and students to this seminar by Oliver Feltham, Professor at the American University of Paris, and Visiting Professorial Fellow in the School.


In France the governing centre left spend as much time disqualifying the radical left and its ideas as they do combatting the right. The president himself accuses his left critics of being beautiful souls, ignoring the forces that threaten liberal democracy, and of sharpening all antagonisms to the point of wanting to “shackle and hobble the State” (Le Monde, 16/9/2016). The critique of extremism in the name of moderation and a balance of force received one of its most sophisticated treatments at the hands of David Hume, during a period that he took to be a very fragile experiment in a new form; a constitutional monarchy combined with parliamentary democracy. Faced with the rise of a parliamentary opposition and its use of the press, Hume’s first move was to diagnose and denounce the malady of factionalism that opposed Country to Court, Whigs to Tories, Bolingbroke to Walpole. His remedy was moderation and a modernized form of prudence, apt to deal with the complex dependencies of commercial society. However the ancient problem of prudence returns: who is to say where the true middle way lies if enthusiasm and superstition tug political debate from one extreme to another, if liberty of the press gives rise to no more than perpetual ad hominem attacks and wholesale condemnations of political systems? Is the construction of a sphere of polite learned discussion of politics – Hume’s ideal – enough to secure the correct functioning of parliamentary democracy? Why the conspicuous absence of the Jacobites from Hume’s political writings? Can only the already compromised be admitted into the sphere of compromise? In this analysis of Hume’s essays, a comparative ontology of political action gives rise a fresh perspective on the question of reform versus revolution and on the very idea of an art of government.

About Oliver Feltham

Oliver Feltham is Professor of Philosophy at the American University of Paris, and Visiting Professorial Fellow at the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of New South Wales. After a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) at the University of Sydney, he completed a PhD in philosophy at Deakin University, Melbourne, for which he carried out most of his research in Paris. His PhD focused on the ontological difference between work and action and spanned Ancient Greek philosophy and contemporary French philosophy. His areas of expertise include critical theory, contemporary French philosophy and Lacanian psychoanalysis. His areas of competence are early modern philosophy, and political philosophy. His current project is to develop a genealogy of models of political action, playing episodes of political innovation, such as in the English, American and French revolutions, against philosophers’ attempts to theorize those moments in their systematic accounts of politics and social justice. The first installment of this project was published in March 2013 by Bloomsbury under the title Anatomy of Failure: Philosophy and Political Action. It focuses on the Leveller-agitators in the English Revolution and the philosophies of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. The sequel to this book will focus on the American and French revolutions, and on the philosophies of action of Adam Smith, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Edmund Burke.

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