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Hume’s Scepticism: Natural Instincts and Philosophical Reflection

  • Barry Stroud
Chapter
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 145)

Abstract

Philosophy for the Greeks was not confined to abstract theory but was also meant as a guide to the living of a good human life. Hume was steeped in the literature of antiquity. I think there is a close kinship between his conception of philosophy and that ancient conception. It is something we tend to miss when we look back at Hume for our own purposes from here and now. I want to try to bring out the connection by identifying what Hume thought philosophical reflection could reveal about human nature, and what he, therefore, thought the point, or the human good, of philosophical reflection can be. His own direction in philosophy took him closest to that way of life said to have been achieved by certain ancient sceptics.

Keywords

Human Nature Negative Conclusion Sceptical Argument Philosophical Reflection Common Life 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    D. Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge ( Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958 ), 263.Google Scholar
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    Ibid. Similar words are put into the mouth of Philo in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 131–132: “Let us become thoroughly sensible of the weakness, blindness, and narrow limits of human reason: Let us duly consider its uncertainty and needless contrarieties, even in subjects of common life and practice: Let the errors and deceits of our very senses be set before us; the insuperable difficulties, which attend first principles in all systems; the contradictions, which adhere to the very ideas of matter, cause and effect, extension, space, time, motion; and in a word, quantity of all kinds, the object of the only science, that can fairly pretend to any certainty or evidence. When these topics are displayed in their full light, as they are by some philosophers and almost all divines; who can retain such confidence in this frail faculty of reason as to pay any regard to its determinations in points so sublime, so abstruse, so remote from common life and experience? When the coherence of the parts of a stone, or even that composition of parts, which renders it extended; when these familiar objects, I say, are so inexplicable, and contain circumstances so repugnant and contradictory; with what assurance can we decide concerning the origin of worlds, or trace their history from eternity to eternity”?Google Scholar
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    He mentions only one exception: “I am sensible ... that there are in England, in particular, many honest gentlemen, who being always employ’d in their domestic affairs, or amusing themselves in common recreations, have carried their thoughts very little beyond those objects, which are every day expos’d to their senses. And indeed, of such as these I pretend not to make philosophers, nor do I expect them either to be associates in these researches or auditors of these discoveries. They do well to keep themselves in their present situation; and instead of refining them into philosophers, I wish we cou’d communicate to our founders of systems, a share of this gross earthy mixture, as an ingredient, which they commonly stand much in need of, and which cou’d serve to temper those fiery particles, of which they are compos’d.” (Treatise, 272)Google Scholar
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    And perhaps those gentlemen in England.Google Scholar
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    See Philo’s question in Part XII of Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (p. 220): “How happens it, then ... if vulgar superstition be so salutary to society, that all history abounds so much with accounts of its pernicious consequences on public affairs? Factions, civil wars, persecutions, subversions of government, oppression, slavery; these are the dismal consequences which always attend its prevalency over the minds of men. If the religious spirit be ever mentioned in any historical narration, we are sure to meet afterwards with a detail of the miseries which attend it. And no period of time can be happier or more prosperous, than those in which it is never regarded, or heard of.Google Scholar
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    Enquiry, 13.Google Scholar
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    “My Own Life,” in The Letters of David Hume, ed. J. Y. T. Grieg, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1932), vol. I, 2.Google Scholar
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    Enquiry, 11.Google Scholar
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    Enquiry, 9.Google Scholar
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    Perhaps those gentlemen in England are safe.Google Scholar
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    Enquiry, 12.Google Scholar
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    Ibid. This is precisely the course of Hume’s own sentiments as reported so dramatically in the first person in the “Conclusion” of Book One of the Treatise.Google Scholar
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    Enquiry, 12–13.Google Scholar
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    Enquiry, 8.Google Scholar
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    Enquiry, 9. Nature here appears to be speaking directly to the youthful author of A Treatise of Human Nature. Google Scholar
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    In the end perhaps the best recommendation of scepticism or of any other way of life is to be found not in confirmation of the general facts of human nature on which it is thought to be based, but on the actual lives of its practitioners. If we take Hume’s own life as an expression of his scepticism, Adam Smith’s description of that life is a strong recommendation indeed: “His temper, indeed, seemed to be more happily balanced, if I may be allowed such an expression, than that perhaps of any other man I have ever known. Even in the lowest state of his fortune, his great and necessary frugality never hindered him from exercising ... acts both of charity and generosity.... The extreme gentleness of his nature never weakened either the firmness of his mind, or the steadiness of his resolutions. His constant pleasantry was the genuine effusion of good-nature and good-humor, tempered with delicacy and modesty, and without even the slightest tincture of malignity.... And the gaiety of temper, so agreeable in society ... was in him certainly attended with the most severe application, the most extensive learning, the greatest depth of thought, and a capacity in every respect the most comprehensive. Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.” (Dialogues, 247–248)Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1996

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  • Barry Stroud

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