The Legacy of David Hume for American Public Administration: Empiricism, Scepticism, and Constitutionalism

Michael W Spicer. International Journal of Organization Theory and Behavior. Volume 6, Issue 2, Summer 2003.


While David Hume is not widely cited in the public administration literature, an understanding and appreciation of his ideas are important to both the study and practice of American public administration. This is, in part, because his ideas about the character and limits of human knowledge and understanding have indirectly had important effects on public administration thought. Hume’s ideas on knowledge are a creative mix of empiricism, a belief that all knowledge derives from our experience rather than our reason, and scepticism, a questioning of the reliability of our knowledge even when it is derived from experience. What I shall argue here is that while his empiricism has indirectly, through its influence on modern philosophy, significantly contributed to empiricist ways of thinking within public administration, his scepticism has also contributed to critiques of these ways of thinking. However, Hume’s contributions to American public administration go far beyond his ideas about the nature of knowledge. As I shall suggest here, Hume’s political writings on constitutionalism may well have been crucial in helping shape our constitutional framework for governance and administration. Finally, I shall examine the continuing relevance of Hume’s ideas for public administrators as they seek to deal with the high degree of political fragmentation and conflict that seems likely to characterize American society for the foreseeable future.

Hume’s Life and Times

In order to help the reader understand Hume’s ideas better, I begin with a brief review of his life and times. Hume engaged in a variety of occupations during his life including being a tutor, a judge advocate, a military aide-de-camp, a librarian, a diplomat in France, and a senior civil servant. However, Hume, by his own account, “spent almost all” his life “in literary pursuits and occupations” (Hume, 1987, p. xxxi). Born in 1711 to what he termed a “good” but “not rich” Scottish family, he was “seized very early with a passion for literature” which was to become “the ruling passion” of his life and “the great source” of his “enjoyments” (pp. xxxii-xxxiii). Following a university education at Edinburgh and a short career in law, Hume soon “found an insurmountable aversion to everything but the pursuits of philosophy and general learning” (p. xxxiii). Scholarly writing and in particular philosophical writing was the driving force through much of Hume’s life.

In his mid-twenties, Hume wrote what is now regarded as his major philosophical work, The Treatise of Human Nature, which he subtitled “An Attempt to Introduce the Method of Experimental Reasoning into Moral Subjects” (Hume, 1978). In this work, Hume admitted to “an ambition” to contribute to “the instruction of mankind” and to acquire “a name” by his “inventions and discoveries” (p. 271). His philosophical work, however, was not highly regarded at the time by his contemporaries. Despite his attempts to advertise it by means of an anonymous abstract, this first work was ignored. It fell, as Hume termed it, “dead-born from the press” (Hume, 1987, p. xxxiv). Eater it was sharply criticized both by philosophers and the clergy of the time for what was seen as its extreme scepticism regarding human understanding, morals, and religion. Hume attempted to recast and clarify much of his arguments in his two enquiries, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. However, his philosophical ideas continued to provoke controversy during his lifetime. Hume’s ideas never received the academic respect to which he felt they were entitled. Indeed, he was rebuffed twice in his attempts to seek a university professorship; firstly, by Edinburgh University and then by Glasgow University.

While his academic colleagues were generally less than receptive to his philosophical work, Hume nonetheless earned a considerable world-wide reputation and celebrity as a writer, particularly in France. He also earned some measure of financial success from his many popular essays on political, moral, literary, and economic topics and from his History of England. In this regard, Hume was perhaps the first man of letters to write consciously for a popular audience as he benefited from the rising literacy of his age. His desire to write for a popular audience perhaps reflected his belief that philosophy was important to human affairs. He argued that “though a philosopher may live remote from business, the genius of philosophy, if carefully cultivated by several, must gradually diffuse itself throughout the whole society” (Hume, 1963, p. 10). His works also undoubtedly reflected his own self-confessed “ruling passion,” a “love of literary fame” (Hume, 1987, p. xl).

Hume was very much a product of his times. Firstly, he was a child of the Age of Enlightenment. This was a time of great energy and optimism regarding humanity and its capacity to use reason and science to improve the human condition. Hume was exposed at university to the “new philosophy” of Sir Isaac Newton and John Locke. He clearly saw himself as a Newton of the moral sciences when he asked “But may we not hope, that philosophy, if cultivated with care, and encouraged by the attention of the public, may carry its researches still farther, and discover, at least in some degree, the secret springs and principles, by which the human mind is actuated in its operations?” (Hume, 1963, p. 14).

Secondly, although Hume wrote sometimes in the style and with the enthusiasm of a philosopher of the Enlightenment, he was at the same time, like Locke and Berkeley, an empiricist. He rejected the belief of continental rationalist philosophers that a priori reasoning could be used to discover truths about the world. According to Hume, “the only solid foundation we can give” to the “science of man” is that of “experience and observation” (Hume, 1978, p. xvi). Hume argued that “we cannot go beyond experience” and that we should reject “as presumptuous and chimerical” any hypothesis “that pretends to discover the ultimate original qualities of human nature” (p. xvii). He saw himself as carrying forward the empiricist tradition of “my Lord Bacon” and acknowledged the influences of “Mr. Locke, my Lord Shaftesbury, Dr. Mandeville, Mr. Hutchison, Dr. Butler, who, tho’ they differ on many points among themselves, seem all to agree in founding their accurate dispositions of human nature intirely upon experience” (p. 646).

Thirdly, while rejecting Continental rationalism, Hume does seem to have been influenced by the philosophical scepticism of French thinkers, particularly Pierre Bayle. Hume argued that a degree of scepticism was “a necessary preparative to the study of philosophy, by preserving a proper impartiality in our judgements, and weaning our mind from all those prejudices, which we may have imbibed from education or rash opinion” (1963, p. 150). Hume clearly rejected what he termed “excessive scepticism,” but he did believe that a “mitigated scepticism” was useful in encouraging “a degree of doubt, and caution, and modesty … in all kinds of scrutiny and decision” and in the “limitation of our enquiries to such subjects as are best adapted to the narrow capacity of human understanding” (pp. 161-162).

Hume’s Empiricism

Perhaps the most important aspect of Hume’s thought for modern philosophy is his empiricism. As noted above, empiricism is a belief that all our knowledge derives from experience or, as our contemporary philosophers might put it, from our sense-data. Hume’s empiricism is captured most clearly in his distinction between our impressions, our “lively perceptions, when we hear, or see, or feel, or love, or hate, or desire, or will,” and our ideas, “our less lively perceptions, of which we are conscious” when we reflect on our impressions (Hume, 1963, p. 18). Hume argued that all our meaningful ideas about the world can only arise as a result of our impressions of it. For Hume, all ideas are derived from our impressions. In other words, what we understand or know of the world can only be based on the experience of our senses. As he noted, “we can never think of anything which we have not seen without us, or felt in our own minds” (Hume, 1978, pp. 647-648).

Since all our ideas must be derived from our impressions, Hume argued we cannot gain any knowledge of our world on the basis of a priori reasoning. For Hume, such reasoning can certainly be used to enquire into the relationship between ideas but not into that between facts since facts must be based in experience. The only meaningful propositions that can be derived on the basis of a priori reasoning are those of “Geometry, Algebra, and Arithmetic” (Hume, 1963, p. 25). A priori reasoning cannot demonstrate any matter of fact since “whatever is may not be” and “no negation of a fact can involve a contradiction” (1963, p. 164). In other words, since nothing that is possible in fact is contrary to logic, logic alone cannot provide us with knowledge of our world.

Hume’s insistence here that our knowledge of the world can only be founded in our experience was central to his most important argument regarding cause and effect. Hume argued here that “all reasonings concerning matter of fact” are based on “the relation of Cause and Effect” (Hume, 1963, p. 26). Thus our judgements about facts inevitably involve cause and effect reasoning. “By means of that relation alone,” according to Hume, “we can go beyond the evidence of our memory and senses” (p. 26). Such knowledge of cause and effect relationships can never be based on a priori reasoning. “The mind can always conceive of any effect to follow from any cause, and indeed any event to follow upon another” (Hume, 1978, p. 650). In other words, logic cannot dictate facts. Rather, our knowledge of cause and effect “arises entirely from experience, when we find that any particular objects are constantly conjoined with each other” (Hume, 1963, p. 27). Our knowledge of cause and effect arises, in other words, simply as a result of our past experience of one event being followed by another.

Hume argued also that there is no reason, on the basis of logic or experience, to believe that our past experience of particular cause and effect relations between events will necessarily provide any guide to the future. As Hume observed, “it implies no contradiction that the course of nature may change, and than an object, seemingly like those which we have experienced, may be attended with different or contrary effects” (Hume, 1963, p. 35). Furthermore, “arguments from experience” cannot prove the “resemblance of the past to the future; since all these arguments are founded on the supposition ofthat resemblance” (p. 38). Our reasonings concerning cause and effect are based, therefore, on no more than a simple inference that the past will repeat itself. For Hume, “We have no other notion of cause and effect, but that of certain objects, which have been always cojoin’d together, and which in all past instances have been found inseparable” (Hume, 1978, p. 93).

Hume further argued that since our knowledge of cause and effect can only rest on past conjunctions of events, we cannot establish, either on the basis of logic or experience, the existence of any sort of “power, force, energy, or necessary connexion” between those objects (Hume, 1963, p. 62). According to Hume, “When we look about us towards external objects, and consider the operation of causes, we are never able, in a single instance, to discover any power or necessary connexion; any quality, which binds the effect to the cause, and renders the one an infallible consequence of the other” (p. 63). “One event follows another; but we never can observe any tie between them” (p. 74).

The Impact of Hume’s Empiricism

By basing our knowledge of cause and effect on what we experience rather than on logic, Hume is advancing an argument for an empiricist view of knowledge and, indeed, this is one reason why interest in Hume among philosophers arose in the earlier part of the twentieth century. The influence of his empiricism is especially apparent with respect to modern analytic philosophy. These philosophers, who have included logical positivists and linguistic analysts, rejected Hume’s psychological and atomistic approach to knowledge. They preferred instead to examine the meaningfulness of different types of propositions or statements. However, interestingly, their views on what we can and cannot know clearly draw on Hume’s empiricism. In their eyes, Hume’s argument that ideas can only be derived from impressions becomes equivalent to an argument that all meaningful statements about the world must be reducible to terms which refer to our experience.

Alfred Jules Ayer, for example, made clear that his logical positivist views “derive from the doctrines of Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein, which are themselves the logical outcome of the empiricism of Berkeley and David Hume” (Ayer, 1952, p. 31). For Ayer, like Hume, the only meaningful propositions consist of the “a priori propositions of logic and pure mathematics” and “propositions concerning empirical matters of fact” (p. 31). According to Ayer, following Hume, propositions of logic “cannot be confuted (that is, proven wrong) in experience” because “they do not make any assertion about the empirical world” (p. 31). Rather, for a proposition to express “a genuine empirical hypothesis,” it is required that “some possible sense-experience be relevant to the determination of its truth or falsehood” (p. 31). Furthermore, Ayer argues, “As Hume conclusively showed, no one event intrinsically points to any other” (p. 47) or, in other words, “no general proposition referring to a matter of fact can ever be shown to be necessarily and universally true” (p. 72).

Hume’s ideas have, therefore, clearly influenced and encouraged modern empiricists. This being the case, not surprisingly, Humean ideas have also had an impact on public administration writing. Particularly important here is the work of Herbert Simon because of his role in advancing logical positivism in public administration and in the social sciences in general. Simon strongly embraced the positivist idea that the only meaningful scientific statements about the world are “statements about the observable world and the way in which it operates” (Simon, 1957, p. 45). Such statements “may be tested to determine whether they are true or false” (p. 46). For Simon, “To determine whether a proposition is correct, it must be directly compared with experience – with the facts – or it must lead by logical reasoning to other propositions that can be compared with experience” (p. 46). This was why he was critical of the so-called “principles of administration,” terming them merely “proverbs.” Simon echoes here in many ways Hume’s critique of rationalism when he argues that “because … studies of administration have been carried out without benefit of control or objective measurements of results, they have had to depend for their recommendations and conclusions upon a priori reasoning proceeding from ‘principles of administration'” (pp. 43-44).

Drawing on logical positivism, Simon and others strengthened the belief among many that public administration could and would become a true science by following empiricist principles. This belief has manifested itself in a variety of ways including an emphasis on behavioralist social science in the 1950s and 1960s, and an emphasis on policy analysis, cost-benefit analysis, management science, and systems analysis in the 1960s and 1970s. While this faith in the development of an empirical science of public administration is perhaps somewhat diminished nowadays, it remains an important element in the thinking of mainstream public administration.

As Dwight Waldo has observed, in public administration, “the belief that principles, in the sense of lawful regularities, can be discovered by scientific enquiry remains strong” (Waldo, 1984, p. liii). This is evidenced in the field by repeated calls over the past two decades or so for more rigorous empirical and quantitative research in public administration. For instance, in a study of public administration journal publications, David Houston and Sybil Delevan argue that “the more rigorous use of the quantitative methods advocated by mainstream social science may well be more useful in public administration than their current use suggests” (Houston & Delevan, 1994, p. 268). Laurence Lynn similarly has criticized much of public administration scholarship for its failure “to engage in empirical validation in any scientific sense” and has argued that “engaging in empirical validation of predictions, conjectures, and statements is central to any scholarly activity directed at professional performance” (Lynn, 1996, pp. 164-165). Although all of this empiricist enthusiasm cannot obviously be laid at the door of David Hume, a reasonable argument can be made that his ideas indirectly helped encourage a rigorous and tough-minded empiricism that is still an important part of modern public administration.

At the same time, there are important differences between Hume’s empiricism and that of modern public administration writers. For one thing, the latter writers rarely if ever employ the historical approach that was so central to Hume’s political analysis. Hume wrote that “history is not only a valuable part of knowledge, but opens the door to many other parts, and affords materials to most of the sciences” (Hume, 1987, p. 566). Furthermore, modern writers’ faith in empirical reasoning seems often much more pronounced than that of Hume. Would Hume, for example, have really endorsed the ambitious scientific agenda of modern writers, inspired by Simon, who seek “to design and evaluate institutions, mechanisms, and processes that convert collective will and public resources into social profit” (Shangraw & Crow, 1989, p. 156)? Hume, after all, observed that “To balance a state or society … is a work of so great difficulty, that no human genius, however comprehensive, is able, by the mere dint of reason and reflection, to effect it” (Hume, 1987, p. 124). Also, despite his claim that politics could be “reduced to a science” (p. 14), Hume believed that “all political questions are infinitely complicated” and that “mixed and varied” and “unforeseen” consequences flow from “every measure” (p. 507). While Hume was an empiricist, he was also keenly aware of the limits of empiricism and was, in this regard, a sceptic. It is to this scepticism that we now turn.

Hume’s Scepticism

Even as he advanced his empiricist ideas, Hume displayed his scepticism. He established, as noted above, that there is no basis either in logic or experience for assuming either that past causal relations will be repeated in the future or that there is any type of necessary causal connection between events. According to Hume, the only basis, therefore, for our belief in causation is that of custom or habit. In Hume’s view, it is custom alone “which renders our experience useful to us, and makes us expect, for the future, a similar train of events with those which have appeared in the past” (Hume, 1963, p. 44). As Hume noted, “having found, in many instances, that any two kinds of objects, flame and heat, snow and cold, have always been conjoined together: if flame or snow be presented anew to the senses, the mind is carried by custom to expect heat or cold, and to believe that such a quality does exist, and will discover itself upon a nearer approach” (p. 46). Furthermore, any connection, “which we feel in our minds” between a cause and an effect arises not from any impression of a force connecting events but simply because, “after a repetition of similar instances, the mind is carried by habit, upon the appearance of one event to expect its usual attendant” (p. 75).

For Hume, custom or habit was “the great guide of human life” (Hume, 1963, p. 44). Hume emphasized our belief that like effects will follow from like causes cannot be defended either on the basis of our reason or experience. Instead, this belief is simply a “sentiment or feeling … excited by nature” (p. 48). Such a belief is distinct from “the loose reveries of the fancy” or the imagination alone only in that it is “a more vivid, lively, forcible, firm, steady conception of an object” (pp. 48-49). It is “something felt by the mind, which distinguishes the ideas of the judgement from the fictions of the imagination” (1963, p. 49). It “gives them more weight and influence; makes them appear of greater importance; enforces them in the mind; and renders them the governing principle of our actions” (pp. 49-50).

Hume’s sceptical conclusion here is that our common belief in a world of causal relationships is nothing more than a matter of custom or habit rooted in sentiment or feeling. Our belief in facts or causal relationships is “more properly an act of the sensitive, than of the cogitative part of our natures” (Hume, 1978, p. 183). Hume’s scepticism is even more striking in his account of our ideas about the existence of physical objects. He noted that neither our senses nor our reason can justify our belief in such objects when we no longer perceive them. According to Hume, our senses “are incapable of giving rise to the notion of the continu’d existence of their objects, after they no longer appear to the senses” (p. 188). Our reason cannot “give us an assurance of the continu’d and distinct existence of body” (p. 193). He observed that we believe in the reality of such objects only because “we have a propensity to feign the continu’d existence of all sensible objects” which “arises from some lively impression of the memory” and “bestows a vivacity on that fiction” (p. 209).

Furthermore, according to Hume, since our knowledge is limited to our perceptions, we cannot justify our beliefs in the existence of physical matter, the existence of a human soul, or even that of the self on the basis of either our senses or reasoning. In regard to the self, he noted that “when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure” and “never can catch myself at any time without a perception” (Hume, 1978, p. 252). For Hume, what we think of as self or mind is “nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions” (1978, p. 252) and “the identity, which we ascribe to the mind of man, is only a fictitious one” (1978, p. 259).

Although discussed separately, Hume’s scepticism is also apparent in his treatment of passions and morality. Hume argued that our “morals … cannot be deriv’d from reason” (Hume, 1978, p. 457). Neither logic nor facts can determine what is vice or what is virtue. Reason, based as it is in either logic or facts, “is not alone sufficient to produce any moral blame or approbation” (Hume, 1963, p. 286). For Hume, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions” (Hume, 1978, p. 415). In this regard, therefore, “’tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger” (p. 416). Morals affect actions because they “excite passions” (p. 457). “Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular” (p. 457). For Hume, morals “are not so properly objects of the understanding as of taste and sentiment” (Hume, 1963, p. 165).

Hume, in short, argues we cannot justify on the basis of either logic or experience everything that we take for granted in our ordinary life including cause and effect relations, the existence of a physical world and matter, the existence of self, and the rules of morality. All of these are based on no more than sentiments or feelings. What Hume was really saying here and also what he really proved is a matter of some dispute among modern writers on Hume (See, for example, Chappell, 1966; Livingston & King, 1976). Some philosophers do not see any problem in Hume’s argument that there is no necessary connection between cause and effect. They see this argument simply as an observation that no empirical proposition can ever be logically certain. Others, however, have seen a more profound problem. According to Kant, Hume’s refutation of any a priori basis for causation “interrupted” his “dogmatic slumber” and gave “his research … quite a different direction” (Kant, 1949, p. 45). Indeed, Kant’s idealism was an attempt to reconcile Hume’s empiricism with rationalist principles in the form of mental categories.

Hume himself certainly understood the destructive implications of his scepticism. He observed “he intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another” (Hume, 1978, pp. 268-269). However, he believed that we neither could nor should embrace such extreme scepticism. He argued that, in the final analysis, our own nature will not let us embrace it but rather compels us to accept and to believe what we can never prove. According to Hume, “Nature, by an absolute and uncontrollable necessity has determin’d us to judge as well as to breathe and feel” (p. 183). Despite his philosophical scepticism and because of nature, Hume finds himself “absolutely and necessarily determin’d to live and talk, and act like other people in the common affairs of life” (p. 269). Furthermore, extreme scepticism is not acceptable for Hume. If men allowed themselves to be ruled by it, “all discourse, all actions would immediately cease; and men remain in a total lethargy, till the necessities of nature, unsatisfied, put an end to their miserable existence” (Hume, 1963, p. 160). Thus Hume embraced a mitigated rather than an extreme scepticism. He argued that such a mitigated scepticism was useful as a check on intellectual dogmatism, obstinacy, and pride. As Hume observed, since “the greater part of mankind are naturally apt to be affirmative and dogmatical in their opinions,” a “mitigated skepticism” can serve to “inspire them with more modesty and reserve, and diminish their fond opinion of themselves, and their prejudice against antagonists” by reminding them of “the strange infirmities of human understanding” (p. 161). It can “abate their pride” by showing them that whatever “few advantages” they may possess over others in terms of “study and reflection” are “but inconsiderable, if compared to the universal perplexity and confusion, which is inherent in human nature” (p. 161).

The Impact of Hume’s Scepticism

Whatever Hume’s own particular brand of scepticism may have meant to him, others have seen it as radically undermining any type of objective claims to knowledge. Bertrand Russell, for example, saw it as inevitable that Hume’s “self-refutation of rationality should be followed by a great outburst of irrational faith” (Russell, 1945, p. 673). Russell felt “the growth of unreason throughout the nineteenth century and what has passed of the twentieth is a natural sequel to Hume’s destruction of empiricism” (p. 673). Consistent with this notion, Isaiah Berlin has argued that Hume’s views had an important influence on eighteenth century German romantic philosophers, most notably Johann Georg Hamann and Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (Berlin, 1982). These philosophers saw, in Hume’s refutation of objective reason, an opportunity for a reaffirmation of religious faith.

If this is correct then, Hume perhaps can be seen as clearing a path for later philosophers. These include existentialists and phenomenologists, who, rejecting both rationalism and our immediate sensory experience as the route to knowledge of the world, have sought other paths. Several writers have discussed the influence of Hume’s scepticism on the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl (See, for example, Mall, 1973; Murphy, 1980). Husserl saw in Hume’s scepticism an affirmation of the radical subjectivity of human experience: an affirmation of the role of the human mind in giving meaning to our experience of the world. For Husserl, Hume demonstrated “the enigma of a world whose being is being through subjective accomplishment” (Husserl, 1970, pp. 96-97). The path to universal knowledge, according to Husserl, therefore, could be found, not by direct empirical observation, but by suspending those beliefs or predispositions we bring to our observations of the world. In this way, we might arrive at a more genuine and intuitive experience of ourselves in relation to our world. We might come to better understand our shared “pre-given world” or “life-world.”

The forgoing is significant because it suggests that Hume’s ideas may have, at least indirectly, contributed to critiques of empiricist thinking in public administration. In this respect, the writings of contemporary radical critics of mainstream public administration, who draw on phenomenology and associated philosophies to formulate critiques of empiricist science and dominating hierarchical bureaucracies, may be seen as indirectly influenced by the scepticism of Hume. These writers urge us to suspend or put aside our preconceived ideas about bureaucracy and science. In doing so, they hope to show us their true character. Empiricist science, by focusing on preconceived cultural and political categories of experience, is seen as a barrier to authentic or genuine knowledge.

Ralph Hummel, for example, argues that phenomenology, by suspending what is “accidental and unessential” in our experience, can be used to determine what “fundamentally makes up the bureaucratic experience” (Hummel, 1977, p. 34). He accuses conventional empiricist social science of being “bureaucratic and therefore control oriented,” of fragmenting organizational reality by fitting it into “preconceived categories,” and of refusing “to accept the unity of experience as it is presented by living people themselves” (pp. 214-215). Similarly, Robert Denhart argues that the “phenomenological approach urges a radical openness to experience, a willingness to entertain all phenomena regardless of their scientific or hierarchical justifications” (Denhardt, 1981, p. 108). Charles Fox and Hugh Miller, blending both phenomenologist and postmodernist ideas, likewise urge us, in considering questions of public policy and administration, “to go beyond, behind, and below the reified abstractions of our thought to our shared and indubitable experience of life” (Fox and Miller, 1995, pp. 79-80). They wish to move away “from the idea that there is a reality ‘out there’ that a value-free researcher can account for by formulating law-like generalizations whose veracity is observable, testable, and cumulative” (p. 79).

Writers of this type emphasize the essential subjectivity of organizational and social experience. They emphasize the role of men and women in giving meaning to that experience. In doing so, they draw unconsciously on Hume’s scepticism in regard to the limits of the knowledge which we derive from our immediate empirical observations of the world. However, I doubt whether Hume if alive today would accept that we either can or should, as some phenomenologist writers would appear to suggest, suspend the presuppositions or preconceptions which we bring to our experience of the world. He would probably be sceptical of the idea that, by suspending these presuppositions, we can arrive at any sort of shared and real intuitive experience of ourselves and the world. Indeed, he would likely ask from what impression could we ever obtain such an idea. Hume would further see our presuppositions or beliefs in the form of our customs and traditions not as habits of perception to be suspended but rather as crucial guides to our actions. As noted already, Hume saw custom as the great guide of human life. “Without the influence of custom,” he argued, “we should be entirely ignorant of every matter of fact beyond what is immediately present to the memory and senses” and “there would be an end at once of all action, as well as of the chief part of speculation” (Hume, 1963, p. 45). The point of Hume’s scepticism is not to help us transcend our customs, habits, and traditions, as phenomenologists seem to urge. Rather Hume argues we should simply accept them as inevitably shaping our experience of the world. Hume was, as Norman Kemp Smith has argued, a “naturalist” rather than a radical sceptic (Smith, 1966).

Hume’s Constitutionalism

Hume’s philosophy has indirectly contributed then to two quite different views of public administration. One is rooted in a strong faith in empirical methods of science. The other is rooted in a radical scepticism regarding reason and observation. However, this analysis so far overlooks what is arguably Hume’s most important contribution to public administration, particularly at the federal level, namely his writings on constitutionalism.

By constitutionalism, I mean the use of different institutional mechanisms to check the abuse of discretionary power by government officials. Hume articulated this idea when he suggested that, without constitutional checks and controls on power, “we shall in vain boast of the advantages of any constitution and shall find, in the end, that we have no security for our liberties or possessions” (Hume, 1987, p. 42). Hume argued that if “separate interest be not checked, and be directed to the public, we ought to look for nothing but faction, disorder, and tyranny from such a government” (p. 43). According to Hume, “if one order of men, by pursuing its interest, can usurp upon every other order, it will certainly do so, and render itself, as far as possible, absolute and uncontroulable ” (p. 44). He argued that “a republican and free government would be an obvious absurdity, if the particular checks and controuls, provided by the constitution, had really no influence, and made it not the interest, even of bad men, to act for the public good” (pp. 15-16). “A constitution” for Hume “is only so far good, as it provides a remedy against mal-administration” (PP. 29).

Hume’s constitutionalism is also evident in his legal philosophy discussed in the Treatise. Hume argued strongly for the idea that the administration of laws must be equal and impartial. It should not take account of the merits or defects of parties in particular cases. He noted that the “avidity and partiality of men wou’d quickly bring disorder into the world, if not restrain’d by some general and inflexible principles” and that, as a result, “men have establish’d those principles, and have agreed to restrain themselves by general rules, which are unchangeable by spite and favor, and by particular views of private or public interest” (Hume, 1978, p. 532). Hume, in his essays, saw the impartial application of general laws as an essential part of the constitutional checking of power, arguing that a government which “receives the appellation of free … must act by general and equal laws” (Hume, 1987, pp. 40-41). Hume’s emphasis here on the necessity of checking political power was consistent with his scepticism and particularly with his argument that reason must serve the passions. Especially important are Hume’s observations on the power of self-love as a passion. Hume was critical of philosophers such as Bernard Mandeville who sought to explain all human sentiments and action in terms of self-love, regarding such philosophies “more like a satyr than a true delineation or description of human nature” (Hume, 1963, p. 302). Nonetheless, Hume saw self-love as a powerful force. He noted “that men are, in a great measure, govern’d by interest, and that even when they extend their concern beyond themselves, ’tis not to any great distance; nor is it usual for them, in common life, to look farther than their nearest friends and acquaintances” (Hume, 1978, p. 534). Indeed, it is for this reason, according to Hume, that rules of justice and government are required in a social order. As Hume observed, it “may be regarded as certain, that ’tis only from the selfishness and confin’d generosity of men, along with the scanty provision that nature has made for his wants, that justice derives its origin” (p. 495). Hume saw the role of self-interest as particularly important in government where he believed that it is “true in politics’ that “in contriving any system of government, and fixing the several checks and controuls of the constitution, every man ought to be supposed a knave, and to have no other end, in all his actions, than private interest” (Hume, 1987, pp. 42-43).

Hume’s constitutionalism was also consistent with his emphasis on custom and tradition as a guide to action. While he went to some pains to demonstrate the logic of his constitutional principles, he saw them more importantly as part of a valued British political tradition. For Hume, “to tamper” with “an established government” or “to try experiments merely upon the credit of supposed argument and philosophy, can never be the part of a wise magistrate, who … though he may attempt some improvements for the public good, yet will he adjust his innovations, as much as possible, to the ancient fabric, and preserve entire the chief pillars and supports of the constitution” (Hume, 1987, pp. 512-513).

Furthermore, Hume’s constitutionalism reflected his view that, because of the limits of reason, the role of government in society should also be similarly limited. While by no means a laissez-faire libertarian, Hume, as Shirley Robin Letwin observed, sought to “confine government to profane tasks” (Letwin, 1998, p. 99). He did not see the task of government as one of tutoring or enlightening people or making them more godly, virtuous, or psychologically or socially better adjusted. Rather, Hume believed that the appropriate role of government was simply, in Letwin’s words, “to mediate collisions of interest, to enforce and sometimes impose agreements between parties, either to keep out of each other’s way or to engage in some common endeavour, and generally to protect members of society while they engage in private activities” (p. 99). As Hume himself put it, government had “ultimately no other object or purpose but the distribution of justice” without which “there can be no peace among [persons], nor safety, nor mutual intercourse” (Hume, 1987, p. 37). He was highly critical of both religious and secular theorists and groups who looked to government for some sort of radical moral transformation of society. For Hume, the sceptic, the role of the government was not to seek “a miraculous transformation of mankind, as would endow them with every species of virtue, and free them from every species of vice” (p. 280). Such hopes could only breed a dangerous extremism or fanaticism in governance. As he observed:

Fanatics may suppose, that dominion is founded on grace, and that saints alone inherit the earth; but the civil magistrate very justly puts these sublime theorists on the same footing with common robbers, and teaches them by the severest discipline, that a rule, which, in speculation, may seem the most advantageous to society, may yet be found, in practice, totally pernicious and destructive (Hume, 1963, p. 193).

The Impact of Hume’s Constitutionalism

Hume’s constitutional ideas have undoubtedly had a significant impact on the practice of public administration, particularly at the federal level, because of their influence on the Founders. Douglass Adair showed how James Madison drew specifically from a number of Hume’s political essays to develop his arguments for an extended federal republic in the Tenth Federalist (Adair, 1976). Adair emphasized particularly Hume’s essay, “Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth,” in which Hume argued that in “a large government, which is modelled with masterly skill, … the parts are so distant and remote, that it is very difficult, either by intrigue, prejudice, or passion, to hurry them into any measures against the public interest” (Hume, 1987, p. 528). Motion White goes even further and argues that Hume “not only influenced the political technology, and political science of the Federalist but also seems to have provided the authors with methodological or epistemological views concerning both of these experimental disciplines” (White, 1987, p. 13).

Obviously, Hume was not the sole influence on the Founders, and others such as Locke and Montesquieu also played an important role. Furthermore, as Hume himself would have appreciated, the Constitution drew heavily from the British custom and law which formed the British Constitution and which shaped colonial political institutions. Nonetheless, Hume must deserve considerable credit for at least reminding the Founders of some important elements of this custom and tradition and may well have inspired some of the modifications to these institutions that the Founders made.

Hume’s constitutional ideas rather than his more abstract philosophical ideas were perhaps his most significant contribution to modern American public administration. David Rosenbloom (1971), James Q. Wilson (1989), and others have clearly noted the importance of the Constitution to the ongoing practice of American public administration. Given the increasing pervasiveness of constitutional questions in the actions of modern public administration, it would seem clear that Hume’s constitutional ideas continue to exert a significant indirect impact on such practice.

At the same time, perhaps paradoxically, public administration scholarship has itself remained remarkably free of the influence of Hume’s constitutional ideas. This is because public administration writers, since Woodrow Wilson and Frank Goodnow, have tended either to ignore or to be quite critical of American constitutionalism. They see the Constitution, with its many checks on power, as an impediment to effective political and administrative action. Richard Stillman, for example, argues that the Constitution, with its emphasis on checking power, promotes a “stateless” polity that not only “creates problems for building effective public administration institutions in the United States but imposes serious blinders on our capacity to think realistically about contemporary public administration theory” (Stillman, 1991, p. 40). Kenneth Meier, in a similar vein, has argued that our “elaborate system of checks and balances … prevent the resolution of political conflicts and the adoption of good public policy” and he urges us to “examine the more unified political structures and the corporatist processes of many European countries” (Meier, 1997, p. 197).

Admittedly, in recent years, interest has been growing in the relationship between constitutional theory and public administration. Various authors have sought constitutional legitimacy for modern public administration in the expressed views of the Founders. They argue that a strong and energetic administrative state can be justified on the basis of the Founders’ writings. The administrative state for John Rohr, the most prominent of these authors, is “a plausible expression of the constitutional order envisioned in the great public argument at the time of the founding of the Republic” (Rohr, 1986, p. 181). At the same time, however, most of these writers do not give much emphasis to Hume’s and the Founders’ idea that political power must be checked. Rohr, for example, argues that we must “neutralize” this aspect of the Founders’ argument if “we are to legitimate the administrative state” (p. 7). In this sense, Rohr and others seek to downplay what Hume, Madison, and others would have regarded as a central aspect of constitutionalism. Moreover, some writers have gone even further and have used our constitutional traditions to justify a role for public administrators that would seem quite at odds with Hume’s constitutional ideas. Dale Wright and David Hart, for example, draw from these traditions the remarkable idea that it is the obligation of public administrators “to educate all citizens in the nature of civic virtue and then to persuade them to make that virtue the center of their personal character” (Wright & Hart, 1996, p. 25). According to these authors, the “primary purpose [of government] is to facilitate the fully human life” that is “attainable only through living a life of virtue” (Hart & Wright, 1998, p. 417). Given Hume’s views on the limited role of government, noted earlier, this expansive notion of the public administrator as a teacher of virtue might well have struck him as absurd, if not actually dangerous.

The Continuing Relevance of Hume’s Ideas

Therefore, while Hume is not cited frequently in the public administration literature, his ideas have had a substantial influence on public administration. They have indirectly, via their impact on modern philosophy, encouraged both support for and criticism of empiricist approaches in public administration. They have done so in ways Hume would not necessarily have always approved. Also, Hume’s ideas on constitutionalism, because of their influence on the Founders’ writings and design, provide an important legacy for the practice of public administration. Hume’s ideas are relevant, not only to the past development of public administration, but also to its future. In particular, Hume’s advocacy of an attitude of mitigated scepticism, as well as his constitutional ideas, would seem quite germane to the study and practice of public administration at a time when our political culture is deeply fragmented and characterized by intense political and moral conflict.

This fragmentation of our political culture appears in the emergence of various forms of identity politics, based on race, gender, disability, sexual preference, and lifestyle, and also in pressures for multicultural perspectives in school and university curricula. It is further evidenced in the increasing visibility and power of various religious groups in politics, in the increasing polarization of political discourse between different political parties and groups, and even on occasion in such outbreaks of violent action as the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma, the violence of Ruby Ridge and Waco, and the bombing of abortion clinics. What is characteristic of this fragmentation of political culture is that much of it is based in conflicts between different systems of values or morality. As James Davison Hunter has observed, for example, in his account of what he terms “culture wars” within the United States, political conflict is nowadays often rooted not in class, but “in different systems of moral understanding”-different bases “by which people determine what is good or bad, right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable” (Hunter, 1990, p. 42).

Given such cultural fragmentation and conflict, a mitigated scepticism on the part of public administrators can be helpful here in acting as a check on administrative arrogance and hubris by fostering, as noted earlier in Hume’s words, “more modesty and reserve” and less “prejudice against antagonists.” It can introduce an appropriate degree of what David Farmer terms “tentativeness” into the words and actions of administrators that can serve as a useful counterpoint to their natural inclination for “taking charge” (Farmer, 1995, p. 242). In doing so, a mitigated scepticism can help public administrators become more open or receptive to the diversity in values and perspectives that exists among citizens and can induce administrators to talk and act in ways which moderate, rather than attenuate, the intense conflict over values that characterizes our fragmented political culture. Furthermore, a mitigated scepticism among public administrators can serve to reduce the danger of repressive acts on the part of administrators by tempering excessive administrative zeal. It can encourage public administrators to stop and think before they trample upon values, seen as important by particular groups in society, in the overly zealous pursuit of whatever set of policy ends or objectives that government deems to be important.

Hume’s constitutionalism would also seem useful for public administrators dealing with cultural fragmentation and conflict. In particular, Hume’s idea, reflected in Madison’s writings, that we should check the exercise of political power becomes especially important within a deeply fragmented political culture. This is because multiple checks on power, such as exist within our constitutional system, provide a useful means of limiting the ability of particular political groups or subcultures to monopolize political and administrative discourse and thereby to impose their values on others. By forcing political groups, as they seek to advance their own values, to accommodate themselves to others seeking different values, these checks on power encourage the consideration of a broader range of values in discourse and make it less likely that values held by any particular group will be overlooked in shaping policy actions. In doing so, they place some limits on the harm that these groups can do to each other. Hume’s idea of equal and impartial application of laws, which is reflected in our own practices of governance and administration, is also important here in setting limits on the ability of government and public administration to discriminate in favor of certain political groups at the expense of others and in encouraging a greater degree of impartiality in government actions with respect to the ends and values sought by these groups.

Finally, Hume’s view of the limited role of government in society is especially relevant for the study and practice of public administration in our fragmented political culture. When individuals and groups are deeply divided on moral and political questions, the last thing that they need is a government and administration which is passionately committed to any particular moral vision of human and social development and is intent upon forcing this vision on others. Such deep divisions render all the more relevant Hume’s profound suspicion of religious and moral zealotry and caution us that an intensely moralistic vision of the role of government is likely to lead to a style of governance and administration that is at best ineffectual, and, at worst, potentially dangerous to the diversity of values that different individuals and groups hold in a highly pluralistic society. In this respect, Hume’s vision of government as an arbitrator or umpire, who seeks to resolve the collisions that a diversity of beliefs and values inevitably engenders, rather than as the leader of some sort of moral crusade, would seem to fit well with the condition in which we find ourselves.

In summary, there is much in Hume’s thought that remains relevant to American public administration thought and practice. Hume’s mitigated scepticism and his constitutionalism obviously cannot provide a rule-book for the practice of public administration. However, they can help writers and practitioners think about conceptual approaches to administration that are responsive to and helpful in coping with the fragmentation of our political culture and the conflicts in values associated with it. Given this fact and the influence of Hume’s ideas on our thought and practice in the past, American writers on governance and administration would profit by continued study and appreciation of his ideas and their implications for public administration. Hume, a supporter of American independence and a self-confessed American in his principles, would likely have been pleased and encouraged by such efforts.