The University of Wisconsin Press

Literature and Criticism


Practicing Enlightenment
Hume and the Formation of a Literary Career
Jerome Christensen

In this highly original study, Jerome Christensen reconstructs the career of a representative Enlightenment man of letters, David Hume. In doing so, Christensen develops a prototype for a post-structuralist biography. Christensen motivates the interplay between Hume’s texts as arguments and as symbolic acts by conceiving of Hume’s literary career as an adaptive discursive practice, the projected and performed narrative of his social life. Students and scholars of eighteenth-century English and French literature, feminist studies, political theory and history, philosophy, and intellectual history will welcome this unprecedented and challenging view of David Hume and his times.


The eighteenth-century man of letters cannily pursued a variety of occupations (in Hume’s case, philosopher, historian, belletrist, tutor, librarian, military adjutant, clerk, and saloniere), among which he moved as an ambassador of enlightenment. He theorized his remarkable versatility as the expression of the utmost refinement of the arts and sciences, and proposed it as a standard of general emulation in a modern world where, as Adam Smith remarked, “every man lives by exchanging.” Hume expertly shaped his career to reflect the dynamics of the social model he devised and propagated.


Christensen develops both model and strategy in readings of The Treatise of Human Nature; of Hume’s essays on literature, politics, and economics; of his autobiography; of his letters. The symbolic capital that Hume accrues is registered along the way, but the book is plotted so that the scope of Hume’s achievement becomes most dramatically evident in the consummation of his success, his sojourn in Paris during the early 1760s. There Hume, having quit writing, enjoyed the profits of his labor. But it was also there, in his ambiguous relations with the brilliant French women of the salons and in the aftermath of catastrophic “transactions” with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that the philosophical independence he sought to maintain was shocked by challenges he could not anticipate or answer.

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January 1987

LC: 86-040048 B
336 pp.   6 x 9

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