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Convention without convening

Erik W. Matson & Daniel B. Klein (2022)

Constitutional Political Economy, 33, pp. 1-24

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. This study contributes to that appreciation and to rearticulates 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. Another purpose is to draw on Hume to develop a concept 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 more advanced social organization. In the final section of the paper, 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.

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