December 21, 2019


David Hume: Natural, comfortable thinking (Jane O'Grady, Footnotes to Plato: TLS Online)

David Hume, a master of paradox and wit, is often said to be the greatest English-speaking philosopher who has ever lived. He was a figure of the eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment, and yet, like the Romantics, he deflated the status of reason, and elevated that of emotion, the natural, and human animality. Once regarded as the great arch-sceptic, he is now considered to be a naturalist, incorporating humans into empirical enquiry, as part of, rather than transcending, nature. [...]

The corollary of Hume's system is that, because we lack the impressions that are required to be the initial foundations to our ideas, our most fundamental beliefs are baseless. We have impressions (and subsequent ideas) of colours, shapes, etc, but lack any impression of their continuous and self-standing existence when not perceived - so why are we so confident that there is a world beyond our experience? Similarly, when we introspect, we encounter numerous fluctuating impressions ("of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure"), but an impression of self eludes us; therefore our idea of it is invalid. "Ourself, independent of the perception of every other object, is in reality nothing", just "a bundle of perceptions", or something like "a republic or commonwealth", the citizens of which are only nominally united.  Again, we see one type of thing or event constantly preceding another type of thing or event, and say the first causes the second, but however many times we experience that sequence of things or events, nothing new is added to our initial experience of it. The first time we witness a conjunction of events/objects is no different from the next and the next; each is just a repetition of the same kind of impressions we've already had; and, if one instance of cause and effect doesn't show us necessity, then many such instances won't either. We have no impression of what makes the second follow from the first; yet, without an impression of the necessity that connects them, we have no basis for believing in causation. In any case, just because up until now bread has always nourished us, or we have incessantly seen medium-sized things fall when let go of in mid-air, what reason do we have to assume that these hitherto "constant conjunctions" will go on happening? To argue that the future will be like the past because it always has been is "taking that for granted, which is the very point in question" - why should it be? There is "no known connexion between [a loaf's] sensible qualities and [its] secret powers", for instance. Why assume that, because certain sensible qualities are now, and have always been, attended with the power to nourish, they always will be? "Your appeal to past experience decides nothing in the present case", said Hume.

Every great English-speaking thinker has denied Reason; it's what prevented us from lapsing into the Materialist disaster of the Continent..

Posted by at December 21, 2019 10:18 AM