Anatomist and Painter: Hume's Struggles as a Sentimental Stylist

Michael Frazer

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This essay traces the literary development of David Hume’s moral philosophy in terms of an unresolved (perhaps unresolvable) conflict between two styles: the straightforward, unemotional style which Hume calls “anatomy” and the emotionally evocative style which he calls “painting.” Hume’s literary struggles were symptomatic of the conflicting obligations placed on authors in the print culture of Enlightenment Britain. Eighteenth-century authors were believed to have a responsibility to inform their readers, to provide them with clear, accurate insights on important topics. Authors, however, were also believed to have a responsibility to connect with their readers emotionally so as to allow for the creation of the sort of sentimental community so highly valued at the time. Only if such a union of hearts as well as minds was established successfully could printed texts evoke proper moral sentiments and hence become vehicles for both ethical improvement and social reform. While Hume began with a pure commitment to the anatomical approach, both he and his contemporaries quickly came to see this as an unacceptable literary practice. Hume thus began a series of attempts to combine both painting and anatomy in a single text, none of which proved entirely successful. While many commentators have been dissatisfied with either the lack of authentic emotion in Hume’s earliest work or with the lack of philosophical depth in his latter publications (or both), these problems must be understood in light of Hume’s continual efforts to meet the multiple, conflicting imperatives of Enlightenment print culture.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPassions, Sympathy and Print Culture
Subtitle of host publicationPublic Opinion and Emotional Authenticity in Eighteenth-Century Britain
EditorsHeather Kerr, David Lemmings, Robert Phiddian
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages19
ISBN (Print)978-1-137-45540-6
Publication statusPublished - 2016
EventAustralian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions Change Program Collaboratory - University of Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia
Duration: 18 Sep 201219 Sep 2012

Publication series

NamePalgrave Studies in the History of Emotions
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan


ConferenceAustralian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions Change Program Collaboratory


  • David Hume
  • Adam Smith
  • Edmund Burke
  • moral sentiments

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