Convention without Convening: Hume’s Marvelous Innovation

38 Pages Posted: 6 Feb 2020 Last revised: 12 Oct 2020

See all articles by Erik Matson

Erik Matson

Mercatus Center at George Mason University

Daniel B. Klein

George Mason University - Department of Economics; George Mason University - Mercatus Center

Date Written: February 5, 2020

Abstract

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

Matson, Erik and Klein, Daniel B., Convention without Convening: Hume’s Marvelous Innovation (February 5, 2020). GMU Working Paper in Economics No. 20-06, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3532142 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3532142

Erik Matson

Mercatus Center at George Mason University ( email )

3434 Washington Blvd., 4th Floor
Arlington, VA 22201
United States

Daniel B. Klein (Contact Author)

George Mason University - Department of Economics ( email )

4400 University Drive
Fairfax, VA 22030
United States

HOME PAGE: http://economics.gmu.edu/people/dklein

George Mason University - Mercatus Center ( email )

3434 Washington Blvd., 4th Floor
Arlington, VA 22201
United States

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