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Hume: Philosophy in an Hour

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год

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      Hume: Philosophy in an Hour
Paul Strathern

Philosophy for busy people. Read a succinct account of the philosophy of Hume in just one hour.Hume reduced philosophy to ruins, denying the existence of everything except our actual perceptions themselves. The world is nothing more than part of my consciousness. Yet we know the world remains, and we go on as before. What Hume expressed was the status of our knowledge about the world – a world in which neither religion nor science is certain.Here is a concise, expert account of Hume’s life and philosophical ideas – entertainingly written and easy to understand. Also included are selections from Hume’s work, suggested further reading, and chronologies that place Hume in the context of the broader scheme of philosophy.



Paul Strathern


Cover (#ucba09681-f894-58bc-b0de-47b967dd49f0)

Title Page (#u8819265a-ec13-54a6-a2c4-7ffb4bc9e868)

Introduction (#ulink_ab4e62f9-bc28-5e3e-8a47-42a2ac437fc8)

Hume’s Life and Works (#ulink_72351ce6-78a0-550a-9172-2001560a7d49)

Afterword (#litres_trial_promo)

Further Information (#litres_trial_promo)

Hume, His True Successors, and Modern Science (#litres_trial_promo)

From Hume’s Writings (#litres_trial_promo)

Chronology of Significant Philosophical Dates (#litres_trial_promo)

Chronology of Hume’s Life (#litres_trial_promo)

Recommended Reading (#litres_trial_promo)

About the Author (#litres_trial_promo)

Copyright (#litres_trial_promo)

About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo)

Introduction (#ulink_4c457977-976e-592f-b2f4-35c99c9ee73a)

Before Hume, philosophers were often accused of being atheists. Hume was the first one who admitted it.

Being judged an atheist was not an enviable accolade for philosophers, or anyone else. Society had a way of dealing with such unorthodox thinkers – from ancient Greece (poison) to the Middle Ages (the Inquisition). Philosophers thus went to great lengths to convince everybody (and themselves) that they were not atheists. Hume’s admission of theological bankruptcy was treated as a public scandal – but attempts to dissuade him were made with philosophical argument rather than the rack. This says as much for the tolerance of eighteenth-century British society as it does for Hume. Yet if he wished to remain consistent with his philosophy, Hume could have taken no other stance.

Philosophy was a long time coming to this. Several philosophers of the ancient world – such as some Stoics and a few cynics – were close to it. But Socrates was sentenced to death for not respecting the gods, and in ancient Rome it was often impossible not to believe in a god (especially when he was also the emperor). Thus faith became essential – for those who wished to continue thinking, just as much for those who wished to continue at all.

Early in the Christian era, philosophy was swallowed whole by theology. Plato and Aristotle became the holy writ, and philosophy consisted largely of elaborations on such accepted texts. These were followed by elaborations on the elaborations, and much heroic work rendering these elaborations acceptable to Christian dogma. A sideline developed with the misuse of logic in trying to prove the existence of God. A certain amount of all this activity was extremely ingenious, and even creative. But it was not original. The basic assumptions were always the same.

These assumptions were first seriously questioned in the seventeenth century by Descartes, who is now regarded as the founder of modern philosophy. Descartes swept aside the old assumptions and based his philosophy upon reason rather than faith. By a process of rational doubt, he showed that it is possible to deny everything – with one exception. I cannot doubt everything and yet at the same time doubt that I am thinking. ‘I think, therefore I am,’ was his celebrated conclusion. Thus Descartes reached the bedrock upon which he built the rational structure of his philosophy.

Just half a century later, the British philosopher John Locke went one step further with the introduction of empiricism. This claimed the ultimate ground of philosophy lay not in reason but in experience. In Locke’s view, all that we know is gained ultimately from experience. We have no innate ideas – just sensations, and the ideas we gain from reflecting on these sensations. It looked as if philosophy had reached its limit.

But it wasn’t long before someone took this one step further. The British empirical tradition took a step over the edge of sanity with the arrival of the Irishman Berkeley. If our knowledge of the world is based only on experience, how can we know that the world exists when we’re not perceiving it? The world was thus reduced to a figment, and philosophy to a laughing stock. But fortunately for the world, Berkeley was a bishop and a God-fearing man. Of course the world continued to exist, he declared, even when no one was perceiving it. How could this be? Because the world was always being perceived by God.

This philosophical sleight of hand saved Berkeley a lot of trouble (and not only with his archbishop and his congregation). The world now had a prop. This was to last just thirty years, until Hume entered the fray.

Hume’s Life and Works (#ulink_a1026e7c-29b5-5e4e-b534-761f383358e6)

Hume is the only philosopher whose ideas remain plausible to us today. The ancient Greeks are readable as high literature, but their philosophy seems like brilliant fairy tales. The medievalism of Augustine and Aquinas is alien to the modern sensibility. Descartes and the rationalists make us realise that the human condition is not rational; the earlier empiricists seem self-evident, wrong-headed, or absurd. And the philosophers after Hume fall mostly into either of the last two categories.

What I have just tried to do, Hume succeeded in doing – he reduced philosophy to ruins. Hume went one step further even than Berkeley and thought the empirical situation through to its logical conclusion. He denied the existence of everything – except our actual perceptions themselves. In doing this, he placed us in a difficult position. This is solipsism: I alone exist, and the world is nothing more than part of my consciousness. Here we arrive at the endgame of philosophy, one from which it’s impossible to escape. Checkmate.

Then suddenly we realise that this doesn’t matter. Regardless of what the philosophers say, the world remains there – we go on as before. As did Hume, whose gargantuan frame and ready wit were not that of a bewildered, Beckett-like solipsist thinking himself to bits. What Hume expressed was the status of our knowledge about the world. Neither the world of religion nor the world of science are certain. We can choose to believe in religion if we wish, but we do so on no certain evidence. And we can choose to make scientific deductions in order to impose our will upon the world. But neither religion nor science exist in themselves. They are merely our reactions to experience, one of any number of possible reactions.

Hume was descended from an auld Scots family. His biography by E. C. Mossner includes a family tree tracing his ancestors back to the Home of Home, who died in 1424. The philosopher’s later ancestors include a number of unappealing but apparently distinguished Scottish names, such as a Belcher of Tofts, a Home of Blackadder, and a Norvell of Boghall.

David Hume was born 24 April 1711, in Edinburgh. His father died when he was three. A remarkably high proportion of the major philosophers lost their father at an early age, and this has produced the usual psychoanalytical theories. The gist of these is that the lack of a male parental figure creates a profound need for certainty. This in turn causes the bereft son to create an abstract system that takes the place of the ‘abstracted’ parent. Such psychoanalytical theories can be brilliant, entertaining, and possibly even informative (though about what, I’m not quite sure). In other words, their resemblance to the philosophers they describe is uncanny in many aspects – except that of intellectual rigour.

By the time David Hume arrived on the scene, his branch of the distinguished family tree had descended to the point where it was living on the chilly little estate of Ninewells. This was nine miles west of Berwick-upon-Tweed, near the village of Chirnside on the Scottish border. The original house where the philosopher grew up no longer exists, but the gullible philosophic tourist is shown the ‘Philosopher’s cave’, down the slope to the south-east of the present house. This dank, cramped, uninviting aperture is where Hume is said to have meditated as a lad, as well as during his later years (when its inner reaches might have proved something of a tight fit for his ample form). If our thought is affected by our surroundings, we would expect Hume’s meditations in this instance to have produced a somewhat neolithic philosophy with claustrophobic tendencies – and indeed this is much how the great German philosophers who came after him were to regard Hume’s work. This was inevitable, as the Germans were intent upon constructing vast philosophical systems – baroque palaces of metaphysics, no less – and had no wish to occupy the primitive philosophic cave that Hume had bequeathed them. Alas, philosophy should not be confused with architectural aspiration.

Hume was brought up by his uncle, the local parish minister, who had succeeded the philosopher’s father as the laird of Ninewells. Conditions at Ninewells would have appeared austere and primitive by modern standards: barefoot servants; the lower floor of the building containing the winter cowsheds and chicken runs; a diet based heavily on oatmeal, porridge, and kale (a nourishing traditional broth, or a disgusting watery cabbage soup, depending upon your taste). But Hume didn’t feel that his childhood was deprived, either at the time or later. He was educated in the local schoolmaster’s cottage with neighboring village children, in the egalitarian Scottish tradition that for so long surpassed its counterpart south of the border. Then, from the age of twelve to fifteen, he went to Edinburgh University. (Such early entry to Edinburgh University was quite normal at the time, a tradition that is maintained to this day in the demeanor of its students.)

After this, Hume was expected to study law. But he was already inclined otherwise and began reading voraciously over a wide range of subjects. Only with extreme reluctance did he devote any time at all to studying for the bar. This conflict continued for the next three years. Gradually Hume’s reading began to concentrate more and more upon philosophy, until one day ‘there seem’d to be open’d up to me a New Scene of Thought’. His philosophical ideas were beginning to crystallise, and he conceived the idea of writing down a system. By now the law ‘appear’d nauseous to me’, and eventually he decided to give it up altogether.

This was no easy decision. It meant he was abandoning the chance of earning a professional living. The long inner struggle over this decision cost Hume dearly, and shortly afterward he had a nervous breakdown.

Hume went back to Ninewells, but his recovery was only intermittent. Between bouts of depression he continued excitedly pursuing his new ideas. The local physician was called in several times and was of the opinion that Hume was suffering from ‘the Disease of the Learned’. He prescribed ‘a Course of Bitters & Anti-hysteric pills’. He also advised Hume to take ‘an English Pint of Claret every day’ and regular exercise in the form of long horseback rides.

Until now Hume had been tall and thin: a gawky fellow with gangling limbs. Yet despite his regimen of exercise, he now began putting on weight. On his daily rides into the bare, hilly countryside the horse became thinner as its rider expanded – gradually becoming the portly figure he was to remain for the rest of his life. This suggests that Hume’s troubles during this period may in part have been glandular.

Hume’s recovery was only gradual and may in fact never have been complete. Certain mysterious episodes during his later life suggest recurrent mental instability.

Hume had no wish to continue living with his mother at Ninewells forever. In 1734 a friend of the family found him a job as a clerk to a shipping merchant in Bristol. His motives for taking this job were various. He certainly needed the money. He also understood that the job would involve foreign travel. This appealed to his sense of adventure, and he also felt it would be beneficial for his mental health.

There is strong evidence that this continued to worry him. On his way to Bristol, Hume passed through London. Here he composed a long letter to Dr. Arbuthnott, one of the leading physicians of the day. In it, Hume does his best to describe his illness, though this description is severely hampered by the limited knowledge and inadequate concepts of the day. He describes his disease as ‘this Distemper’, and refers to his ‘inflam’d Imaginations’. He says: ‘I was continually fortifying myself with Reflections against Death, & Poverty, & Shame, & Pain, & all the other Calamities of Life.’ After outlining the remedies prescribed by his physician, he passes inconsequentially to some philosophical reflections: ‘I believe ’tis a certain fact that most of the Philosophers who have gone before us, have been overthrown by the greatness of their genius, & that little more is requir’d to make a man succeed in this Study than to throw off all Prejudices either for his own Opinions or for this of others.’ Hume ends by asking various questions about his illness (‘Whether I can hope for a Recovery?’), which he answers himself (‘Assuredly you can’). And this appears to have done the trick. Hume never sent his ten page letter (though he kept it all his life). He seems to have found that the mere writing of it was a cure in itself. Or at least as near a cure as he would ever find.

Hume now settled down to work in Bristol and discovered that his job as a clerk was unlikely to involve any foreign travel. Relations with his employer gradually deteriorated, and eventually he left his job. By his twenty-fourth birthday he was back at Ninewells, where he began to get a bad name for his ‘superior and irreligious ways’. By this stage Hume had inherited a small private income of forty pounds sterling a year, which enabled him to live frugally without having to work.

He now set about writing down his philosophical observations, with the aim of creating a new philosophy which would make him famous. (Throughout his life Hume made little secret of his ultimate aim: ‘my love of literary fame, my ruling passion’. And it was as a literary figure, more than as a philosopher, that Hume was to achieve fame. In later life Boswell was to refer to him as ‘the greatest writer in Britain’, and to this day he is listed in the British Library catalogue as ‘David Hume, the historian.’) After a few months Hume decided to set off for France. Here he could live well on his small private income, and in isolation he would be able to concentrate on his new philosophy without interruption or speculations of a more practical nature. (At Ninewells there was always mother and his uncle, neither of whom were philosophy fans.)

There is a story that Hume left Ninewells in a hurry. Not long after he went to France an unmarried young local woman called Agnes, who was said to have ‘a bad record with such matters’, announced that she was pregnant. The attitude toward this kind of thing in Scotland at the time was all very Christian. Poor deserted Agnes was exhibited at church, where the parish minister (Hume’s uncle) delivered the customary public denouncement, which ended with the pious hope that she would die in childbirth. As if this display of compassion and Christian love were not enough, Agnes was then hauled before the sessions, where she almost certainly received a further punishment – again, probably involving some kind of public humiliation, always a favoured method of retribution in a hypocritical society. (I’m told that this is due to unconscious masochism: the thrill induced by the fact that you haven’t yet been caught.) During the course of Agnes’s examination at the session, she eventually named the absent Hume as the father of her unborn child – probably to protect the real father. This was the sessions’ firm conviction, at any rate. We will never know the truth.

With one notable exception, this is the main evidence we have of Hume’s sexual inclinations. According to Mossner, Hume ‘in later life, in Italy and France and Scotland, was to prove a man of normal sexual desires’. Since not much else is recorded about these sexual desires, one can only assume they were fulfilled by hospitality – with enthusiastic chambermaids and demanding hostesses. And since Hume is one of the few literary figures of the age who didn’t catch the pox, it’s unlikely that this hospitality was very frequent, or that he went with whores, who at the time were cheaper than hot water bottles. (This latter is intended as a purely socioeconomic observation, with no sexist undertones. These disease-ridden human hot water bottles would in most cases have arrived at their condition after suffering the same fate as Agnes, victims of the hypocrisy so necessary to any upright society of closet masochists.)

Hume went first to live in Reims but later moved to La Fleche, almost certainly because of its inspiring associations with Descartes, who had been educated there at the Jesuit college. Within three years Hume had finished A Treatise of Human Nature. He was later to disparage this work because of what he considered to be its youthful extravagances. But he did not disavow its philosophy, which contains almost all the original philosophical ideas for which he is today remembered. Bertrand Russell, in his History of Western Philosophy, is even of the view that this work contains the best parts of Hume’s philosophy. Some achievement for a man who was not yet thirty.

In A Treatise of Human Nature Hume attempted to define the basic principles of human knowledge. How do we know anything for certain? And what exactly is it that we do know for certain? In trying to answer these questions he followed in the empiricist tradition, believing that all our knowledge is ultimately based on experience. In Hume’s view, experience consists of perceptions, of which there are two types. ‘Those perceptions which enter with most force and violence we may name impressions; and, under this name, I comprehend all our sensations, passions and emotions, as they make their first appearance in the soul. By ideas I mean the faint images of these in thinking and reasoning.’

He explains: ‘Every simple idea has a simple impression, which resembles it.’ But we can also form complex ideas. These are derived from impressions, by way of simple ideas, but need not necessarily conform to an impression. For example, we can imagine a mermaid by combining our idea of a fish and our idea of a woman.
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