Two Letters Attributed to Hume Are Fakes

Two letters attributed to Hume are in fact forgeries completed in the late 1960s, according to a study by Felix Waldmann (Cambridge) recently published in the Journal of British Studies.

Dr. Waldmann says that though suspicions about the letters had been raised before, they nonethless have been accepted as authentic by every serious biographical study of Hume since the 1970s, and that their contents and implications have been incorporated into standard narratives of Hume’s philosophical development. In “David Hume in Chicago: A Twentieth-Century Hoax,” he makes the detailed case that they are forgeries, noting that “the hoax is now so thoroughly embedded in the historiography of Hume’s life and writings that scholars no longer realize that they are trafficking in its fabrications.”

Dr. Waldmann describes the letters:

The publication of two previously unknown but substantive letters in 1972–73 was… a moment of tremendous importance for the scholarship of Hume’s life and thought. In the Philological Quarterly and English Studies, the academic Michael Morrisroe recounted his discovery of the letters among the papers of a deceased collector and transcribed each letter with a learned introduction and apparatus. The letters have since entered the standard narrative of Hume’s biography and writings, as monuments of Hume’s correspondence at two crucial moments in his life: visiting Reims as a young man in 1734, and residing in Paris as a diplomat in 1765. Both letters offer a considerable addition to our knowledge of Hume’s intellectual development. The letter of 1734 reveals Hume’s interest in the work of George Berkeley (1685–1753) and his acquaintance with Noël-Antoine Pluche (1688–1761), the author of Le spectacle de la nature (1732–1750). The letter of 1765 shows Hume’s persistent interest in writing an “ecclesiastical history” and his first steps in procuring the scholarly materials necessary for its composition. The first letter, excerpted at length in the second edition of Mossner’s Life of David Hume (1980), is routinely cited by scholars as evidence of Hume’s familiarity with Pluche and his early awareness of Berkeley’s Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710). The second letter, although less frequently cited, features in scholarship on Hume’s historical writing and authorial self-fashioning.

Here’s a screenshot of Dr. Waldmann’s annotated transcription of the first letter:

Dr. Waldmann’s article “reconstructs the history and transmission of Hume’s extant letters and attempts to account for why the forgeries published by Morrisroe were accepted as genuine,” making “a systematic case against the authenticity of the letters.” He also discusses “the implications of the exposé for modern editorial scholarship and intellectual history.” He writes:

The implications of the story told so far may feel familiar. The misplaced good faith of a scholarly community, the authority conveyed by the appurtenances of “good” scholarship, the respectability afforded by the filtrations of peer review: all appear in other recent hoaxes, alongside routine enjoinders for safeguards against further abuse. The exposure of the forgeries published by Morrisroe can only renew these calls for rigor in the assessment of sources, but it can also allow us to revise our suppositions about Hume’s early life and later historical scholarship. We can now revisit the debate over whether Hume ever read the works of George Berkeley. We can reopen the question of Hume’s rémois acquaintance and give new credence to Baldensperger’s conjecture. We can reconsider why Hume might have abandoned his plans to write an ecclesiastical history. And we can continue to rewrite Hume’s biography, in the light of an ever-increasing body of new—authentic—sources.

You can read the whole article here.

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