Why did Hume use the form of dialogue for his _Dialogues_?

As Pamphilus remarks to Hermippus in the opening paragraph of Hume’s Dialogues, the form of dialogue “has been little practised” and “has seldom succeeded…in the hands of those, who have attempted it” since the ancients.[1] In fact, among philosophers since Plato and Cicero, only David Hume and George Berkeley have employed the dialogue with any real success. The vast majority of philosophical writings are characterized by the straightforward, exact presentation and defense of some premises leading to a conclusion. So, why did Hume consider the seemingly unnatural form of dialogue, and not the usual argument structure, most appropriate for this book?

First, Hume says, “there are some subjects…to which dialogue-writing is peculiarly adapted” and thus preferable.[2] What about these subjects? Some topics of inquiry just seem obvious, scarcely worthy of debate. No doubt we share a natural tendency to disregard these. Nevertheless, some such topics are so important that they simply mustn’t be ignored. Given their importance these should, in fact, be repeatedly impressed upon us. What is needed, then, is a rather unique method of presentation. It must be both original and unfamiliar, so that it “may compensate the triteness of the subject.”[3] It must also be lively and vibrant, so as to well enforce the precepts—while appearing “neither tedious nor redundant.” After all, a spirited give-and-take (say, a philosophical debate) is always more enthralling and memorable than another run-of-the-mill, dry treatise. Second, continues Hume, some philosophical questions are so obscure and uncertain that “human reason can reach no fixed determination with regard to [them].”[4] If such inquiries are to be made, the form of dialogue is most suitable; it can shed a “variety of lights” on the subject. Besides, how could one possibly employ the usual argument structure in such instances? Given the nature of the doctrine in question, “no one can be reasonably positive” regarding possible conclusions; the interplay of opposing sentiments, then, ought to be highlighted, which a dialogue can do.

That these circumstances—namely, a truth’s being obvious, important, obscure, and uncertain—converge in the subject of Natural Religion is, for Hume, a grand occasion for writing in dialogue. After all, the question of God’s existence (“the Being of a God”) is obvious, certain. This has been affirmed throughout history, from the most ignorant to the most refined of thinkers. It is taken as a matter of agreement among the three interlocutors in the Dialogues. This even seems consonant with Hume’s own position, namely, that he objects “to everything we commonly call religion, except the practice of morality and the assent of the understanding to the proposition that God exists.”[5]

That the question of the being or existence of God is important or consequential is indisputable (consider the implications of the proposition God exists being true). Thus, the being of God is both obvious and important. The nature of God, however, is (and has historically been) quite debatable; it’s a fascinating topic for philosophers. The raising of this latter debate introduces all manner of obscure questions: what of God’s attributes; what of God’s decrees; what of God’s plans? While thinkers have long speculated these obscure questions, “human reason has not reached any certain determination.”[6] Indeed, it cannot. But it is just this sort of investigation, Hume claims, to which the form of dialogue is ideally suited—“though nothing but doubt, uncertainty, and contradiction” are likely to result.

That Hume should establish the existence/being of God as a given, while preserving the question of the nature of God as a topic for philosophical inquiry throughout the Dialogues can be justified both in and out of the Dialogues themselves. Consider first a telling note in the Appendix to his Treatise of Human Nature, Hume says, “The order of the universe proves an omnipotent mind; that is, a mind whose will is constantly attended with the obedience of every creature and being. Nothing more is requisite to give a foundation to all the articles of religion, nor is it necessary we shou’d form a distinct idea of the force and energy of the supreme Being.”[7] Let us focus, however, on the first few parts of Hume’s Dialogues.

Perhaps the clearest expression is given by Demea: “No man; no man, at least, of common sense, I am persuaded, ever entertained a serious doubt with regard to a truth, so certain and self-evident. The question is not concerning the being, but the nature of God. This, I affirm, from the infirmities of human understanding, to be altogether incomprehensible and unknown to us.”[8] I take it that Hume means by “unknown” roughly the same thing as by “obscure,” with a similar correspondence between “certain” and “obvious.” This, then, ties straight back to Hume’s description of what suits the form of dialogue perfectly.

Recall that the form of dialogue is well suited for those questions of philosophy “that human reason can reach no fixed determination with regard” to. In roughly the center of Part One, Philo confirms that Natural Religion is just such a question, thus justifying the use of dialogue in its treatment: “When we carry our speculations into the two eternities, before and after the present state of things; into the creation and formation of the universe…the powers and operations of one universal spirit, existing without beginning and without end; omnipotent, omniscient, immutable, infinite, and incomprehensible…we have here got quite beyond the reach of our faculties.”[9] Further along in the dialogue, Philo confirms another of Hume’s elements: that the question of God’s nature raises obscure and uncertain questions. “We ought never to imagine, that we comprehend the attributes of this divine Being…. Our ideas reach no further than our experiences: We have no experience of divine attributes and operations: I need not conclude my syllogism.”[10]

Demea argues later that “all the sentiments of the human mind, gratitude, resentment, love…have a plain reference to the state and situation of man, and are calculated for preserving the existence, and promoting the activity of such a being in such circumstances.”[11] God, however, doesn’t need these. In fact, claims Demea, “none of the materials of thought are in any respect similar in the human and in the divine intelligence.”[12] God is thus absolutely beyond comprehension, period (placing him squarely among the apophatic theologians). In my estimation, Demea bears a striking resemblance to Al-Ghazali (The Incoherence of the Philosophers). Again, one could easily here Demea exclaiming, “neti, neti.”

So, Hume identifies three sorts of topics to which the form of dialogue is ideally suited: the obvious, the important, and the obscure and uncertain. Natural Religion, the topic of Hume’s own Dialogues, fits—as Hume claimed and as the interlocutors of the text confirm—this bill and is thus perfectly suited for the form of dialogue.
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[1]All quotations of the text are taken from David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, in On Religion, ed. with an introduction by Richard Wollheim (New York: Meridian Books, 1963).

[2]Dialogues, p. 99.

[3]Dialogues, p. 100.

[4]Ibid.

[5]David Hume, New Letters of David Hume, ed. R. Klibansky and E. C. Mossner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954), p.10f.

[6]Dialogues, p. 100.

[7]David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, ed. by L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1888), p. 633, n. 1.

[8]Dialogues, p. 113 (italics mine). This sentiment is affirmed by Philo: “But surely, where reasonable men treat these subjects, the question can never be concerning the Being, but only the Nature of the Deity. The former truth…is unquestionable and self-evident” (op. cit., p. 114).

[9]Dialogues, p. 107.

[10]Dialogues, p. 114-115 (I have opted to not waste space establishing Cleanthes and Philo’s mutual adherence to empiricism).

[11]Dialogues, p. 130.

[12]Ibid.

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