January 2, 2010


David Hume and the Conservative Tradition (Donald W. Livingston, Fall 2009, First Principles)

According to Hume, the philosophical act of thought is structured by three principles: ultimacy, autonomy, and dominion. First, philosophical claims purport to provide an unconditioned understanding of what is thought to be ultimately real. Second, philosophy is autonomous, i.e., self-determining. The philosopher cannot (without ceasing to be a philosopher) defer to the pre-reflective authorityof custom, tradition, or to the dogmas of priests and poets. Third, philosophical claims about the real, grounded in the philosopher’s autonomous reason, have a title to rule over the domain of the pre-reflective. As Plato said, philosophers should be kings.

What Hume discovered is that these principles of philosophic reason are incompatible with human nature. When cut loose from the authority of the pre-reflective, they are indeterminate and can establish no judgment whatsoever. But philosophers typically do not recognize this; instead, they secretly smuggle in their favorite prejudices from pre-reflective custom and pass them off as universal principles entirely free from the authority of custom. In doing so they deceive themselves and others. And since the aim of philosophical truth is self-knowledge,this form of philosophic reason is falsein the sense of being self-deceptive.

There is more. The false philosopher not only smuggles in a favorite part of custom in violation of the autonomy principle, but he spiritualizes that part into the whole of experience: “When a philosopher has once laid hold of a favorite principle, which perhaps accounts for many natural effects, he extends the same principle over the whole creation, and reduces to it every phenomenon, though by the most violent and absurd reasoning.”3 Thales taught that all is really water; Proudhon that “property is theft”; Marx that all history is class struggle; Hobbes that love of others is really self-love. Here the philosophic act is engaged in world-inversion,what Hume calls “philosophical chymistry,” i.e., alchemy. Just as the alchemist can transform base metal into gold, and King Midas could transform everything he touched to gold, so Proudhon can transform the inherited order of property into theft, and Marx all of history into class struggle. In so doing the false philosopher is a worker in black magic: “Do you come to a philosopher as to a cunning man,to learn something by magic or witchcraft, beyond what can be known by common prudence and discretion?”4

The true philosopher recognizes that philosophical reflection consistently purged of the authority of the pre-reflective leads to total skepticism. In this moment of despair, hubristic reason (structured by the principles of ultimacy, autonomy, and dominion) becomes impotent and utterly silent. It is only thenthat the philosopher can recognize, for the first time, the authority of that radiant world of pre-reflective common life in which he has his being and which had always been a guide prior to the philosophic act. This recognition is gained not by argument (for total skepticism renders all argument silent) but through despair.Moved by this recognition, the true philosopher rejects the autonomy principle (which had presumed the domain of the pre-reflective to be false unless shown otherwise), and replaces it with what we might call “the autonomy of custom”: that the pre-reflective is to be presumed true unless shown otherwise. To show otherwise is to criticize a particular belief or practice in the light of standards and ideals already intimated in custom and coherent with the whole. Hume concludes that “true philosophy” is nothing but “reflections of common life, methodized and corrected.”

It is no coincidence that every great Anglo-American philosopher is a skeptic about Reason, as are we, the people, and that we avoided the isms that swept continental Europe.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 2, 2010 6:39 AM
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