David Hume as a Proto-Weberian: Commerce, Protestantism, and Secular Culture

Social Philosophy and Policy 37 (1):190-212 (2020)
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David Hume wrote prolifically and influentially on economics and was an enthusiast for the modern commercial era of manufacturing and global trade. As a vocal critic of the Church, and possibly a nonbeliever, Hume positioned commerce at the vanguard of secularism. I here argue that Hume broached ideas that gesture toward those offered by Max Weber in his famous Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-5). Hume discerned a strong correlation between economic flourishing and Protestantism, and he pointed to a “spirit of the age” that was built on modern commerce and fueled by religious tolerance. The Roman Catholic Church, by contrast, came under considerable attack by Hume, for fostering intolerance and draining and diverting funds. Hume recognized several of the dispositions that later appealed to Weber: an increased work ethic and tendency to frugality, enterprise, and investment in Protestant regions. A neo-Weberian literature now points to additional factors, the spread of literacy and the fostering of a network of trust among strangers, both of which Hume noted. Insofar as modern commerce both feeds upon and fosters more liberties and representative government, Hume also linked these with the advent and spread of Protestantism. My aim is not to suggest that these arguments have merit—there is good reason to question each and every assertion under the historical microscope—but rather to highlight the broader religious and cultural context in which Hume’s economics was broached.



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Margaret Schabas
University of British Columbia

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References found in this work

The Life of David Hume.Ernest Campbell Mossner - 1956 - Philosophy 31 (116):80-82.
Hume on religion.J. C. A. Gaskin - 1993 - In David Fate Norton & Jacqueline Taylor (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Hume. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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Letters of David Hume.J. Y. S. Greig - 1933 - Mind 42 (168):523-528.
The Last Artificial Virtue.Andrew Sabl - 2009 - Political Theory 37 (4):511-538.

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