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David Hume on the Origin of Government


The purpose of this paper is to reinvestigate David Hume’s explanation of the origin of government by stressing the existence therein of two distinct accounts of how government emerges: (i) a decisional account which presents the instauration of government as an institutional answer to difficulties related to decision in time, (ii) an historical account depicting how allegiance as a practice acquired during wartime in primitive societies paved the way for the establishment of civil government. This paper thus continues, on the one hand, a secondary literature (Mackie 1980, Baier 1991, Cohon 2008) drawing generally upon prior literature on the determination of action in time by introducing in Hume’s account of the origin of government the familiar distinction in decision theory between impatience and time-inconsistency. On the other hand, it qualifies a line of interpretation (Stewart 1963, Forbes 1975, Waszek 1988, Haakonssen 1994, 2009) which argues that Hume, by giving a truly historical account in his posthumous essay “Of the Origin of Government” (Hume 1777), had changed his explanation of the origin of government originally given in the Treatise of Human Nature (Hume 1739-40, 3.2.7). By contrast, we show that the historical explanation was already present in the Treatise, and that it did not contradict the decisional one, since the latter, involving the acceptability of the rules of justice, gives an account of how civil government (and not any government) emerges, succeeding the primitive form of government.
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hal-03989218 , version 1 (14-02-2023)


  • HAL Id : hal-03989218 , version 1


Ecem Okan, André Lapidus. David Hume on the Origin of Government: A Restatement. Représentations et traitement du temps dans l'analyse économique, Jun 2019, Paris, France. ⟨hal-03989218⟩


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