Dr. George Cheyne, Chevalier Ramsay, and Hume's Letter to a Physician

Hume Studies 29 (1):125-141 (2003)

John Wright
Central Michigan University
The publication of a new intellectual biography of George Cheyne provides a "propitious" occasion for "a thoroughly skeptical review" of the question which has long exercised Hume scholars, whether Cheyne was the intended recipient of David Hume's fascinating pre-Treatise Letter to a Physician, the letter which describes his own hypochondriacal physical and mental symptoms and gives an account of his early philosophical development. Hume's nineteenth-century biographer, John Hill Burton, argued that Hume was probably writing to Cheyne, while Ernest Mossner claimed to definitively refute that hypothesis in an article entitled "Hume's Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot," published in 1944. Anita Guerrini's intellectual biography does not discuss Cheyne as a possible recipient of Hume's letter, but she does present a well-rounded picture of this interesting eighteenth-century physician from which we can judge his appropriateness as its addressee. In the following discussion I will make use of the biographical material found in this new biography of Cheyne, as well as other sources, to show that Mossner's arguments are less than definitive, and that it would be wrong to dismiss the possibility that the letter was sent to George Cheyne. This is a possibility that, for reasons that I will make clear, makes good biographical and philosophical sense. At the same time, it is important to keep a proper suspense of judgment as Burton did, for the evidence that the letter was either intended for or actually sent to Cheyne is not definitive.
Keywords History of Philosophy  Major Philosophers
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Reprint years 2003
ISBN(s) 0319-7336
DOI 10.1353/hms.2011.0100
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