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26 Apr

Debating Hume on Miracles

A group of wigged gentlemen sit around a table in discussion. They are attended by a servant and a gun-dog. One man, dressed in blue, stares out at the viewer.

On the Strand in London in 1748, a large clergyman of majestic appearance carrying a weighty manuscript entered the shop of the famous printer and bookseller Andrew Millar. In an accent that marked him as an Ulster man, he asked if Millar would buy the manuscript to print. Millar asked that the manuscript be left in the shop for a few days, so Millar could submit it to an expert who could judge if it was worth the cost of printing. The clergyman did so. Later, (the yet more famous) David Hume came to Millars and examined the manuscript for a few hours, then told Millar, print. It was a good call: the two-volume book was one of the most popular books in its day, requiring a second edition after just over a year. The author got £200 which he spent in book purchases1

The book was Ophiomaches, or Deism Revealed (1749, known as Deism Revealed in the 1751 and subsequent editions) and the writer was Lisburn-born Philip Skelton. The story reveals Hume’s generosity to critics, because the book contains the earliest criticism of Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). Skelton had only seen Hume’s Enquiry when travelling to London with his manuscript of Ophiomaches, a book attacking deism in the form of dialogues. He was shown it by Dr Connebear in Oxford and added replies to Hume’s work at Connebear’s request. One of the most important changes was the reworking of the fifth dialogue of Ophiomaches to address Hume’s essay on miracles2

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