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Hume's philosophy

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Posted

For the last couple of weeks I've been immersed in Hume's Treatise of Human Nature and Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. The former was his first work and magnum opus, while the Enquiry is a shorter tome that reformulates some of his arguments from the Treatise, and also several chapters concerning religious topics. I've only made it through the first book of the Treatise, and come across many unexpected passages where Hume makes some point that I've heard before but never attributed to him. For example, in 1.4.6, Hume gives a skeptical argument against the "self" that takes apart Descartes' Cogito. It's slow going, but I'm looking forward to the next book on the passions, where I expect to find the famous quote: "Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions."

I'll write more about what I've found in Hume so far, but for now just want to say that this is great stuff. I'm sure most of you have read him before (actually, I read the Enquiry in college but forgot most of it), but this is a definite milestone in my quest to understand modern philosophy. I'll probably spend a while longer on Hume before I move on to Kant (who I've also studied too briefly). Before I do that, can anyone point me to any good critiques or studies of Hume to supplement my reading his primary works?

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Ludovicus, I must admit that Hume is one of my favorite philosopher-muses. Good scholarship on Hume is hard to find, and the recent analytic school has distorted his work horribly. Check this link for further explanation.

I will add more later.

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That's an excellent paper, Campanella. I must admit that I interpreted a lot of what I read of Hume through that same analytic model, through osmosis I guess... I'm currently into his second book of the Treatise on the passions. Tomorrow I'll try to post an outline of the first book, and see if anyone has any comments on that.

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Yes, the conventional interpretation (grouping Hume with Locke and Berkeley) is questionable, although convenient for philosophy academia. When we come across a book on modern philosophy and find a chapter on Hume, we see either a naturalist that extends or radicalizes the work of Locke or Berkeley or Descartes or Malebranch, or a skeptic who criticizes philosophy itself.

In the late 1960's and early 1970's anglo American Hume studies moved away from epistemological concerns and towards his analysis of the passions, principles of associations, and the features of the mind (instinct, propensity, belief, imagination, feeling and sympathy).

I read Deleuze's interpretation that focuses mostly on the naturalism of Hume's principles of human nature. The conventional interpretation has Hume, dissatisfied with the skeptical conclusions of his epistemology, turned to history and sociology and religion and economics out of frustration. However, the entire corpus of Hume's work contains various stages in the development of a true science of human nature. Not only does human life contains ethical, epistemological, and aesthetic dimensions it also involves economic, religious and historical ones. Humean philosophy, in other words, cannot be understood without properly referring to the work in the other disciplines.

There are three aspects of Hume's philosophy:

[*]transcendental empiricism: the commitment to a philosophy founded upon direct experience. Hume began his investigations with a straightforward observation about the world: people see objects, posit the existence of gods, make ethical judgments, plan to meet economic imperatives, and remain aware of themselves in some sense. Now, because Hume was initially unable to find in thought any element of constancy or universality for the grounding of a psychology, he developed a

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Sect. iv. Of the Component Parts of Our Reasonings Concerning Cause and Effect.

Though the mind in its reasonings from causes or effects carries its view beyond those objects, which it sees or remembers, it must never lose sight of them entirely, nor reason merely upon its own ideas, without some mixture of impressions, or at least of ideas of the memory, which are equivalent to impressions. ... It is impossible for us to carry on our inferences IN INFINITUM; and the only thing, that can stop them, is an impression of the memory or senses, beyond which there is no room for doubt or enquiry.

To give an instance of this, we may chuse any point of history, and consider for what reason we either believe or reject it. Thus we believe that Caesar was killed in the senate-house on the ides of March; and that because this fact is established on the unanimous testimony of historians, who agree to assign this precise time and place to that event. ... they were derived from the testimony of others, and that again from another testimony, by a visible gradation, it will we arrive at those who were eyewitnesses and spectators of the event.

Hume's empiricism is thus not limited to personal experiences which are quite meager compared to social testimonial evidence which also includes history and all science. Arguments for the social origin of factual beliefs and even perhaps of all knowledge gain support from these and similar passages in Hume.

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Posted

Brian Leiter recently surveyed "The 10 'Most Important' Philosophers of the Early Modern Period" HERE.

Hume came in second trailing Kant by 2 lengths. I suppose that's a fair result that takes into account the enormous influence of Kant in current philosophy on both sides of the Atlantic. However, historically speaking, Hume is surely the most important philosopher since Aristotle.

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I disagree, but I am curious why you think so.

I'm a big fan of Hume, but Immanuel Kant has that title. To date, he has influenced far more thinkers than any one else. In 1998, there was a poll among professors of philosophy in the US and Europe on the greatest philosophers, and Hume was ranked 5th, after Kant and Nietzsche. Plato and Aristotle won the first two slots.

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One of the comments to the survey noted that

Kant is like the crossroads, the center of the number 8, the transitionary guy that bridged the gap between the early modern philosophy of Descartes, Spinoza and Hume, and the 19th and 20th century philosophy of Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein. Kant introduced a whole new slew of problems for them to deal with.
Who can disagree with that? Within the scope of the survey of the Early Modern, and even beyond to the present, Kant will be number one.

Yet , it is Hume who cleared the path of philosophy of a millenium of dogmatism, as Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo had done for science, and that is where his enormous importance lies. Hume reached back to Aristotle, with a similar interest in naturalism, biology, and the mind, and demonstrated that the supposed basis of empirical knowledge was untenable in the form it was then held. Kant, of course, did not answer Hume, because there is no answer to Hume. It is only possible to move on with philosophy in a broader venue, but no longer in the old absolutist realist tradition.

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