Convention without Convening: Hume’s Marvelous Innovation
38 Pages Posted: 6 Feb 2020 Last revised: 12 Oct 2020
Date Written: February 5, 2020
David K. Lewis published his brilliant PhD dissertation in 1969, Convention; A Philosophical Study. With a lag, scholarship on David Hume has come to elaborate the similitude between Lewis and Hume on convention. Reading Hume along the lines of Lewis gives us a vocabulary with which we can better appreciate and articulate the innovativeness of Hume’s theory of convention. The purpose of this study is both to contribute to that appreciation, and to rearticulate Hume’s innovative analytical framework for thinking about the unformalized duties and obligations—sometimes glossed as institutions or culture—underlying social interaction and economic behavior. After summarizing Lewis, we treat Hume’s account of the emergence of the conventions of language, justice, and political authority in broadly Lewisian terms. We develop an interpretation of justice and political authority in Hume as instances of “natural convention.” A natural convention is a social practice whose concrete form in time and place is conventional in a Lewisian sense, but whose generalized form is necessary, and hence natural, for social organization. Next we consider the semantic originality of Hume’s convention talk. Drawing from a largescale textual search, we find scant evidence that the English word “convention” was used in a Lewisian sense—that is, in a sense that did not entail a literal convening—prior to Hume.
Keywords: convention, focal point, coordination, property, David K. Lewis, Thomas Schelling
JEL Classification: B12, B31, K12
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation