Monday, May 15, 2017


The rise of so-called “naturalism” in philosophy best explains Hume’s newfound appeal. Naturalism has several components, all of which were prominent in his work. Hume stressed the similarities between people and other animals: a century before Darwin’s Descent of Man, he argued that there is no great difference between the minds of humans and the minds of some creatures in zoos. (Hume also anticipated Darwin in implying that certain mental traits function to aid reproduction.) He treated religion as a natural phenomenon, to be explained in psychological and historical terms—which tended to annoy the pious—and he argued that the study of the mind and of morals should be pursued by the same empirical methods that were starting to cast new light on the rest of nature. Philosophy, for Hume, was thus not fundamentally different from science. This outlook is much more common in our time than it was in his.

Philosophers now regard Hume’s account of reason not as a mischievous plot to undermine it but as an attempt to explain how it works. As Harris puts the matter, he was developing “an entirely new theory of rationality.” Hume treats humans as clever animals whose beliefs about most things are based on “custom,” in the form of a propensity to expect the future to resemble the past—a propensity, he argued, that is essential for the conduct of life, but cannot be provided with any sort of independent justification. This thesis has come to be known as “the problem of induction,” though Hume himself did not regard it as presenting much of a problem. He played up the importance of what he called “experimental” or “probable” reasoning in human knowledge, and played down the significance of mathematical and quasi-mathematical deductions. This was a considerable novelty after some two thousand years in which philosophers, still enthralled by Greek geometry, had mostly done the opposite.

Hume’s response to the allegation of universal skepticism was that the author of the Treatise—who, he pretended, was someone else—had meant only “to abate the Pride of mere human Reasoners.” He advocated “Modesty…and Humility, with regard to the Operations of our natural Faculties.” As for the foundations of morality, Hume anonymously protested that the author of the Treatise had merely denied that “the Propositions of Morality were of the same Nature with the Truths of Mathematicks and the abstract Sciences.” The book did not dispute the fact that there was a difference between right and wrong; rather it maintained that this difference reflects humanity’s “internal Tastes and Sentiments”—which, according to Hume’s pamphlet, ought not to be received as a shocking idea.

Hume’s distinctive doctrines about the mind and the limits of human knowledge emerge more clearly in a set of linked essays that he published in his late thirties. These essays (which are now known as his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding) are more streamlined and carefully argued than the corresponding part of his Treatise. This new version of his philosophy omitted the Treatise’s tangled material on the ideas of space and time, and its treatment of the idea of the self, which Hume quickly came to see as “very defective.” Hume’s mature work also clarified his position on the relation between reason and passion. Reason, he wrote, is itself “nothing but a general and a calm passion, which takes a comprehensive and a distant view of its object.” Mastering one’s passions was therefore not, as he had misleadingly made it sound in the Treatise, a contest between reason on the one hand and passion on the other. It was a matter of making one’s passions milder and less agitated.

He drew on his analysis of probabilistic reasoning to argue that reports of religious miracles should always be disbelieved. He also argued that the ever-popular “design argument,” which infers the existence of God from apparent signs of intelligent design in nature, jumped to an unwarranted conclusion.
As always, Hume presented his impious ideas as if they were directed only against “false religion,” not the vague “true religion” to which, for the sake of decorum, he feigned adherence. The enemy, he pretended, was superstition and “enthusiasm”—that is, zealotry—not religious faith itself. Hume placed several layers of insulation between himself and his attack on the design argument.

Adam Smith wrote that Hume was, so far as he knew, the first writer to argue that manufacturing and commerce tend gradually to produce greater liberty and security for citizens. Hume’s economic essays were particularly acute on monetary theory and on trade. He was insistent about the mutual benefits of international trade, wary of national indebtedness, and dismissive of mercantilist obsessions with gold. It has been said that if only Hume had laid out his arguments more systematically, the birth of modern economics would be recorded as 1752, instead of 1776, when Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published.

(From Anthony Gottlieb's review of Harris' Hume: An Intellectual Biography)


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