William & Mary

Hume's Influence

Professor Radcliffe discusses Hume in Antwerp.Professor Elizabeth Radcliffe, who joined the William & Mary philosophy department in the Fall of 2009, is a specialist on the philosophy of David Hume. 

Hume, an eighteenth-century Scottish thinker known as one of the greatest empiricists, is one of the most influential philosophers in the English-speaking world. In his lifetime, Hume was best known as a historian (his History of England appeared in six volumes), but he also wrote on topics in epistemology, ethics, motivational psychology and action, aesthetics, economics, politics, and literary theory.

Professor Radcliffe's recent work centers on Hume's theories of passion, action, and morality.  She is especially interested in making his historical views relevant to contemporary philosophy. Radcliffe has published numerous articles on Hume and his contemporaries, and is editor of the 28-essay volume, A Companion to Hume (2008), for Wiley-Blackwell Publishing. Radcliffe's book-in-progress, Hume, Passion, and Action, reflects her interests in Hume's connection to contemporary naturalistic accounts of motivation. In it, she presents a detailed study and defense of Hume's arguments concerning the roles of reason and certain passions, namely, desires, in motivation and treats Hume as an interlocutor in several current controversies. Her book is an attempt both to address some of the interpretative issues in Hume and to develop Humeanism about reasons for action in a plausible direction, with some twists inspired by Hume himself.

Radcliffe is currently President of The Hume Society, an international organization that supports and promotes scholarship on Hume and the eighteenth-century, both through its annual meetings and its publication of the journal Hume Studies.

Radcliffe was a featured plenary speaker at the Hume Society’s most recent meeting at the University of Antwerp, Belgium, in July 2010. Her talk, “Hume and Reasons from the Humean Perspective,” argued that Humeans about practical reasons can turn to Hume for an answer to a crucial problem concerning which among our desires we ought to act upon. Humeans hold that reasons for action are rooted in desires, but they need to give an explanation about which desires are authoritative. Radcliffe’s talk suggested that normativity derives from the inter-subjective perspective we naturally take on our desires when we attempt to discover which of them reflect our values, and to what degree. This view takes its inspiration from Hume’s own account of normative judgments. 

In July 2011, the Hume Society will meet at the University of Edinburgh to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Hume’s birth in Hume’s native city. Radcliffe will be among the celebrants.