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 , 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.