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Hume the humane

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Julian Baggini, a writer and founding editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine whose latest book is A Short History of Truth(2017), writes in Aeon:

Socrates died by drinking hemlock, condemned to death by the people of Athens. Albert Camus met his end in a car that wrapped itself around a tree at high speed. Nietzsche collapsed into insanity after weeping over a beaten horse. Posterity loves a tragic end, which is one reason why the cult of David Hume, arguably the greatest philosopher the West has ever produced, never took off.

While Hume was lying aged 65 on his deathbed at the end of a happy, successful and (for the times) long life, he told his doctor: ‘I am dying as fast as my enemies, if I have any, could wish, and as easily and cheerfully as my best friends could desire.’ Three days before he died, on 25 August 1776, probably of abdominal cancer, his doctor could still report that he was ‘quite free from anxiety, impatience, or low spirits, and passes his time very well with the assistance of amusing books’.

When the end came, Dr Black reported that Hume ‘continued to the last perfectly sensible, and free from much pain or feelings of distress. He never dropped the smallest expression of impatience; but when he had occasion to speak to the people about him, always did it with affection and tenderness … He died in such a happy composure of mind, that nothing could exceed it.’

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 had at least two opportunities to become a tragic hero and avoid the cheerful end he eventually met. When he was 19, he succumbed to what was known as ‘the disease of the learned’, a melancholy that we would today call depression. However, after around nine months, he realised that this was not the inevitable fate of the wise but the result of devoting too much time to his studies. Hume realised that to remain in good health and spirits, it was necessary not only to study, but to exercise and to seek the company of friends. As soon as he started to do this he regained his cheer and kept it pretty much for the rest of his life.

This taught him an important lesson about the nature of the good life. As he later wrote in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748): ‘The mind requires some relaxation, and cannot always support its bent to care and industry.’ Philosophy matters, but it is not all that matters, and although it is a good thing, one can have too much of it. ‘Abstruse thought and profound researches I prohibit,’ says Hume, ‘and will severely punish, by the pensive melancholy which they introduce, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you.’ The life ‘most suitable to the human race’ is a ‘mixed kind’ in which play, pleasure and diversion matter as well as what are thought of as the ‘higher’ pursuits. ‘Be a philosopher,’ advised Hume, ‘but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.’

In 1770, Hume was also presented with an opportunity for martyrdom, in somewhat bathetic circumstances. The Nor’ Loch in Edinburgh, where Princes Street Gardens now stands, was being drained as part of the expansion of the city. Walking across it one day, Hume fell into the bog that still remained. He cried for help but unfortunately for him, the women who heard him recognised him as ‘the great infidel’ and were not inclined to save him. Hume reasonably pointed out that all Christians should help anyone irrespective of their beliefs, but their understanding of the parable of the Good Samaritan was not as up to scratch as his and they refused to save him unless he became a Christian there and then, reciting the Lord’s Prayer and the creed.

A Socrates would perhaps have refused and died in the name of truth. Hume, however, was not going to allow the stupidity of others to cut his own life short, so he did what any sensible person should do: he went along with their request without any intention of keeping his promise.

In this he was following the example of the only other philosopher to rival Hume for all-time greatness: Aristotle. Here is another thinker whose stock among cognoscenti couldn’t be higher, but who has failed to capture the public’s imagination (although Edith Hall’s recent book Aristotle’s Way(2018) is trying to change that). Not coincidentally, I think, Aristotle also refused to play the martyr. Like Socrates, he was condemned to death for impiety. Also like Socrates, he had the opportunity to flee the city to safety. Unlike Socrates, that is exactly what he did. So while everyone knows how Socrates died, few know that Aristotle, like Hume, died in his 60s, probably also of stomach cancer.

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.

As these three core claims illustrate, Hume’s philosophy is essentially skeptical, and skepticism seems to take away more than it offers. However, understood correctly, Humean skepticism can and should be the basis for a complete approach to life. It is built on the skeptical foundations of a brutally honest assessment of human nature, which could be seen as the essence of Hume’s project. It is not accidental that his first attempt to set out his philosophy was called A Treatise of Human Nature. Humanity was his primary subject.

Hume saw human beings as we really are, stripped of all pretension. We are not immortal souls temporarily encaged in flesh, nor the pure immaterial minds Descartes believed he had proved we were. Humans are animals – remarkable, highly intelligent ones – but animals nonetheless. Hume did not just bring human beings down to Earth, he robbed us of any enduring essence. Arguing against Descartes’s claim that we are aware of ourselves as pure, undivided egos, Hume challenged that when he introspected, he found no such thing. What we call the ‘self’ is just a ‘bundle of perceptions’. Look inside yourself, try to find the ‘I’ that thinks and you’ll only observe this thought, that sensation: an ear worm, an itch, a thought that pops into your head.

Hume was echoing a view that was first articulated by the early Buddhists, whose ‘no-self’ (anattā) view is remarkably similar. He also anticipated the findings of contemporary neuroscience which has found that there is no central controller in the brain, no one place where the sense of self resides. Rather the brain is constantly executing any number of parallel processes. What happens to be most central to consciousness depends on the situation.

As for our intellect, Hume demonstrated how extraordinary it could be by rigorously showing how imperfect it really is. Pure reason, of the kind celebrated by Descartes, was largely impotent. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

15 August 2018 at 2:36 pm

Posted in Books

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