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Portrait of David Hume (detail) by Allan Ramsey (1754)

Ernest C. Mossner (1907 - 1986)

Ernest Cambell Mossner was born on October 22, 1907, in New York City. He received a bachelor’s degree from City College New York in 1929, and graduate degrees from Columbia University in 1930 and 1936. His dissertation, Bishop Butler and the Age of Reason: A Study in the History of Thought, was published by Macmillan in 1936. He taught English at City College until 1937, when he moved to a regular faculty position at Syracuse University. In 1939-40 he held a Guggenheim fellowship for studies in the life and works of David Hume. Among the first fruits of those studies was The Forgotten Hume: Le bon David (Columbia, 1943). The subject is presented there not as the familiar philosophical skeptic, but as the man himself: as benevolent and as good and patriotic as his friends acknowledged him to be.

Mossner's Life of David Hume (1954)

Shortly after publication of The Forgotten Hume, Mossner enlisted in the US Army for the duration of the war. In 1947 he joined the English faculty of The University of Texas at Austin, as a specialist in British literature and eighteenth-century philosophy. His classic biography, The Life of David Hume, was first published in 1954 (Thomas Nelson). Klibansky and Mossner, New Letters of David Hume (1954) In that year also he collaborated with Raymond Klibansky to bring out: New Letters of David Hume (Oxford), a third volume of Hume’s letters to supplement the previous two volumes edited by J.Y.T. Grieg. In 1968 he was Visiting Professor at Glasgow University on a Fulbright Fellowship. His edition of A Treatise of Hume Nature, ed. Mossner (1969) Hume’s Treatise (Penguin Classics) appeared in the following year. In 1970 Mossner was named Ashbel Smith Professor of English and Philosophy at Texas, and was the only American named to a committee established at Glasgow to issue a scholarly edition of the works of Adam Smith. In 1976 he was recognized with an honorary doctorate of letters from Edinburgh University.

Ernest and Carolyn Mossner died in Austin, Texas on August 5, 1986. Their only child, David, to whom The Life of David Hume was dedicated, was a casualty of the Viet Nam war.

Biography source: Austin American-Standard (August 6, 1986).


[Ernest Mossner] presents us with what must at once take rank as the standard biography of Hume, one that adds so much new material to Hill Burton’s large Life (1846) and to Greig’s (1931) that from now on no one will be able to write reliably on Hume’s personality and activities without consulting it. His many finds among unpublished manuscripts and old periodicals are the result of much searching in Scotland, England, France and America, a searching marked as much by flair as by diligence. As for the presentation, he has handled his mass of material with ease, interpreted it with sympathetic common sense, and expressed himself in a pleasant and unforced style. With this achievement of responsible scholarship he has put students of Hume’s life and times heavily in debt to him.

—T.E. Jessop, Philosophy (January 1956)


Mossner’s Life of David Hume is helpful, if not essential to Hume interpretation. Though not written as a study of Hume’s ideas, it brings together a vast body of information about the author, his interests, his intentions, his self-evaluations, and the criticisms of those who may have had closer acquaintance with his language and problems. If, as one suspects, Hume succeeded, at least in part, in getting onto paper what was bothering him, we may be aided greatly by this rich source. If we follow out Hume’s philosophy from his life, he may turn out to be a better or worse philosopher, but at least he will become a more plausible 18th-century mind. And those who would merely like to read about the life and doings of one of the most admired philosophical heroes of the present world, without worrying about what the Treatise means, will find Mossner’s tale most rewarding and entertaining.

—Richard H. Popkin, Journal of Philosophy (December 22, 1955)

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