Why we should read David Hume and why is he even more relevant today?

Superb piece by Julian Baggini (writer and founding editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine).

He revisits the legacy of David Hume and tells us two things. First, despite his insights why Hume is not considered in the league of say Socrates or Kant. Second, why his thoughts and ideas matter even more today:

In his own lifetime Hume’s reputation was mainly as a historian. His career as a philosopher started rather inauspiciously. His first precocious attempt at setting out his comprehensive new system of philosophy, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), published when he was 26, ‘fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinction as even to excite a murmur among the zealots’, as he later recalled, with self-deprecating exaggeration.

Over time, however, his standing has grown to the highest level. A few years ago, thousands of academic philosophers were asked which non-living philosopher they most identified with. Hume came a clear first, ahead of Aristotle, Kant and Wittgenstein. Scientists, who often have little time for philosophy, often make an exception for Hume. Even the biologist Lewis Wolpert, who says philosophers are ‘very clever but have nothing useful to say whatsoever’ makes an exception for Hume, admitting that at one stage he ‘fell in love’ with him.

Yet the great Scot remains something of a philosopher’s philosopher. There have been no successful popular books on him, as there have been for the likes of Montaigne, Nietzsche, Socrates, Wittgenstein and the Stoics. Their quotes, not his, adorn mugs and tea towels, their faces gaze down from posters. Hume hasn’t ‘crossed over’ from academic preeminence to public acclaim.

The reasons why this is so are precisely the reasons why it ought not to be. Hume’s strengths as a person and a thinker mean that he does not have the kind of ‘brand’ that sells intellectuals. In short, he is not a tragic, romantic figure; his ideas do not distil into an easy-to-summarise ‘philosophy of life’; and his distaste for fanaticism of any kind made him too sensible and moderate to inspire zealotry in his admirers.

Hume’s philosophy can be distilled to three key ideas:

It is somewhat perverse that the attractiveness of a philosophy seems to be directly correlated with how miserable its author’s life was. However, that is not the only reason why there are few self-ascribed Humeans outside academe. Hume’s philosophy does not add up to an easily digestible system, a set of rules for living. Indeed, Hume is best known for three negative theses.

First, our belief in the power of cause and effect, on which all our reasoning about matters of fact rests, is not justified by either observation or by logical deduction. We only ever see one thing following another: we never observe any power that makes one thing necessitate an effect. Even if we could be satisfied that we had established x caused y, logic can’t establish any general principle of causation, since all the regularities we have observed in nature were in the past, but the principle of cause and effect is assumed to apply in the present and future. Logically, you can never arrive at a truth about the future based entirely on premises that concern the past: what has been is not the same as what will be.

Hume did not deny cause and effect were real. We could not reason about any matter of empirical fact without assuming their reality, as his own writings frequently do. However, he was clear that this linchpin of sensible thinking is not itself established by reason or experience. This is philosophically strong stuff but hardly the source of inspirational Instagram quotes.

Hume is also well known for his arguments against various aspects of religion, although he never came out as a fully fledged atheist. Most famously, he argued that it would never be rational to accept the claim of a miracle, since the evidence that one had occurred would always be weaker than the evidence that such things never happen. It would always be more likely that the witness to a miracle was mistaken or lying than that the miracle actually took place. But again, skepticism about the claims of traditional religion does not amount to a substantive, positive philosophy.

Hume’s third notable negative claim does have the benefit of a stirring slogan, albeit one that is somewhat opaque: ‘Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.’ Reason by itself gives us no motivation to act, and certainly no principles on which to base our morality. If we are good it is because we have a basic fellow-feeling that makes us respond with sympathy to the suffering of others and with pleasure at the thought of them thriving. The person who does not see why she should be good is not irrational but heartless.

Hmm…

He remains relevant given the political times:

If ever there were a time in recent history to turn to Hume, now is surely it. The enthusiasts are on the rise, in the form of strongman political populists who assert the will of the people as though it were absolute and absolutely infallible. In more settled times, we could perhaps use a Nietzsche to shake us out of our bourgeois complacency, or entertain Platonic dreams of perfect, immortals forms. Now such philosophical excesses are harmful indulgences. Good, uncommon sense is needed more than ever.

We also desperately need the right kind of skepticism to replace the weary, global shrug that allows people to dismiss climate change as a hoax or the judgments of experts as conspiracies. Humean skepticism is an antidote to hubris, not a recipe for inaction or an excuse to defer to prejudice. Hume’s mitigated skepticism rests on the principle that we should proportion our beliefs to the evidence, not doubt the value of any of it. Hume would not be a climate change skeptic but skeptical of our glib assumption that whatever happens, we’ll be okay.

The problem for fans of Hume is how we can be enthusiastic advocates of someone so opposed to enthusiasm. If the case for Hume is to be made in Humean terms, it has to be gently but eloquently argued for. More importantly still, perhaps, it has to be demonstrated. True lovers of the secular, reasonable way of life Hume stood for ought to avoid hysterical condemnations of religion and superstition as well as overly optimistic praise for the power of science and rationality. We should instead be modest in our philosophical pretensions, advocating human sympathy as much, if not more, than human rationality. Most of all, we should never allow our pursuit of learning and knowledge to get in the way of the softening pleasures of food, drink, company and play. Hume modelled a way of life that was gentle, reasonable, amiable: all the things public life now so rarely is.

Lot more in the essay..

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: