Preface: I ask only about the syntax and not semantics; I comprehend the meaning behind the following quote (for a paraphrase in 20C English; see p 27 of 35), but I am inexperienced with Early Modern English syntax.

Source: Section 12, Part 1, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) by D Hume

There is a species of scepticism, antecedent to all study and philosophy, which is much inculcated by Des Cartes and others, as a sovereign preservative against error and precipitate judgement. It recommends an universal doubt, not only of all our former opinions and principles, but also of our very faculties; of whose veracity, say they, we must assure ourselves, by a chain of reasoning, deduced from some original principle, which cannot possibly be fallacious or deceitful. But neither is there any such original principle, which has a prerogative above others, that are self-evident and convincing: or if there were, could we advance a step beyond it, but by the use of those very faculties, of which we are supposed to be already diffident. The Cartesian doubt, therefore, were it ever possible to be attained by any human creature (as it plainly is not) would be entirely incurable; and no reasoning could ever bring us to a state of assurance and conviction upon any subject.

Please see the bold above: Why might have Hume inverted the subject and modal auxiliary verb?

My conjecture: Is that declarative statement (with the bolded) meant as a rhetorical question? I am unsure because if so, would Hume have concluded it with a question mark?

PS: Initially I did not notice the significance of 'neither', but the comments and answer have since motivated me to bold it.

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    "Neither is there...nor could there be" is a common parallel construction. The "neither" matters. But for the actual answer from the horse's mouth, ask Hume, wherever he is, or might, or could be, were he still being, to be, or was, or shall be... huh? Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 23:08
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    It's not a rhetorical question. It's a negative statement ... there's an implicit neither or nor before could we, as I was about to say when two other comments beat me to it. Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 23:11
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    @Peter Actually, the neither is there, the second word in the sentence, and or is used in the place of nor. Neither ... or is fairly common well into the 19th century. See OED 1, A.1.e. Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 23:17
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    @FumbleFingers Oh, come! This is hardly even very old, as far as the language goes, though the thought is pretty dated. Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 23:20
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    @StoneyB - I really like it when you answer and comment. You make this a much better place. Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 23:21

2 Answers 2


As stated in StoneyB's answer, the construction neither .... or was previously an alternative to modern day neither ... nor. As such the or represents a negative word that has been fronted to the beginning of the second clause. The complicating factor, which makes it difficult to see why the negation is required here, is the intervening conditional protasis if there were. If we move that to the end of the clause it will be easier to intuitively understand why the second inversion is required:

But neither is there any such original principle ... [n]or could we advance a step beyond it ... if there were.


Neither .. or is used here where PDE demands neither .. nor. Both constructions demand inversion:

But neither is there any such original principle [...] [n]or if there were could we advance a step beyond it ...

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    Thanks as always. Please allow me to postpone acceptance to allow time for (changes to) answers.
    – user50720
    Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 23:40
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    I think we might be getting down to the level of nit-picking, besides which I'm not really qualified to opine on exactly what constructions were "normal" in this kind of text almost three centuries ago. So I can only really parse the text using my modern ear. But it seems possible to me the emphasis might fall on But neither is there any such original principle (as the one which was "hypothetically" postulated in the preceding sentence). So the negation implied by neither actually applies back to a previous (but refuted) conjecture, not forward (to another reason to reject things). Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 0:05
  • @FumbleFingers : That's what I said. Whew. I felt like I was hanging onto the end of a limb there for a bit. BTW, StoneyB, I too didn't leave a real answer, just my mewling with cowardace answer in comments, because I too do not really feel qualified to opine on exactly what constructions were normal in this kind of text almost three centuries ago. Hell, I'm lucky if I can read Kerouac or Salinger without scratching my head. Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 0:11
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    @FumbleFingers But the assertion of the prior proposition is not refuted until DH says "There's no such thing". Descartes and his cronies assert that we must doubt our faculties until we can legitimate them by deduction from an infallible principle. But there's no such principle; and even if there were such a thing, the only way we could deduce anything from it is by using the very faculties we're supposed to be doubting. Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 0:19
  • I will cross neither words nor swords with you at that level (a wise man knows when he's licked! :) I recall that yesterday I was only really trying to express a degree of support for a comment by @Benjamin that seems to have been tidied away now. But in the cold (and it really is) light of this afternoon (and your paraphrasing), I see it really is essentially a neither / nor - and I'm sure you're right that at the time it was okay to use neither / or in such contexts. Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 13:05

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