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A new Hume find

Peter Anstey writes…

While the ‘Experimental Philosophy: Old and New’ exhibition was under construction, the Special Collections Librarian at Otago, Dr Donald Kerr, happened to notice that the copy of George Berkeley’s An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision (2nd edn, 1709) that we were about to display, had the bookplate of David Hume Esquire. It has long been known that this book was in the library of the philosopher David Hume’s nephew Baron David Hume, but until now its whereabouts have been unknown. We are very pleased to announce, therefore, that it is in the Hewitson Library of Knox College at the University of Otago, New Zealand (for full bibliographic details see the online exhibition).

The question naturally arises: did the book belong to the philosopher or the Baron? What complicates matters is that David Hume the philosopher left his library to his nephew of the same name and that the latter also used a David Hume bookplate.

Now the David Hume bookplate exists in two states, A and B. They are easily distinguished because State A has a more elongated calligraphic hood on the second stem of the letter ‘H’ than that of State B. Brian Hillyard and David Fate Norton have pointed out (The Book Collector, 40 [1991], 539–45) that all of the thirteen items that they have examined with State A are on laid paper and are in books that predate the death of David Hume the philosopher. This is not the case for books bearing the State B bookplate. They propose the plausible hypothesis that all books bearing the bookplate in State A belonged to Hume the philosopher. Happily, we can report that the bookplate that here at Otago is State A on laid paper. It is almost certain, therefore, that this copy of George Berkeley’s New Theory of Vision belonged to the philosopher David Hume.

The provenance of the book provides important additional evidence that Hume was familiar with Berkeley’s writings, something that was famously denied by the historian of philosophy Richard Popkin in 1959. Popkin claimed that ‘there is no actual evidence that Hume was seriously concerned about Berkeley’s views’. He was subsequently proven wrong and retracted his claim. However, until now there has been no concrete evidence that Hume owned a copy of a work by Berkeley, let alone one as important as the New Theory of Vision.

This volume came into the possession of the Hewitson Library in 1948. Its title page bears a stamp from the ‘Presbyterian Church of Otago & Southland Theological Library, Dunedin’. So far attempts to ascertain which other books were in this theological library and when and how it arrived in New Zealand have proven fruitless. (Though the copy of William Whiston’s A New Theory of the Earth, 1722 on display bears the same stamp.) If any reader can supply further leads on these matters we would be most grateful. Meanwhile please take time to examine the images of the bookplate and title page, which are included in our online exhibition available here.

8 thoughts on “A new Hume find

  1. A number of readers of our recent post have inquired as to whether there are annotations in Hume’s copy of Berkeley’s New Theory of Vision. I regret to say that in the excitement surrounding the discovery of the David Hume bookplate we overlooked the need to give the volume a thorough check for annotations. This will be done once the volume is released from the exhibition on 23 September.

  2. Is there any chance that the missing Part II of Berkeley’s Principles is also in New Zealand?

  3. An exciting find! I’m looking forward to learning whether there are any markings. The discovery may put passages such as the following in a new light: “Even our sight informs us not of distance or outness (so to speak) without a certain reasoning and experience, as is acknowledged by the most rational philosophers” (Treatise

  4. Berkeley says in An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision §46 “From what we have shewn it is a manifest consequence, that the ideas of space, outness, and things placed at a distance, are not, strictly speaking, the object of sight.”

  5. Today I checked David Hume’s copy of Berkeley’s New Theory of Vision for annotations and markings. Unhappily, there are no annotations or markings in the volume at all.

  6. Exciting find! I’m eager to hear about any annotations. I agree with Professor Winkler that it will put many passages in Hume in a new light, including Enquiry 12.9: “The table, which we see, seems to diminish, as we remove farther from it: But the real table, which exists independently of us, suffers no alteration: It was, therefore, nothing but its image, which was present to the mind.”

    Professor Anstey, NTV, when read literally, is equivocal on whether we perceive distance, size and shape by sight. For example, on page one of NTV, Berkeley writes that its aim is to explain “the manner wherein we perceive by sight the distance, magnitude, and situation of objects” Given the equivocation in the text, interpreting Berkeley one way or another has to be grounded in overall considerations of charity.