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Synopsis of Bernard Pautrat, ‘Du sujet politique et de ses intérêts: Note sur la théorie humienne de l’autorité’

[‘On the Political Subject and its Interests: Note on the Humean Theory of Authority’]

CpA 6.5:69–74

This brief text accompanies four political essays by David Hume (‘Of the First Principles of Government’, ‘Of the Origin of Government’, ‘Of the Original Contract’ and ‘Of Passive Obedience’; CpA 6.6), selected by Pautrat to ‘draw attention to Hume’s political theory, which is often misunderstood when it is read at all, and in which there is elaborated with great precision a philosophical analysis of authority, of its origins, its means, and the ends it gives itself’ (CpA 6.5:69). The paper aims to identify the key departures made by Hume with regard to the political philosophies of authority prevalent in the 18th century. Allusions are made in the course of the text to the conceptions of subjectivity, ideology, miscognition, and desire discussed elsewhere in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, although Lacan and Althusser are not mentioned by name.

Pautrat claims that reading these four essays in sequence reveals Hume’s encounter with the ‘theoretical impasses’ of ‘classical political philosophy’, as met first in the work of Hobbes and Locke, but persisting in political philosophy to Hegel and beyond. According to Pautrat, Hume is the first to realise that classical theories of authority are caught in an ‘antinomy’ between, on the one hand, the appeal to divine right, and, on the other, the affirmation of the social contract.1 In his early essays (starting with ‘Of the First Principles of Government’), Hume had participated in speculation about the origin of government, but, Pautrat claims, it took until 1752 for Hume to clearly perceive the ‘political antinomy’ and to truly supersede the classical problem of the origin of authority.2 Hume surpassed the antinomy by seeing through an ‘illusion’ (69) that had been generated by the idea of an origin of authority. He recognised that it was impossible to ‘assign a first term in the series’ conjured up by the classical approach. In any historical founding of authority, regardless of the strength of its subsequent lineages, the truth of the origins will sooner or later be forgotten or lost by the lineage of descendents (70; cf. 92-93; ‘Of the Original Contract’, 481-83).

According to Pautrat’s interpretation, what remained for Hume was to recognise ‘authority as fact and evidence, as a violence already there’, that needed to be subjected to continuous management [aménagement] (70). Intersecting with themes in François Regnault’s ‘The Thought of the Prince’ (CpA 6.2), Pautrat suggests that Hume’s early essays on power inaugurate an enterprise that echoes that of Machiavelli: ‘a philosophy of political fact, unconcerned with questions of legitimacy, and a psychology of power, of its genesis and its exercise’ (70).3 Hume enters a ‘new theoretical space’, setting out from the idea of an ‘evident power’. The problem shifts from the issue of the legitimacy of authority to the need for an account of the genesis of ‘subjection’. The novelty of Hume’s approach is that ‘the genesis of authority must depart from a genesis of subjection’ (70). A psychology of ‘obedience’ is necessary, which analyses what is involved in ‘obeying and making obey’. He saw that the task was to construct a ‘double psychology’ of the governer and governed, of authority and obedience. ‘If a reading of Hume is imposed upon us today this is because, beyond the questions [he] poses to classical political theory, beyond the simple and surprising refutation of the social contract which is such a manifest exception in the 18th century, Hume really talks about something else. That is: psychology’ (69). Pautrat acknowledges that Hobbes and Locke had their own theories of ‘psychology’ at this time, but he contends that Hume’s approach to psychology is different, because his underlying problem has changed. His political theory is no longer founded on the same classical philosophical principles as that of Hobbes and Locke, and this is what makes his approach to psychology distinctive. In his first approach, Hume takes up ‘a discourse on the means of taking power’, focusing on the importance of ‘opinion’ as a form of ‘soft violence’ [douce violence].4 However, he remains on the same terrain as Hobbes and Locke insofar as he takes ‘the origin to be assignable’, and refers the question of right back to a conception of ‘the principles of human nature’ (71). It is only when Hume comes to relate his refutation of the social contract directly to the question of power (in ‘Of the Original Contract’ and ‘On Passive Obedience’), that the decisive move is made into the new theoretical space.

In the place of classical philosophy, Hume proposes to treat society as ‘a system of interests’. Pautrat acknowledges that many theorists of the 18th century turned to the concepts of utility and interest in order to re-found moral, social and political institutions. Rousseau in particular stands out for his determination to separate out a ‘general interest’ beyond ‘particular interests’. Nevertheless, Hume’s approach is different because he has dissolved the link found in Locke between the philosophical subject and the political subject, and abandoned the project of protecting an ‘illusory autonomy’ (71). Instead, he proposes a ‘psychology of obedience’ that will ‘lead the political subject to its natural place, that of subjection’, however democratically this might be conceived. He takes up the position that ‘the psychological subject, the subject of desires and interests’ must be treated as strictly identical to ‘the political subject’, as it exists within the ‘system of subjection’ (72). The onus is on the power of authority to persuade the people that their real desires are not identical to their immediate desires. The subject of the ‘system of subjection’ must accept that the ‘fiction of immediate desire’ must be abandoned and acknowledge that the ‘real desire, the desire for peace and human commerce’ can only be fulfilled by ‘taking the path of blind obedience’.

It is therefore necessary to consent to take one’s place in the system of subjection, now that the illusion of an autonomous psychological subject, conscious of the truth of its desire and the means by which it can claim its satisfaction, has been dissipated. For better or worse, the charge of surmounting the miscognition that everyone in general has about what they desire, must fall to obedience. A constitutive misrecognition, denounced here as insurmountable ‘weakness’ of human nature, as well as a sign of humanity as such (72).

Hume’s defence of a doctrine of ‘passive obedience’ is usually taken as a sign of the conservative nature of his politics.5 But in his closing paragraphs, Pautrat suggests that Hume’s account of political subjectivity nevertheless affords a critical perspective. Pautrat suggests that Hume shows how the subject is ‘decentred’ from the beginning, caught in a system founded in an original violence, but nevertheless entrusted with maintaining this system. This decentering, he says, results in the emergence of ‘the infinity of desire’. If ‘like all infinity’, this infinity is ‘fictive’, then Hume’s approach nevertheless challenges us as to whether our ‘preference’ is for obedience rather than fiction. At the very least, by renouncing the function of ‘providing an imaginary subject with an illusory autonomy’ (73), Hume reveals to us the psychology of our own obedience.

Implicitly referring to Georges Canguilhem’s essay ‘Qu’est-ce que la psychologie?’ [‘What is Psychology?’] (CpA 2.1) and to Althusser’s recent work on ideology,6 Pautrat notes that this illusory function continues to ‘found psychology as an ideology as such’ (74). Pautrat remarks in very general terms that the new forms of psychology merely ‘delegate the powers of the subject and its interests to the superior instance of law’, and thus in effect cultivate a new ‘appropriation of the fact of obedience’.

References to this text in other articles in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse:


English translation:


Primary bibliography:

  • Hume, David. A Treatise on Human Nature [1739-40], ed. L.A. Selby Bigge. Oxford: Clarendon, 1888.
  • ---. ‘That Politics may be Reduced to a Science’ (1741). In Hume, Essays Moral and Political and Literary [1777], ed. Eugene F. Miller. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1987. Part 1, Essay 3.
  • ---. ‘Of the First Principles of Government’ [1741] (CpA 6.6). Essays, Part 1, Essay 4.
  • ---. ‘Of the Origin of Government’ [1777] (CpA 6.6). Essays, Part 1, Essay 5.
  • ---. ‘Of the Original Contract’ [1748] (CpA 6.6). Essays, Part 2, Essay 12.
  • ---. ‘Of Passive Obedience’ [1748] (CpA 6.6). Essays, Part 2, Essay 13.
  • ---. The History of England, from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution in 1688 [1778], 6 vols. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1983.

Selected secondary sources

  • Althusser, Louis. ‘Marxisme et humanisme’. Cahiers de l’ISEA, June 1964. Reprinted in Pour Marx. Paris: Maspero, 1965. ‘Marxism and Humanism’. For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster. London: New Left Books, 1969.
  • ---. ‘Freud et Lacan’, La Nouvelle Critique, 161-2, (December 1964-January 1965), revised in 1969, trans. Ben Brewster. In Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy. London: New Left Books, 1971.
  • ---. ‘Sur le contrat social’ (CpA 8.1). ‘Rousseau: The Social Contract’, trans. Ben Brewster. In Althusser, Politics and History: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Hegel and Marx. London: New Left Books, 1972.
  • Canguilhem, Georges. ‘Qu’est ce que la psychologie?’ [1958], reprinted as CpA 2.1. ‘What is Psychology?’, trans. Howard Davies, I&C 7 (Autumn 1980).


1. In the essay ‘Of the Original Contract’ (in CpA 6.6), Hume situates this antinomy within the British politics of his time. He assigns the position that takes authority as founded on divine right to the ‘Tories’, and the theory of the original contract, or ‘the doctrine of resistance’ (CpA 6.6:85. Essays, 469) to the ‘Whigs’. At the conclusion of the piece, he remarks that has ‘built a tory consequence of passive obedience, on a whig foundation of the original contract’ (CpA 6.6.96; Essays, 487). Hume explains the labels ‘Tory’ and ‘Whig’ further in his History of England, vol. 6, 12-15, 82.

2. Pautrat’s suggestion that the essays be read in chronological order to shed light on Hume’s growing awareness of the real theoretical problem is undermined by a misdating of the essays. The essays published in the Cahiers are dated as follows: ‘Of the First Principles of Government’ (1742), ‘Of the Origin of Government’ (1742), ‘Of the Original Contract’ (1752), ‘Of Passive Obedience’ (1752). In fact, according to Eugene Miller’s scholarly edition of Hume’s Essays Moral, Political and Literary, the essays were published as follows: ‘Of the First Principles of Government’ (1741), ‘Of the Original Contract’ (1748), ‘Of Passive Obedience’ (1748), and ‘Of the Origin of Government’ (1777). Thus what Pautrat treats as an early piece, ‘Of the Origin of Government’, is in fact a very late one, first published posthumously in the edition of the Essays Moral, Political and Literary that Hume prepared just before his death. For information on the publication dates of the contents of Hume’s Essays, see Eugene Miller’s ‘Foreword’ to Essays, Moral, Political and Literary, xi-xvii.

3. Hume discusses Machiavelli in his 1741 essay ‘That Politics may be Reduced to a Science’, 21-23.

4. Cf. ‘Of the First Principles of Government’, CpA 6.6:75-76; Essays, 32-33.

5. According to Eugene Miller, passive obedience refers to ‘the doctrine that it is not lawful, under any pretense whatsoever, to take arms against the king or those who act under the king’s authority. This doctrine was held, in the seventeenth century, by the court party, and in the eighteenth century by a segment of the Tory party’ (Essays, Moral, Political and Literary, 488-9n). Miller notes that in his chapter ‘On the Measures of Allegiance’ in the Treatise on Human Nature, Hume had called the doctrine an ‘absurdity’ (Treatise, 3.2.9), but in ‘Of Passive Obedience’, ‘which was written shortly after the Jacobite uprising of 1745, Hume takes pain to say nothing that would discredit the salutary principle of obedience to law’.

6. Althusser, ‘Marxism and Humanism’ (1964), 213-247. Althusser’s ‘Freud and Lacan’ is another text from the same year that discusses ideology in terms of misrecognition.