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Rousseau's Dog: A Tale of Two Philosophers Hardcover – 4 May 2006
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"An enthralling account of a trifling provocation inflated to epic proportions."--Kirkus Reviews
"A detailed and fascinating reexamination of this story by David Edmonds and John Eidinow."--New York Review of Books
"As we've come to expect from Edmunds and Eidinow, their analysis of the personalities in question is sharp and engaging."--Los Angeles Times
"Sprightly and accessible . . . David Edmonds and John Eidinow have heightened intellectual feuds beyond the shallows of anecdote."--San Francisco Chronicle
A detailed and fascinating reexamination of this story by David Edmonds and John Eidinow. --New York Review of Books"
Sprightly and accessible . . . David Edmonds and John Eidinow have heightened intellectual feuds beyond the shallows of anecdote. --San Francisco Chronicle"
As we ve come to expect from Edmunds and Eidinow, their analysis of the personalities in question is sharp and engaging. --Los Angeles Times"
An enthralling account of a trifling provocation inflated to epic proportions. --Kirkus Reviews" --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
In Rousseau's Dog: A Tale of Two Philosophers, David Edmonds and John Eidinow bring their narrative verve to the astonishing series of events which led to a bitter quarrel between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume, turning these two Enlightenment giants of philosophy into mortal foes.See all Product description
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When Rousseau was being driven from one place to another on the continent because of the authorities there objected to his writings, David Hume, then working at the British Embassy in Paris, had invited Rousseau to seek asylum in England, had brought him over in 1766, and intended to help him there in any way he could. Unfortunately Rousseau was by that time a florid paranoiac. Both in France and in England woundingly satirical but anonymous writings were circulating about him, and Rousseau suspected that the kindly Hume had had a hand in them and was plotting with his enemies against him. He wrote some bitter letters of accusation to Hume, and also denounced him in letters to his contacts on the continent, some of whom were also friends of Hume's, and this forced Hume into publishing his own defence.
The nature of the dispute between them was not of a philosophical kind at all (unlike, say, that of the dispute between Wittgenstein and Popper or that between Leibniz and Spinoza, so brilliantly examined by Matthew Stewart in his recent book The Courtier and the Heretic - see my review). Of course it COULD have been about philosophy: Rousseau was committed to the romantic and emotional approach, Hume to the ultra-rational examination of philosophical issues; Rousseau had come to hate the philosophes, Hume had greatly enjoyed their company while he was living in Paris. The dispute was not even overtly about their respective attitudes to society. Hume loved society and was at ease in it; Rousseau hated it and loved the solitary life. Such differences between them are handsomely set out in the excellent chapter 11, but if the two great thinkers were indeed "at war in the Age of Enlightenment" (the subtitle of the book), it is sadly not possible to dignify that war as one caused by differences in philosophy or life-style. Indeed, our authors do mention that in all the correspondence between Rousseau and Hume, "there is no dialogue or engagement about ideas", nor, to the best of my knowledge, did either of them take issue in print directly with the philosophical ideas of the other. Their war took the form exclusively of an attack by a floridly paranoiac Rousseau on his benefactor, and then, because the paranoiac was at that time so famous, of Hume feeling forced (against the initial advice of his friends) into defending himself against the charges circulating against him in Europe, and doing so in an uncharacteristically intemperate and less than entirely honest manner.
The story of the actual quarrel (which begins only half-way through the book) is well told. The authors give a judicious account of and carefully expose the inconsistencies in the cases of both contenders in this sad and pathetic story. Rousseau was a very sick man, but Hume, too, comes out it all rather worse than is perhaps commonly assumed, especially in the summing up in the last chapter.
In the end it was not any clash of ideas but merely gossip that excited the intellectuals of Europe about this dispute. It was a great "media story", but not a significant one. And like so many media stories today, it was about personalities and not about issues. Although there are some good assessments of Rousseau's and Hume's importance in the history of Europe, the book focusses on what was least important, least stimulating, least edifying and least enduring about them. It is the authors' good right to give their book this focus. And it is a good read.
Hume and Rousseau experienced each other's company for no longer than 4 months, as this book usefully reminds us. I could not help but recall Hume's famous argument in the Treatise that we can only ascribe any kind of continuity coherence or consistency in the matter of cause and effect through `constant conjunction' - e.g. if we expect the sun to rise and set in a certain manner it is only because every time we looked previously that was the way the thing happened. When the fugitive Rousseau was first introduced to Hume, the latter was experiencing the greatest social success of his life, as an attaché at the embassy in Paris. Without waiting for constant conjunction he grandiosely undertook to arrange asylum for Rousseau in England, but 4 months of personal acquaintance taught him that he would have been better following his own reasoning in the Treatise and gaining a clearer idea, from more constancy in the conjunction, of what to expect from his protégé.
I found this book absolutely riveting, but any reviewer needs to declare an interest - whose side is one on? I am on Hume's, so it is up to me to make allowances for that just as it is up to the authors, although they do their best to seem impartial. Bertrand Russell summed the issue up cogently if a little too neatly when he said that Rousseau was mad but influential while Hume was sane but had no followers. To me, Rousseau was a monster of paranoia and self-concern, and Hume was more than slightly naïve when Rousseau reverted to type and publicly portrayed Hume's efforts at assistance as being some dastardly plot. However badly Hume may have mishandled the matter, and even if he let down his own standards of strict truthfulness at times, he should not have been treated by Rousseau as he was. I can understand entirely how he went doolally, but I must remind myself that I start with a prejudice - if I had lived at the time I would have wanted to know Hume, but I can't imagine any epoch of history in which I would not have wanted to avoid the likes of Rousseau.
The authors are or were BBC journalists, and they make a very good fist of living up to the standards of impartiality that the BBC demands. They analyse the matter with considerable subtlety, reminding me of a judge summing up the evidence on both sides of a case for the benefit of the jury, who in this case are ourselves the readers. As one often finds in such instances, these judges seem to me to lean a little too far over in criticising Hume, but I believe that this is out of a well-intentioned wish not to seem one-sided in their assessment, which could with perfect fairness have been a simple matter of concluding that Rousseau was insufferable and deserved anything he got. One key point in their argument seems to me particularly perceptive and convincing, and it is that the time when Hume acted out of what we might think of (superficially) as his normal character was not after the fracas got under way but when, as an improbable darling of Parisian society, he made his rash and unconsidered undertaking to Rousseau. Rousseau sought some kind of perfect friendship, and Hume was simply not the kind to offer that to Rousseau or probably indeed to anybody. Baron d'Holbach seems to me to have been a very good character-judge of not only Rousseau but of Hume too when he warned him what to expect.
Book reviewers don't say as often as we should `If you like this sort of thing you will find this the sort of thing you like.' Myself, I love this sort of thing. Any criticisms I have are incidental and minor. The book's title is distinctly contrived, pulling in Rousseau's real dog Sultan more often than he deserves for the sake of painting in an imaginary were-dog supposed to represent the darker side of Rousseau's imagination. Otherwise, apart from a slight sense that the book peters out at the end, I would call this an excellent effort, original thorough and well-reasoned both when I agree with the reasoning and when I don't. I like this sort of thing and I hope you may as well.
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
Having read Wittgenstein's Poker, however, this lacked passion and analysis in comparison. That doesn't mean it's a bad book at all, just not as good. And if you like history or biography and especially that about philosophers, this is very worthwhile.
The main reason I got the book was because I had already read Wittgenstein's Poker by the same authors, which I liked very much, and I trusted the reputation of these authors. Boy, was I in for a disappointment.
The book is really about nothing, to put it succinctly. I read about 60% of it, and it is only at halfway through the book that the authors finally begin to discuss briefly Hume's and Rousseau's respective philosophies. The rest of the book is a meandering tale about these two philosophers' interactions (which had nothing to do with philosophy) and their personal and petty disputes. Frankly, without even looking at the sources, one could surmise that at least some of it is based on rumors. In fact, most of the book reads like a long tabloid newspaper article; a rumor mill, in other words.
Additionally, the writing itself is not very good. It is not fluid; the authors constantly drop new names, most of which become irrelevant just pages later. To be sure, it's organized more or less chronologically, but it is often difficult to follow and understand, as it lacks a coherent structure to the narrative.
Most importantly, the book's topic if of no historical significance.
My suggestion is: don't waste your time reading this. You won't learn anything interesting and you will only be frustrated.