Tuesday, February 28, 2012

David Hume. An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding

An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding is the distilled presentation of a thinker who was together a scientist, psychologist, metaphysician, and skeptic in a manner that continues to fascinate contemporary minds. The product of both youthful fire and mature consideration, the Enquiry, “contain[s] everything of Consequence relating to the understanding.” In the face of skepticism, the Enquiry offered progress based on experience. In a time of dogmatism, the Enquiry dissected the bases of religious faith and delivered a still-powerful critique. Its attempt was nothing less than the construction of an anatomy of human nature.

Its author, David Hume, was born on April 26, 1711. He grew up in Ninewells and Edinburgh, Scotland. His widowed Mother educated her “uncommonly wake-minded” son until his enrollment at University of Edinburgh at age eleven where he initially considered a career in law. Yet, in a decision that must have weighed heavily against limited means, the fifteen-year-old left the university to answer inner questions of theology and metaphysics. “I could think of no other way of pushing my Fortune in the World, but that of a Scholar & Philosopher.” Residing either in France or England, Hume served as tutor to the Marquis of Annnandale, as a librarian of the Advocates Library in Edinburgh and as secretary to the Earl of Hartford. He was best known to contemporaries as a historian due to the pro-Torey History of England, even though time judged his philosophy more influential. Hume befriended many notaries, including Jean Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, and James Boswell. After his death, others admitted admiration, including Auguste Comte, Charles Darwin, and Thomas Henry Huxley.

The Hume family were Calvinists and faithful members of the Church of Scotland. One of Hume’s Uncles was a bishop in the same. The young David took religion very seriously during an era characterized by religious indifference. He confessed, for example, to vanity for thinking himself smarter than his peers. He also applied himself to a moral code modeled upon the pedantic, The Whole Duty of Man. Yet, after leaving the University, he began questioning religious dogmas, and especially proofs for God’s existence. He wrote, “It began with an anxious Search after Arguments, to confirm the common Opinion: Doubts stole in, dissipated, return’d, were again dissipated, return’d again.”

David Hume’s ascent to prominence in Europe’s literati had steep beginnings. At sixteen Hume had begun the labor that would, by twenty-seven, become the Treatise of Human Nature (1739). It was a failure. “Never literary attempt was more unfortunate than my Treatise of Human Nature,” he wrote. “It fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinction, as even to excite a murmur among the zealots.” Still, Hume continued writing. His Essays Moral and Political (1741-2) were very successful. Hume began courting the essay form popular in the Eighteenth Century, and considering himself a man of letters. He also began rewriting sections of the Treatise.

I had always entertained a notion, that my want of success in publishing the Treatise of Human Nature, had proceeded more from the manner than the matter, and that I had been guilty of a very unusual indiscretion, in going to the press too early. I, therefore, cast the first part of that work anew in the Enquiry concerning Human Understanding.

The Enquiry, first published anonymously as Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding (1748), would prove to be the perfect vehicle for introducing Hume’s science of human nature. Its success when compared against its progenitor is unsurprising. Hume learned the benefits of rhetoric from English essayist Joseph Addison. It is to Addison that the Enquiry owes its informality and narrative style. Furthermore, the Treatise is three or four times the length of the Enquiry. Lastly, the former rambles in soporific repetition, while the latter’s essays continue only as long as a bourgeois attention-span might allow.

There were some difficulties along the way to the Enquiry’s success. Some felt it should never be published. Hume initially circulated the Enquiry for private comment. Henry Home, one of Hume’s close friends, advised against its publication. Home feared the consequences that might follow exposure of Hume’s skeptical treatment of religion. Hume had omitted a section in the Treatise on miracles for that very reason. This time, however, Hume was indifferent to scandal. Further, it looked initially like the Enquiry would emulate the failure of the Treatise. Hume, returning to England in 1748, wrote, “I had the mortification to find all England in a ferment, on account of Dr. Middleton’s Free Enquiry, while my performance was entirely overlooked and neglected.” Within a few years, however, one of the essays, “Of Miracles,” evoked responses which gained notoriety for the whole. The Enquiry, bundled with other works, was reissued in ten editions during his lifetime.

David Hume’s life spans one hundred years of time called the Enlightenment. The religious conflicts and scientific advancements of the previous decades bequeathed new confidence in human abilities to understand and manipulate the world. It was a confidence to doubt and to see anew. Men like Francis Bacon and Galileo Galilei no longer trusted the received Aristotelianism of the Schools. Rather, beginning with doubt, they made up the difference with discoveries obtained by induction from personal observations. Supreme among them was Isaac Newton. Newton’s physical and mathematical insights overturned centuries of Ptolemaic astronomy and revealed the limitless universe in ways wholly new and unexpected. His success was a powerful recommendation for doubt and observation as the best method for obtaining knowledge. It attracted many admirers, none the least of which were René Descartes, John Locke, and David Hume.

Descartes and Locke sought to do for the inner world of human nature what Newton had done for the outer world of human knowledge. Knowledge, to be certain, must be placed upon a proper foundation. In his Discourse on the Method (1637), Descartes applied radical doubting to discover the nature of even his own existence in order to define some point of absolute certainty. He wrote, “I had to raze everything to the ground and begin again from the original foundations, if I wanted to establish anything firm and lasting in the sciences.” Like Newton before him, Descartes’ method was much imitated, none the least by John Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). In the prologue to the Essay, Locke explained that he and several friends had been unsuccessfully discussing “principles of morality and revealed religion” in the winter of 1670. He continued, “it came into my thoughts that we took a wrong course; and that before we set ourselves upon inquiries of that nature, it was necessary to examine our own abilities, and see what objects our understandings were, or were not, fitted to deal with.” Both men, using the doubt and observation of the new science, sought to discover the basis of human knowledge by an examination of the self. Yet there were differences in their assumptions wide enough to split those who came after them into two rival movements. These were Continental Rationalism, which followed Descartes, and British Empiricism, which followed Locke.

The differences between these two movements, as outlined by Thomas Reid in his An Inquiry into the Human Mind (1764), were twofold. First, Rationalists believed that there were a certain cluster of permanent and innate ideas or concepts: ideas of the self, causation and infinite perfection. These innate ideas were forever intuitively known to reason. Empiricists disagreed, saying that every idea may be traced back to sensory experience or emotion. Second, Rationalists believed that truth may be properly and mathematically deduced from innate ideas along the same lines as a geometric proof. Induction from observation was the favored method of the Empiricists. The principle philosophers associated with Continental Rationalism were René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, and G. W. Leibniz. British Empiricism claimed John Locke, George Berkeley and David Hume.

Hume loved empiricism and hated rationalism. He, like Locke, followed the methodology of doubt espoused by Newton and Descartes. Yet, by the time he began his philosophical studies, doubt had begun to answer the question of certainty with ever-deepening skepticism. Locke taught that all ideas arise from experience, but left open the nature of the underlying substance that causes sensation. Thus, “sensitive knowledge” has no underlying definition. George Berkley, seeing the weakness in Locke’s epistemology, or theory of knowledge, posited a solipsistic idealism in which the sensate world is but a field of mental impressions existing only in the individual mind. Philosophers Nicholas Malebranche and Pierre Bayle agreed; truth about the world is not as obvious as commonly supposed. Reason proved uncertain whereas skepticism proved reasonable.

Until recently, Hume was included in the ranks of the skeptics. Philosophy so demanded an answer to the “skeptical challenge” that portions of the Treatise were over-emphasized, destructive passages highlighted. Hume’s was then a negative voice, if not the negative voice. Twentieth-century scholarship has begun to redeem this image.

Hume is now understood as the first post-skeptical philosopher of the early modern period. He took for granted the doctrine of the skeptics rather than promulgating skepticism of his own. His is an attempt to find a way forward for philosophy given the skeptical situation. Certainly he forever retained, if not purified, the hallmarks of Locke’s empiricism. Yet, reform was needed. The fixed point of human nature, the mind, should be studied scientifically, just as Newton had done with natural phenomenon. The result would be a “science of man,” a “solid foundation laid on experience and observation” which could then be extended to all other sciences.

Hume’s skeptical challenge may be understood as a change from ontology to psychology, or from a worldview based on hierarchies of being to one centered around pure anthropology. Descartes’s cogito, “I doubt therefore I am,” beginning with the pronoun “I,” had already begun a turn to the subject. Yet, Descartes still relied on theistic arguments in order to complete his system. Hume did not assume religious categories, nor did he want to. They had already been addressed by the skeptics. His task, rather, was to understand how the mind works. Not what the mind is, but, instead, how it does what it does, always with an ear to the bar of common sense. It is this project which occupies the Enquiry.

Two main themes develop from the Enquiry as it pursues this goal. The first of these is positive, and the second negative. The first exalts imagination and the passions, and the second condemns religious reasoning whether natural or revealed. The first is an examination of causation and the next a condemnation of religious excess.

Hume’s importance in the history of philosophy derives in some respect from his exegesis of causation. With it, Hume scored a victory for British Empiricism over the Continental Rationalists like Malebranche. The Rationalist, rightly equating both self-knowledge and a knowledge of the surrounding world with the necessity of causality, deemed it an innate idea on par with mathematical absoluteness. Hume, however, using empirical induction, saw only one sensation following upon another and called the relationship between them a psychological habit born of instinctive imagination.

When one particular species of event has always, in all instances, been conjoined with another, we make no longer any scruple of foretelling one upon the appearance of the other...We then call that one object, Cause; the other, Effect. We suppose that there is some connection between them; some power in the one, by which it infallibly produces the other, and operates with the greatest certainty and strongest necessity.

What is left between isolated events is but probability and of human nature, not a self but merely bundles of impressions. “[There is] nothing but a species of instinct or mechanical power that acts in us unknown to ourselves.”

Hume’s views on causation met a critical reception. Even close associates such as Henry Home and John Stewart disagreed with his diagnosis of the original quality of human nature. The most famous of his critics, however, is Immanuel Kant who, troubled into life by Hume, carefully corrected the Empiricist in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) and Prolegomena (1783) which writing also had the effect of raising German interest in Hume’s theories.

The second theme of the Enquiry concerns Hume’s attack on both natural and revealed religion specifically in the essays “On Miracles” (contra revelation) and “Of Particular Providence and a Future State” (contra design (neither Hume nor his contemporaries were aware of the ontological argument)). Hume disliked any form of reasoning that went beyond the limits of perception. His charge against religious dogma was that it was unreasonable. “Religious belief,” he wrote, “is a form of make-believe which … leads by degrees to dissimulation, fraud and falsehood.” It was therefore a subject which he could not ignore. By hobbling design with causation and revelation with an appeal to evidential common sense, Hume sought to show that “the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to the human mind.”

Hume’s hostility (often hidden by rhetorical device) garnered some of the earliest responses to his philosophy in close criticisms penned by clergymen both Anglican and otherwise. Significant among these were William Adams (1752), John Leland (1755) and George Campbell (1762). Hume was branded an atheist. The label cost him appointment to a chair of moral philosophy at the University of Edinburgh in 1745. Nevertheless, his religious critique earned him many accolades. His influence is discerned in the theologies of Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Karl W. Feuerbach. They also earned him a permanent place in the philosophy of religion.

David Hume died on August 25, 1776, a few months after finishing the autobiographical “My Own Life” (a nod to friend Benjamin Franklin’s own autobiography which Hume had read in manuscript.) He was buried at Calton Burial Ground. In the last decade of his life, many philosophers engaged Hume’s ideas, including Thomas Reid and James Beattie (Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth (1770)). Despite the fact that he once wrote, “I cou’d cover the Floor of a large Room with Books and Pamphlets wrote against me,” his work is respected today both for its commitment to the tenants of empiricism and for its religious critiques. There is a growing dialogue, too, with Hume’s insights in the cognitive sciences, specifically in the work of W. V. O. Quine (Word and Object, 1960) and Richard Rorty.


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(c) 2004 Thom Chittom
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