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Five States of Nature in Hobbes’s Leviathan

Gregory B. Sadler


In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes develops a constellation of notions of considerable conceptual refinement and of lasting rhetorical power. These notions coalesce at their most central point, the ‘state of nature.’ An overly simplistic view of the Hobbesian state of nature forms part of what may be called a standard reading of Leviathan.  This interpretation is prevalent in scholarship engaging Hobbes’s thought and doctrine not for its own sake, but in order to provide a contrast against other thinkers, to fit Hobbes into a broader schema of intellectual trends, tradition, or movements, or to diagnose Hobbes and his thought as the precursor of something particularly unsavory arising specifically in modernity.  Pedagogical uses of Hobbes also typically rely upon (and in the process perpetuate) that reading.  Such interpretations can also be found in scholarship engaging Hobbes in more focused and systematic ways, since studying other portions of Hobbes’s thought is rendered easier and less messy by ignoring ambiguities and puzzles arising when the state of nature is understood in relation to other notions intimately connected with it [1]. (more…)

Kant’s Transcendental Idealism: A Hopeless Case?

George P. Simmonds
Oxford Brookes University


The interpretive mayhem engendered by Immanuel Kant’s Critique has, in the space of two centuries, yet to provide a standard or altogether satisfactory exegesis of transcendental idealism, a theory which on all counts lies at the very heart of Kantian philosophy. This paper aims to delineate two of transcendental idealism’s most salient readings in hope of proffering a well-considered comparison and, ultimately, a proposal that neither interpretation provides an account which conforms unerringly to Kant’s own promulgations.

Part I: Kant’s Transcendental Idealism

The Kantian doctrine of transcendental idealism concerns itself with the distinction between appearances and things-in-themselves, i.e.. objects as they appear to us and objects as they are in and of themselves. Kant’s finishing thesis on the matter posits the human mind as an active contributor to the objects of its perception and thus, in some way, a direct authority upon the nature of reality as we know it (McCormick, 2012, §4).

An exhaustive exposition of transcendental idealism demands a full consideration of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1998), an enterprise well beyond the scope of this paper. Thankfully, in the ‘Transcendental Aesthetic,’ however, Kant assures us that his views on space and time are of particular relevance here, and it is upon these views that the present section will aim to focus (Janiak, 2012, §6). It may, for the sake of clarification, be useful to juxtapose the Kantian notion of space and time with that of Newton (see Newton, 1990, pp.85-109, 823-60), whose transcendental realism epitomises the notion of external reality Kant aimed to oppose. With an eye to Newtonianism he writes:

Those […] who assert the absolute reality of space and time, whether they be subsisting or only inhering, must themselves come into conflict with the principles of experience. For if they decide in favour of the first […], then they must assume two eternal and infinite self-subsisting non-entities (space and time), which are there (yet without there being anything actual) only in order to comprehend everything actual within themselves (Kant, 1998, pp.166-7).

Here Kant presents the transcendental realist position as one which posits space and time as a pair of quasi-objects which exist independently of the human intuition. Without attending to Kant’s direct objections to this concept, it should suffice to say that he does not conceive of space and time as objects, quasi-objects, or indeed anything to be considered independent of human intuition. For him, they are to be conceived neither as things-in-themselves nor properties that can be perceived or verified empirically; they are rather ‘forms of intuition,’ that is, ‘a priori elements of sensible perception’ which would not ‘subsist in themselves’ if one were to contemplate them in abstraction from the minds of those to whose perception they are essential (Guyer, 2006, p.53). It is in this that Kant proffers the notion of the synthetic a priori proposition: observations on these necessary forms are synthetic, since ‘the predicate […] is not logically or analytically contained in the subject,’ but simultaneously a priori because they are ‘verifiable independently of experience,’ since they essentially constitute it (Encyclopædia Britannica Online, 2015). These forms are not, in other words, borne out of the objects themselves but imposed upon them as necessary conditions of the mind’s ‘receiving’ the external world (Schulting and Verburgt, 2011, p.5). When we look at a tulip as it is situated within spatiotemporal reality, then, we are not seeing it as it is, but as it appears to us following the intuition’s attempt to sort it into forms more easily digested by the understanding (van Cleve, 1999, p.134).

But what is the nature of an object beyond the veil of the mind? What are objects like when we are not considering them? It is when we ask questions like these that we stumble into Kant’s controversial distinction between appearances and things-in-themselves or, more concisely, phenomena and noumena. While on the one hand we have the phenomenon, an object as we perceive it through the prism of our intuition and understanding, on the other we have the noumenon, an object ‘unembellished’ by the mind and thus in possession only of those properties that are intrinsic to it (Walsh, 1901, pp.464-5). Things-in-themselves are on all counts considered inscrutable: while Kant claims we are able to perceive phenomena and acquire empirical truths regarding their relations, he insists that we will never apprehend the ‘unknown somethings’ of which appearances are mere representations (Kant, 1998, pp.276-96). This, he says, is impossible from the perspective of the finite mind.

As noted in Braiche (2008), a great deal of tension exists among Kantian scholars where transcendental idealism is concerned. While some interpret it as a doctrine interested in making ontological claims, others read the Critique as propounding an epistemic thesis (pp.2-3). The question of whether Kant intends to suggest that reality consists in two ontologically distinct worlds (one phenomenal, the other noumenal) is pivotal here; and it is around this question that the following sections will work.

Part II: Strawson and the Noumenal World

Needless to say, it is usually the thing-in-itself that provokes interpretive issues. Even Jacobi, one of the Critique’s earliest commentators, famously claims that ‘the “thing-in-itself” is the kind of concept without which it is impossible to enter Kant’s system, but with which it is impossible to get out of the system’ (Jacobi, 1912, p.304). Strawson’s The Bounds of Sense (1996) takes similar issue with Kant’s reliance on noumena and attempts to release transcendental idealism from its inconsistencies by attributing its metaphysical system to Berkeleyan idealism; that is, the notion that external reality is but a phenomenal illusion. ‘The only element in transcendental idealism which has any significant part to play in those structures,’ he writes, ‘is the phenomenalistic idealism according to which the physical world is nothing apart from perceptions’ (p.246). Despite the extremity of this deduction, Strawson’s ‘sortings of wheat from chaff’ are broadly acknowledged to stand among transcendental idealism’s most canonical interpretations (Bennett, 1986, p.340).

In reaching these conclusions Strawson focuses on the troublesome relationship between phenomena, noumena, and our cognitive faculties. He begins from what has become known as the ‘two-worlds’ reading of transcendental idealism, a view from which things-in-themselves and their appearances occupy two distinct realities, only the latter of which being comprehensible from the human perspective. The former, that noumenal ‘sphere of supersensible reality,’ must on Kant’s view transcend our intuitive notions of space and time as well as those ‘pure concepts’ which follow from them (such as that of causation) (Strawson, 1996, p.236). This interpretation is not without textual evidence. In Kant’s own words:

We should consider that bodies are not objects in themselves that are present to us, but rather a mere appearance of who knows what unknown object; that motion is not the effect of this unknown cause, but merely the appearance of its influence on our sense (Kant, 1998, p.435).

On this reading, then, we are to consider phenomena and noumena as ontologically distinct objects, one inhering within space and time and the other in some sort of transcendental realm of aspatiotemporal things-in-themselves. This is not to say that these worlds do not interact, however. Strawson insists that human experience must be the result of some ‘complex quasi-causal relation’ between phenomena and noumena, a connection he terms the ‘A-relation’ (Strawson, 1996, p.236). It is by way of this ostensible quasi-causality that noumena and human minds are able to ‘collaborate’ in their formation of the phenomenal world (Braiche, 2008, p.9).

But Strawson does not believe this relationship comports with Kant’s earlier conception of things-in-themselves as unknowable objects that do not conform to the modes of experience central to phenomenal nature. In support of this thesis he questions two aspects of the transcendental-idealist system in hope of bringing the notion of the thing-in-itself into question (Matthews, 1969, pp.206-7).

First, if noumena are unknowable and cannot be cognised, how is that we are able to know that they cause phenomena, or that they are in fact there at all? On Strawson’s reading of Kantian epistemology, things-in-themselves do not fall within the category of ‘possible human experience’ and thus possess neither the capacity to be verified nor any significant meaning as theoretical concepts. To insist that noumena exist despite this would be to approach transcendental idealism as a rationalist, where to claim that they do not would be to fall worryingly close to the extreme idealism of Berkeley (Strawson, 1996, pp.237-40). Kant here faces a dilemma, for he fits comfortably into neither camp. Second, if such notions as space, time, and causation do not exist beyond the realm of appearances, how is it that the A-relation is possible? How is it, in other words, that noumena are able to provide us with the material from which our cognitive faculties are able to construct phenomena? This, too, is a problem for Kant since it is not clear how this might occur without presupposing concepts of causation and, by extension, the forms of space and time (ibid., pp.246-8). While his epistemology is challenged on the first confutation, his ontological account of things-in-themselves is undermined in the second.

The Critique provides no easy way out of these difficulties and this, for Strawson, ‘tolls the death knell’ for transcendental idealism (Braiche, 2008, p.2). If we recall his statement that the doctrine’s only remaining foothold is the ‘phenomenalistic idealism according to which the physical world is nothing apart from perceptions,’ we see that Strawson chooses to equate Kant with Berkeley, both of whom deny the external existence of phenomena yet fail to affirm the things-in-themselves that would otherwise ground them in reality (Strawson, 1996, p.260). And thus Kant is, where his idealism is concerned, considered nothing more than an ‘inconsistent Berkeley’ (Allison, 2004, p.4).

Part III: Allison’s Two Aspects

How might transcendental idealism be navigated from Strawson’s impasse? According to the account proffered in the Bounds, Kant is describing two different classes of objects: the tulip as we see it, and the tulip as it is in and of itself. This is a metaphysical interpretation, and from this approach arises Strawson’s refutation. Allison does not read transcendental idealism this way; rather he views it as an appendage of Kant’s epistemic ideas. For him, the Critique does not intentionally discuss the ontologies of two distinct-yet-somehow-interactive tulips, but a single tulip considered in two different ways (Allison, 2004, pp.229-35). This, at least theoretically, diverts transcendental idealism away from the ambush Strawson prepares in his own exegesis.

Allison does not contend that there is nothing to be considered beyond phenomena: while he does not award things-in-themselves their own ontological status in the way of Strawson, he nonetheless acknowledges them as an important aspect to Kantian philosophy. On his view, sometimes linked with the ‘two-aspects’ position, what distinguishes a thing-in-itself from its appearance is not the domain of existence it occupies but the way in which the human mind considers it. Given that our cognitive faculties actively process and order the external world, thus giving rise to phenomena, it follows that an object of this reality may retain its own sort of existence where these devices are not present. This does not, however, entail the treatment of this existence as a separate, ontologically distinct entity, for it is simply an object of the phenomenal world considered in abstraction from the conditions under which we perceive it (Allison, 2004, pp.33-6). This interpretation is no more lacking in textual evidence than Strawson’s:

We can have cognition of no object as a thing in itself, but only insofar as it is an object of sensible intuition, i.e. as an appearance […] We [presume] the distinction between things as objects of experience and the very same things as things in themselves (Kant, 1998, p.116).

As seen above, phenomena and noumena are ‘the very same things’ considered in different contexts. We cognise phenomena as they appear to us within space and time, adorned with all the concepts part and parcel to human experience; while noumena are these same manifestations considered (via transcendental reflection) in the notional absence of such conditions. In this they retain a sort of methodological or formal status, but by no means an ontological one. This kind of formal significance is in no way peculiar to human thought: in theoretical physics we often consider objects abstracted from their necessary properties, but we do not insodoing commit ourselves to the belief that these abstracted entities exist in any real sense of the word (Allison, 1978, pp.53-4).

To avoid Strawson’s critique, Allison emphasises noumena’s negative role as more a description of what phenomena are not than an account of what might exist beyond the realms of possible experience. This account gives things-in-themselves a viable position within Kantian epistemology without force-feeding them the unwieldy metaphysical significance found in two-worlds interpretations. It shifts, in other words, the axis of the phenomena-noumena distinction from the way things are to the way (or whether) our cognitive faculties respond to them (Braiche, 2008, p.14).

Part IV: A Hopeless Case?

It seems fair to say that the accounts of both Strawson and Allison more-or-less conform to Kant’s original proposition; they would not, otherwise, be so widely discussed as valid interpretations. It is worth considering, however, that throughout the Critique Kant himself appears to oscillate between a two-worlds and a two-aspects position. Transcendental idealism is by no means a straightforward discipline to comprehend, and it could be that our failure to reach a univocal reading of its postulations owes to the irresolution of its author (Matthews, 1969, p.204). To end on a quotation from Wood (2005):

I think much of the puzzlement about transcendental idealism arises from the fact that Kant himself formulates [it] in a variety of ways and it is not at all clear how, or whether, his statements […] can be reconciled or taken as statements of a single, self-consistent doctrine. I think Kant’s central formulations suggest two quite distinct and mutually incompatible doctrines (pp.63-4).

Works Cited

Allison, H.E. (1978). Things in Themselves. Dialectica. 32 (1).

Allison, H.E. (2004). Kant’s Transcendental Idealism: An Interpretation and Defence. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Bennett, J. (1968). Strawson on Kant. The Philosophical Review. 77 (3).

Braiche, M. (2008). Strawson and Allison on Transcendental Idealism. Unpublished undergraduate dissertation. Lewis & Clark College.

Encyclopædia Britannica Online. (2015). Synthetic a priori proposition. Available: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/578646/synthetic-a-priori-proposition. Last accessed: 02/04/15.

Guyer, P. (1987). Kant and the Claims of Knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Guyer, P. (2006). Kant. London: Routledge.

Jacobi, F.H. (1912). David Hume über den Glauben, oder Idealismus und Realismus. Ein Gespräch. London: Garland.

Janiak, A. (2012). Kant’s Views on Space and Time. Available: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/kant-spacetime/. Last accessed: 17/04/15.

Kant, I. (1998). Critique of Pure Reason. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Langton, R. (1998). Kantian Humility: Our Ignorance of Things in Themselves. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Matthews, H.E. (1969). Strawson on Transcendental Idealism. The Philosophical Quarterly. 19 (76).

McCormick, M. (2012). Immanuel Kant: Metaphysics. Available: http://www.iep.utm.edu/kantmeta/#H4. Last accessed: 14/04/15.

Michael, R. (2014). Immanuel Kant. Available: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2014/entries/kant/. Last accessed: 17/04/15.

Newton, I. (1999). The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Oakland: California University Press.

Palmquist, S. (1986). Six Perspectives on the Object in Kant’s Theory of Knowledge. Dialectica. 40 (2).

Schulting, D. & Verburgt, J. (2001). Kant’s Idealism: New Interpretations of a Controversial Doctrine. New York: Springer.

Strawson, P.F. (1996). The Bounds of Sense. London: Routledge.

Van Cleve, J. (1999). Problems from Kant. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walsh, C.M. (1901). Kant’s Transcendental Idealism and Empirical Realism. Mind. 12 (48).

Wood, A. (2005). Kant. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing.

Cultivating Our Garden: David Hume and Gardening as Therapy

Dan O’Brien
Oxford Brookes University

Gardens are seen as having metaphysical and theological significance. Many think of the Garden of Eden as the first garden, and the four rivers in Eden, mentioned in both the Bible and the Quran, are represented by four watercourses in Islamic royal gardens and by four paths in the cloister gardens of Christian monasteries and churches. Japanese Zen gardens are designed to aid meditation on eternity, and so-called paradise gardens are earthly attempts to model the celestial gardens of the gods. In this volume, Robert Neuman explores how the garden of Versailles was designed as a reflection of the divine, laid out according to principles of Pythagorean and Cartesian philosophy. This rationalist tradition continues today in the Garden of Cosmic Speculation in Scotland, where the design reflects the ‘birth, laws, and development of the universe;’ the ‘garden … in part, a speculation about the underlying truths;’ the gardener involved in ‘translating the insights of science and philosophy into workable objects.’ [1]

The English picturesque tradition rejects such a formal approach and the laying out of gardens according to precise geometric rules. The British empiricists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw the mind as consisting of a flux of thoughts derived from experience, rather than as a collection of innate ideas planted in us by God. This empiricist focus on experience can be seen in English landscape gardens of the time. Gardens are not a reflection of divine structures, but rather, places that are designed in order to affect the flow of our sensations. The focus is on sensation and experience, rather than reason. Here, Elizabeth Rogers notes how gardens can bring about such changes:

The power of ruins to inspire a mood of elegiac melancholy, of dark-toned vegetation to turn the thoughts into paths of sombre reflection, of bright green meadows to soothe the agitated soul, of sunny fields reminiscent of harvest revels to raise the spirits to the level of gaiety, of still brooks and placid lakes to speak of peace and serenity, of loud tumbling waterfalls to induce a thrilling fear. [2]

Gardens, then, can be seen as reflecting the dominant philosophical theories of their time and place. In this essay, though, following various lines of thought of the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–79), I shall argue that gardens can be a refuge away from metaphysics and philosophical reflection and that they can therefore play a therapeutic role.

Part I: Candide

Voltaire, a contemporary of Hume, wrote Candide as a parody of religion and of religious apologies for the existence of evil in the world. That there are morally corrupt people and that the world is occasionally beset by natural disasters looks to be incompatible with a morally perfect God, one who is all-powerful and who could presumably eradicate such evils. ‘One could grumble rather at what goes on in our one [world], both physically and morally.’ [3] Candide’s tutor, Doctor Pangloss, teacher of ‘metaphysico-theologico-cosmo-codology’ – a thinly disguised Liebniz (an Enlightenment metaphysician) – argues, however, that we live in ‘the best of all possible worlds,’ as a benevolent God would have created. His ‘theodicies’ are explanations designed to account for the existence of evil: ‘if Columbus, on an island in the Americas, had not caught this disease [syphilis] which poisons the spring of procreation … and which plainly is the opposite of what nature intended, we would have neither chocolate nor cochineal.’ [4] The humor is pointed, since philosophers and theologians had performed various contortions to explain away the fact that the world does not seem to be the creation of a perfectly benevolent supreme being – and they continue to do so to this day. Candide has many adventures while continuing his philosophical discussions with Pangloss and others; his final optimistic note, though, is not that of his tutor, but the enigmatic claim that ‘we must cultivate our garden.’ [5]

This claim has been interpreted in various ways. Voltaire could merely be suggesting that the world is indeed full of evils and that it would be wise to retreat to our own little patch and make the best of it. There is, though, a deeper sense to such a ‘retreat,’ one that can be illuminated by looking at the philosophy of another great Enlightenment thinker, David Hume, with whom Voltaire was in occasional correspondence. Writing to Hume, Voltaire says: ‘The abetters of superstition [religion] clip our wings and hinder us from soaring.’ [6] Hume claims that we should reject philosophical thinking and return to the concerns of common life – the garden, then, being a metaphor for a life free of metaphysics and theodicy. I shall also argue that gardening itself is exactly the sort of common life activity that could contribute to this therapeutic rejection of philosophy and theology.

Part II: Hume and Common Life

Hume is suspicious of metaphysics and particularly hostile towards organized religion. His Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion contain seminal criticism of various arguments for the existence of God. In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding he argues that there has never been any good evidence for the occurrence of a miracle and there is never likely to be any. And in his Natural History of Religion he provides a naturalistic account of religious belief, one grounded in fear rather than rational insight or evidence. One aspect of Hume’s rejection of religion takes place at the level of common life. His strategy is to remind anyone tempted by religion of their usual everyday ways of thinking. We have to remind ourselves of how we would normally think when not led astray by psychological factors associated with religious belief. In the case of miracles, for example, Hume claims that people are swayed from their usual ways of thinking by several distorting psychological factors. The thought of supernatural intervention fills us with awe, and ‘the passion of surprise and wonder, arising from miracles being an agreeable notion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events.’ [7] Our vanity is also massaged if we can report such events: ‘But what greater temptation than to appear a missionary, a prophet, an ambassador from heaven?’ [8] It is such factors that cause us to believe in supernatural occurrences; such factors that promote the mere idea of the occurrence of a miracle to actual belief in such a happening. Hume therefore asks us to imagine what would be believed if these factors were not present; if, say, passion and wonder did not give rise to belief, and if our fellows were not impressed with stories concerning such things. If this were so, then we should explain away such improbable events in the way that Hume describes, and this is just what we do in everyday situations. One believes that somehow a melon seed found its way into the greenhouse if melons start to grow there unplanned (as they have done this year in my greenhouse!); one does not believe that such growth is miraculous. Similarly, one should believe that one has been tricked or one has misunderstood when asked to believe that a man has risen from the dead. Hume does not criticize belief in miracles on philosophical or logical grounds; instead, he offers us reminders as to how we usually think, and how we should therefore think when we are asked to believe in miracles.

Hume’s rejection of metaphysics is not limited to religion. Philosophers have an unhealthy attraction to extreme skepticism. Plato sees the world of experience as akin to mere shadows cast on the walls of a cave, shadows of the real things in Platonic Heaven. Descartes meditates on the possibility that our experience of the world could all be a dream or hallucinations planted in our minds by an evil demon. Hume, too, at times adopts such a skeptical perspective and argues that we can only have knowledge of our own sensations; we cannot, as it were, get behind these to take a direct look at the world that we only assume is causing our experience. Further, our experience is regular in various ways: the sun comes up every day and the leaves fall every autumn. We have, however, no philosophical reason to think they will continue to do so. Why think the world (or, rather, our experience) will continue on in the same way? Hume thinks there is no satisfying philosophical answer to this question, and this is worrying: it leads to ‘philosophical melancholy and delirium.’ [9] However, in the face of such skeptical arguments, Hume argues that we should rescind to our everyday thinking: act, as everyone in fact does, as if the sun and the seasons will continue to behave as they always have.

Hume does, however, distinguish between the kinds of reasoning we pursue in everyday or common life. There is the vulgar reasoning of the ‘peasant’ and a more sophisticated form of reasoning.

‘A peasant can give no better reason for the stopping of any clock or watch than to say, that commonly it does not go right: But an artisan easily perceives, that the same force in the spring or pendulum has always the same influence on the wheels; but fails of its usual effect, perhaps by reason of a grain of dust, which puts a stop to the whole movement.’ [10]

Here, the artisan has a more sophisticated grasp of induction. Regularities are sometimes disturbed because there is a ‘secret opposition of contrary causes.’ [11] The artisan explains a broken watch in this way; a kitchen gardener similarly explains his unusually poor harvest as due to cucumber mosaic virus or spider mites. Gardening, then, is the sort of pursuit that aids this immersion in common life and in doing so it inculcates epistemic virtues; it helps us to be good everyday reasoners, developing our appreciation of the regular run of the world. It is an activity especially well suited to this since gardeners must be sensitive to regularities of varying scope – those, for example, manifest by the seasons, the weather, disease, and germination. A garden is in many ways a microcosm of the natural world: we must be aware of long-term and short-term changes and how they embed together. Gardeners are artisans par excellence, having a fine-grained appreciation of the causal structure of nature. And the gardener’s acquiescence in common life reasoning steers clear of psychologically dangerous metaphysical reasoning and, as we shall see, of the cycle of enthusiasm and melancholia characteristic of religious belief.

For Hume, religious beliefs are akin to an illness; they are disruptive to our mental life and action, and thus they should be rejected; not just for epistemic reasons (that is, because they are false), but also for reasons concerning mental health and the security of our human nature. As seen, such beliefs are not rejected by providing philosophical argument to refute them; rather, they are rejected by embracing everyday cognitive standards, by confining ourselves ‘to common life, and to such subjects as fall under daily practice and experience.’ [12] If we are successful in this, then the ‘contagion’ of religion shall not infect us. [13] Hume has a ‘therapeutic’ approach to religious belief. Religion, for Hume, is an ‘infliction,’ ‘a natural frailty,’ nothing but ‘sick men’s dreams.’ [14] ‘As superstition arises … it seizes … the mind, and is often able to disturb us in the conduct of our lives and actions.’ [15] Belief in miracles, say, may undermine our everyday expectations and, if this is severe enough, it may lead to alienation from the regular, everyday world of sunrises and falling leaves.

As well as disturbing our lives and actions, Hume claims that religion also leads to forms of mental illness. ‘Terror is the primary principle of religion’ and this naturally leads to a melancholic frame of mind, with meditations on Heaven and Hell ‘apt to make a considerable breach in the temper, and to produce that gloom and melancholy, so remarkable in all devout people.’ [16] There are occasional pleasures, but these are ‘fits of excessive enthusiastic joy,’ and these for Hume are not the steady pleasures that bring us happiness. They ‘exhaust … the spirits, always prepar[ing] the way for equal fits of superstitious terror and dejection.’ [17] Religion takes one on a roller coaster of enthusiasm and dejection and such violent mood swings are opposed to the ‘calm and equitable’ state of mind that we seek. The extremes of this can be seen in those who pursue the ‘monkish virtues’ and who reject the social life; theirs is a world of wild enthusiasm and dark melancholia. At various places in his History of England Hume notes the connection between religion and mental illness. Cromwell, for example, was ‘transported to a degree of madness by religious extasies.’ [18] We should thus cultivate ways of thinking that keep us engaged in common life, and in a way that involves ‘that undisturbed philosophical tranquillity, superior to pain, sorrow, anxiety, and each assault of adverse fortune.… And the nearer we can approach in practice to this sublime tranquility and indifference … the more secure enjoyment shall we attain within ourselves.’ [19] In an early essay, Hume ‘laments’ those with ‘delicacy of passion,’ those that are affected strongly by the ups and downs of life: ‘men of such lively passions are apt to be transported beyond all bounds of prudence and discretion, and to take false steps in the conduct of life, which is often irretrievable.’ [20] True philosophy should attempt to ‘take … off the edge from all disorderly passions, and tranquillize … the mind.’ [21] We must therefore step down from the philosophical perspective and embrace the everyday – we must cultivate our garden. In doing so, we avoid the roller coaster emotional ride associated with religion, and various other psychological and physical symptoms characteristic of one plagued by metaphysical and religious questions.

Those tempted by philosophy should take note that:

‘There are … many honest gentlemen, who being always employ’d in their domestic affairs, or amusing themselves in common recreations, have carried their thoughts very little beyond those objects, which are every day expos’d to their senses … I wish we cou’d communicate to our founders of systems [to philosophers] a share of this gross earthy mixture, as an ingredient, which they commonly stand much in need of, and which wou’d serve to temper those fiery particles, of which they are compos’d.’ [22]

Cultivating our garden is thus a metaphor for the therapeutic role that common life reasoning has with respect to metaphysical and theological worries. And actual gardening, I shall argue, can play a role in promoting the kind of tranquility that Hume claims should be our goal. Before we turn to this it is interesting to note that the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein took to gardening as a cure for his psychological problems. In a letter to the architect Paul Engelmann, he says:

I have broken my word. I shall not come your way, at least for the time being.… For in my present dubious state of mind even talking to you – much as I enjoy it – would be no more than a pastime. I was longing for some kind of regulized work which, of all the things I can do in my present condition, is the most nearly bearable, if I am not mistaken. It seems I have found such a job: I have been taken on as an assistant gardener at the Klosterneuberg Monastery for the duration of my holiday. [23]

Part III: Gardens and Tranquility

Joseph Addison’s (1672–1719) essays in the Spectator impressed Hume and influenced him to write extensively in that style:

‘I know nothing more advantageous than such Essays as these with which I endeavour to entertain the public. In this view, I cannot but consider myself as a kind of resident or ambassador from the dominions of learning to those of conversation; and shall think it my constant duty to promote good correspondence betwixt these two states, which have so great a dependence on each other.’ [24]

And, in one of these essays, Addison notes the relation between gardens and tranquility:

‘A garden … is naturally apt to fill the mind with calmness and tranquillity, and to lay all its turbulent passions at rest. It gives us a great insight into the contrivance and wisdom of providence, and suggests innumerable subjects for meditation. I cannot but think the very complacency and satisfaction which a man takes in these works of nature, to be a laudable, if not a virtuous habit of mind. For all which reasons I hope you will pardon the length of my present letter.’ [25]

Voltaire also comments on this aspect of gardening. In a letter from his garden paradise of Les Délices on Lake Geneva, a few months before the completion of Candide, he writes: ‘in our little Romantic country … we are doing here what one should be doing in Paris; we are living in tranquility, we are cultivating literature without any cabals.’ [26] What, then, is the source of the tranquility that Addison and Voltaire describe?

Gardening brings various psychological benefits to the gardener. There are sensory pleasures: the smells, the quiet, the colors. Such pleasures can also lead one to a deeper engagement with the garden: blooms can hold one’s attention, as can trees and expanses of grass; certain corners of the garden may not be beautiful in the traditional sense, yet the crushed snail-shell or the rotting compost can enrapture. A bloom (or, for that matter, the decaying cabbage) can do so, not because one is focused on the prizes it might win (or on the future benefits that one’s compost will bring to the garden); one’s appreciation, rather, is for the thing itself – the fritillaria flower, the pumpkin, or the crumbly brown texture of what was once kitchen waste. David Cooper takes our ability to appreciate the garden in this ‘disinterested’ way to be a virtue, [27] and William James talks of the psychological benefits of ‘involuntary attention,’ when we find ourselves just looking at the tulip, as opposed to actively looking for the trowel. [28] Such moments of attention are tranquil ones.

Some have also seen gardens as havens, providing psychological protection from the ‘hostile reminders of human mortality lurking in the terrors of nature.’ [29] William Adams, commenting on French gardens, says: ‘To venture into the forest was to run the risk of losing one’s soul. To reduce the forest to an ordered, tidy ideal world was salvation here on earth.’ [30] The tranquillity of gardens, then, can be seen to lie in their sensory pleasures, in the way that they can hold our attention, and in their protective role.

Further, the tranquillity that gardens and gardening bring should not be seen merely in terms of pleasant feelings or states of consciousness; such tranquillity, rather, is rooted in an account of virtue. Gardening is a moral pursuit, but the kind of morality I have in mind here is not that which focuses on the characterization of acts and intentions as right or wrong; but rather morality in the older tradition of virtue theory. Addison, as we have seen, claims that gardens cultivate ‘a virtuous habit of mind.’ Virtue theorists focus on character traits and not on actions: a pursuit is moral if it inculcates virtuous character traits. Isis Brook, in this volume, has noted this moral dimension to gardening: good gardeners have patience, humility, and generosity. Hume is a kind of virtue theorist. The virtues, for him, are those aspects of character which bring us pleasure, those of which we approve, those which are advantageous for our own peace of mind and for the good of society. Gardening, then, is a virtuous activity, one that is moral, and one that as a consequence brings the tranquillity requisite of a good life.

Gardens, as we all know, take work, and Hume sees industry as a virtue:

‘Men are kept in perpetual occupation, and enjoy, as their reward, the occupation itself, as well as those pleasures which are the fruit of their labour. The mind acquires new vigour; enlarges its powers and faculties; and by an assiduity in honest industry, both satisfies its natural appetites, and prevents the growth of unnatural ones.’ [31]

The clearing of weeds or the eradication of slugs can seem a task akin to that of Sisyphus, condemned by the gods perpetually to push a boulder up a mountain. We know the weeds and slugs will keep coming back. Albert Camus, the French existentialist philosopher, asks whether Sisyphus is happy, and answers ‘Yes.’ We, Sisyphean gardeners, can hand on heart also answer ‘Yes.’

The Humean gardener, though, must not be too driven. Virtues have associated vices. One can, for example, be too patient; sometimes there is a need for urgency in the garden: one should water the berberis tonight rather than just wait for it to rain. Conversely, Hume stresses the importance of taking your foot off the pedal: ‘human happiness … seems to consist in three ingredients: action, pleasure, and indolence.’ [32] A balance is required and good gardening keeps this balance. The relentless slug exterminator or the manic composter are not gardening well. One, however, who from time to time leans on his spade, puffing on his pipe, is the virtuous gardener. ‘I lean and invite my soul, I lean and loafe at my ease … observing a spear of summer grass.’ [33] In a recent interview, Monty Don, the TV gardener, talks not of loafing, but pottering. Pottering in the garden may not be as industrious as one could be, but ‘pottering and happiness are very likely bedfellows. There is much to be said for it.… To the potterer, the primary benefits of this low level activity are a sense of wellbeing.’ [34]

In a recent book, Daniel Haybron explores the various dimensions of happiness. [35] There is first attunement. This is manifest in feelings of tranquility or inner surety (what the Epicureans called ataraxia). As one leans against one’s shed after a heavy bout of digging one feels ‘psychically … at home in one’s life’ – one’s day-to-day anxieties have floated away. Such attunement leads to engagement. One steps inside and becomes engaged in activity – potting on, cleaning one’s tools, organizing one’s seed trays. One can become lost in such activity, unaware of the passage of time, and even of oneself. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks of a state of flow in which one loses oneself in this way – the kind of state experienced by the athlete, the knitter, and the dancer. [36] Before one knows it the sun is setting and one must pack away one’s tools. Lethargy or listlessness have melted away in activity. Zeno, the Stoic, talked of happiness as finding a ‘good flow of life.’ Engagement then leads to endorsement, and here pleasurable feelings are important. One becomes conscious of one’s activity, and perhaps of the productivity of one’s plot or the beauty of one’s blooms.

To be happy, then, is for one’s life to be broadly favorable across these three dimensions of attunement, engagement and endorsement. And Haybron argues that the most important is attunement, the state of tranquility, the state that Hume stresses, and the state that characterizes much of the experience of gardeners. The happiness of gardening is perhaps rarely manifest in feelings of endorsement – blooms and good crops are fleeting; it is more commonly manifest in those foot on the spade, quiet moments. Gardening has its obvious sensory pleasures and rewards, but the therapeutic role of gardens lies not just in these, but in the richer psychological grounds for emotional wellbeing that Haybron explores.

Hume himself was an urbanite: Le Bon David, as he was called in France, was more at home in the salons of Paris than in the garden. Much as he talked of the common life, one cannot really imagine him getting his hands dirty. He also betrays certain negative attitudes to country life. He accuses Cromwell of being engaged in ‘rustic buffoonery’ and calls John Knox a ‘rustic apostle,’ although he does praise ‘agriculture; a profession, which, of all mechanical employments, requires the most reflection and experience.’ [37] Gardens do appear in the Treatise, but only as a source of pride, along with our family, riches, and houses, and to illustrate the workings of the imagination – a poet’s description of the Elysian Fields can be enlivened if he has a view of the garden. I am not suggesting, then, that we would find Hume escaping the psychological dangers of his study in his Parisian roof garden. This essay, rather, is a hybrid of my own love of gardening and admiration for the philosophy of Hume. Philosophical problems do not seem important to me when there are slugs with which to deal. Gardening may cultivate wisdom, but not that of the philosopher; rather, that of the common man.

Philosophers and theologians are a strange unearthly breed. They worry about the existence of the external world and about how an all-perfect being can allow evil, and they spend much of their time anxiously attempting to solve such conundrums. Wittgenstein observes:

I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden; he says again and again ‘I know that that’s a tree,’ pointing to a tree that is near us. Someone else arrives and hears this, and I tell him: ‘This fellow isn’t insane. We are only doing philosophy.’ [38]

Well, says the Humean gardener, we shouldn’t – we should just get up, prune the tree, perhaps plant some cyclamen around the roots, and then perhaps sit down again.


[1] C. Jencks, The Garden of Cosmic Speculation (London: Frances Lincoln, 2003), pp. 14, 17, 13.

[2] E. B. Rogers, Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001), p. 238.

[3] Voltaire, Candide and other Stories (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 22.

[4] Ibid., p. 11.

[5] Ibid., p. 88.

[6] The Complete Works of Voltaire, ed. T. Besterman (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1968), letter no. 11499R.

[7] D. Hume, Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, ed. L. Selby-Bigge, revd. P. Nidditch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 117.

[8] Ibid., p. 125.

[9] D. Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. Selby-Bigge, revd. P. Nidditch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 269.

[10] Ibid., p. 132.

[11] Hume, Enquiries, p. 87.

[12] Ibid., p. 162.

[13] D. Hume, The History of England, 6 vols. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Press, 1983), vol 1, p. 333; vol. 5 p. 12; vol. 6, p. 491.

[14] D. Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, ed. N. Kemp Smith (Indianapolis: Bobs-Merrill, 1947), p. 86; D. Hume, Natural History of Religion, ed. J. Feiser (New York: Macmillan, 1992), pp. 141, 184.

[15] Hume, Treatise, pp. 271–2.

[16] Hume, Dialogues, 12.30.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Hume, History of England, vol. 6, p. 5.

[19] Hume, Enquiries, p. 256.

[20] D. Hume, ‘Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion,’ in Essays: Moral, Political and Literary, ed. E. F. Miller (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Press, 1985), p. 4.

[21] ‘The Sceptic,’ in Essays, p. 179n.

[22] Hume, Treatise, p. 272.

[23] L. Wittgenstein and P. Engelmann, Letters from Ludwig Wittgenstein, with a Memoir (New York: Horizon Press, 1974), p. 37.

[24] D. Hume, ‘Of Essay Writing,’ in Essays, p. 535.

[25] J. Addison, The Spectator, No. 477, September 6, 1712.

[26] The Complete Works of Voltaire, ed. T. Besterman (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1968), p. 6517.

[27] D. Cooper, A Philosophy of Gardens (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 94.

[28] W. James, Psychology (Briefer Course) (Indianapolis: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985).

[29] W. H. Adams, Gardens Through History: Nature Perfected (New York: Abbeville, 1991), p. 52.

[30] Ibid., p. 113.

[31] D. Hume, ‘Of Refinement in the Arts,’ in Essays, p. 270.

[32] Ibid., p. 269.

[33] W. Whitman, Leaves of Grass (London: Penguin, 1988), p. 5.

[34] ‘The Joy of Pottering,’ Giles Wilson, BBC News Magazine, June 1, 2008.

[35] D. Haybron, The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[36] M. Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimum Experience (New York: Harper and Row, 1990).

[37] Hume, History of England, vol. 3, p. 369; vol. 4, p. 41; vol 6, p. 90. Hume is thought to have had the Roman writer Columella’s treatise on agriculture, De Re Rustica, in his library, as well as two editions of Rev. Adam Dickson’s A Treatise of Agriculture (1765/1770). See The David Hume Library, ed. D. F. Norton and M. J. Norton (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Bibliographical Society, 1996), pp. 83, 87.

[38] L. Wittgenstein, On Certainty, ed. E. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright (Oxford: Blackwell, 1969), p. 467.

[Originally published in Philosophy for Everyone: Gardening, ed. D. O’Brien, Blackwell, Oxford, 2010]
[image by ‘Dave Catchpole’]