Humean Essays: The Importance of Relatable Conversational Style

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The most effective and popular essays written throughout English literature have been successful in navigating the passage of time because of the style in which they are written as well as the messages captured in the writing. The essays published by David Hume in his Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary work have withstood the passage of time because of the ways in which they were written, the rhetoric employed, the conversational style and the traversing of spoken word style and written communication styles. This paper will analyze what it is about 3 specific David Hume essays published in this work that allowed the essays to withstand the passage of time by the ways in which rhetoric and conversational style were utilized.

In Hume’s essay Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion, Hume discusses what exactly it means to be human and the emotions that we experience that cause us to understand life in different ways. There is no black and white way of putting this issue into a written or verbal form, so Hume takes us through a journey. The ways in which Hume overdramatizes the issue by raising questions of the benefits and detriments of the experience of life in this way by discussing the ‘dramatic’ and the ‘sensible’ is cause for discussion of conversational style. The conversation he has in the piece utilizes a back and forth style. For example, “Favours and good offices’ easy engage [the dramatics’] friendship, while the smallest injury provokes their resentment. Any honour or mark of distinction elevates them above measure, but they are as sensibly touched with contempt” (Hume,1887, pg. 4). This point-counter-point rhetoric makes for effective argumentation, but it seems that Hume is arguing with himself. People who are speaking tend to utilize this form of rhetoric, assuring their audience that they recognize the flaws of their argument in an often self-deprecating manner.

In this piece Hume also recognizes his thought process in his writing, using turns of phrases that imply his process as he translates his story on paper. Hume justifies his statements in prose that implies he understands his arguments and his conversation with himself as he lays out his points before his audience, but he makes it clear that this is, in fact, a conversation to be had. For example, he makes it clear that he is writing form his own opinion, which is a common theme in conversational context and is a turn of phrase more distinctive and associated with spoken word rather than written form where clear and concise arguments in works of non-fiction are valued more historically.

Additionally, Hume states that, while using many pauses which is common in spoken word, “I believe, however, everyone will agree with me, that notwithstanding this resemblance, the delicacy of passion is to be lamented, and to be remedied, if possible” (Hume, 1987, pg. 5). Using terms such as “I believe” “notwithstanding”, and “everyone will agree” is extremely conversational and makes a work relatable. It is as if Hume is expecting his audience to disagree and portrays this in his writing. When authors such as literary legends, anthropologists, sociologists, etc. are writing for an audience to prove a point, which Hume is also doing, they typically tend to assume that the audience must be taught, and not that they already know. Hume, in this essay, assumes that after briefly explaining the delicacies of passion and taste, that we understand the concepts and that it is now his job to open our minds and contemplate and reflect rather than learn and comprehend. This is typical of conversational style. It is not patronizing and it does not boast. Hume plays this in his essay. Additionally, the ways in which the conversational style of Hume plays out in his other essays, for instance, Of Essay Writing, also in his Essays: Political, Moral and Literary publication, is of notable conversational style but in a different manner.

He starts off by dividing the human species, while not mutually exclusive, into two groups: the Learned and the Conversible (Hume, 1987, pg. 533). Therefore, unlike his essay on the delicacies of taste and passion, he kicks off this piece by stating, again something simplistic in understanding but much more controversial in that it assumes different levels of human intelligence. One thing that is also more imminent in this piece is Hume’s usage of capitalization. For example, Hume states “the conversible World join to a sociable Disposition, and a Taste of Pleasure, and Inclination to the easier and more gentle Exercises of the Understanding, to obvious Reflections on human Affairs, and the Duties of Common Life, to the Observation of the Blemishes or Perfections of the particular Objects, that surround them” (Hume 1987 534). Hume gives concepts agency by writing as if they are proper nouns.

While this might not be a concept accepted by the audience or a concept widely used in contemporary society, this is not emblematic of conversational style because it is literally impossible to replicate in conversational style unless a speaker was to emphasize the first letter of the word, or the word in general, which would sound not even as a speech but not like anything exemplary of spoken word that we generally hear. This is a tactic that Hume employs in this piece because he acknowledges that, again he is talking about Types of Human Beings. His capitalization of words and phrases seem to be utilized in a similar way that italics are used today. However, in spoken prose, people do not talk this way, but in Hume’s writing the messages themselves are driven home in this manner.

Additionally, Hume’s employment of slang, or informal and causal speech in his writing, makes for an interesting and relatable piece for humankind that also happens to be of and about humankind. For example, Hume discusses the traversing of the Learned and Conversible worlds, one of which he has successfully traversed much past his time: “’Tis to be hop’d, that this Leage betwixt the learned and conversible Worlds, which is so happily begun, will be still farther improv’d to their mutual Advantage” (Hume, 198, pg. 535). Interestingly in this passage, he justifies his writing style by actively traversing the ‘learned’ and ‘conversible’ worlds by his actual use of slang. This is an insightful way of employing conversational style in writing. When reading aloud, it sounds like a ‘conversible’ world is flowing out betwixt and between a ‘learned’ world, which is Hume and the laymen that read and hear his rhetoric.

Lastly, in Hume’s Of the Middle Station of Life essay, Hume addresses the issue of liminality; phases in life betwixt and between extremes of emotional, physical and cognitive spectrums, such as age, identity, life goals, socioeconomic status, and pursuit of happiness. Unlike the essays discussed previously, Hume’s rhetoric starts off with a tale of a Rivulet, who is essentially a symbol of a man enthralled in liminality, who states that “I am contented with my low Condition and my Purity” (Hume 1987, pg. 546). Hume states that, those within the ‘middle station of life’ comprise the vast majority of ‘the ranks of men’ and that this position is to be respected and acknowledged.

Similar to conversational style, it is as if Hume, through his writing, is looking at his audience directly in the eyes through the words on the page. He is talking about us, for us, and through us by utilizing slang, making us a symbol of contentment who demand respect in our liminality, for most of us are bound to this position throughout life and should find contentment in it and through it. Typically, if this was a non-fiction piece written by authors today or authors of Hume’s day in 18th century England, one would assume that the writing would be stated as matter-of-fact, case in point, with real-life examples. Instead Hume chooses to captivate the audience by powerful imagery, which is similar to what we do in conversation. Not that powerful imagery is not replicated in writing typically; quite the contrary. However, the ways in which Hume takes a topic completely unrelated to prove a point, or rather, discuss an insight, is similar to what we do in conversation and not typically non-fiction writing.

In conclusion, throughout this discussion of Hume’s essays, I contend that Hume’s writing style, while employing conversational imagery, slang, turn of phrase and symbolic usage of capitalization and punctuation, Hume employed tactics of conversational style both typical and atypical for his time and the modern era. Hume sets the stage for casual, non-fiction writing that we see today in blogs and journals that have become so popular. Gaining insight into the mind and the thought processes behind the most powerful of writers are something that is cherished and appreciated by employing conversational style that symbolizes and represents the laymen; it represents us.

Works Cited

Hume, David, and Eugene F. Miller. “Of Essay Writing” Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary. Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1987. 533-44. Print.

Hume, David, and Eugene F. Miller. "Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion." Essays, Moral,Political, and Literary. Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1987. 3-8. Print.

Hume, David, and Eugene F. Miller. "Of the Middle Station of Life." Essays, Moral, Political,and Literary. Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1987. 545-55. Print.