December 12, 2011

Of Hume and bondage

David Hume/Wikipedia
As the tricentennial of David Hume's birth winds down, Simon Blackburn, in a New York Times column with the title above, does more than fitting homage to one of the world's greatest philosophers ever, pronouncing a worthy epitaph for this anniversary.

We have to start at the beginning, where Blackburn says Hume and his reputation need "rescue":
Anyone admiring David Hume as I do finds much to cheer, but much to lament in the state of academic philosophy, as this year, the 300th anniversary of his birth, comes to a close. Hume was an anatomist of the mind, charting the ways we think and feel — a psychologist or cognitive scientist before his time. The cheering feature of the contemporary scene is that plenty of people are following in those footsteps. The nature versus nurture battle has declared an uneasy draw, but the human nature industry is in fine fettle, fed by many disciplines and eagerly consumed by the public.

Yet among philosophers it is not uncommon to find Hume patronized as a slightly dim, inaccurate or naïve analytical philosopher who gamely tried to elucidate the meanings of terms but generally failed hopelessly to do so. In fact, Immanuel Kant, a German near-contemporary of Hume, who is often billed as his opponent, had cause to defend him against a similar complaint more than two centuries ago.
And, the rest of the column proceeds to offer a more modern defense of Hume, against claims he was a postmodernist predecessor or even worse.

Much of the problem, Blackburn notes, comes from a misreading of Hume's famous statement on the passions:
The most visible example of this is the rumpus surrounding the famous passage in which Hume declares that reason by itself is inert, and has no other office than to serve and obey the passions. The mountains of commentary this has excited include accusations that Hume is a skeptic about practical reasoning (whatever that might mean); that he is a nihilist who cannot have any values; that in his eyes nothing matters; that he is too stupid to realize that learning that a glass contains benzene instead of gin might extinguish your desire to drink from it; that he constantly forgets his own theory; and indeed, in the words of one contemporary writer — the frothing and foaming and insolence here reach a crescendo — that philosophers like Hume only avoid being “radically defective specimens of humanity” by constantly forgetting and then contradicting their own views.
And, of course, that's a wrong reading. Hume was offering a blast against Continental Rationalism, and perhaps, Rationalist-influenced empiricists like his fellow, Adam Smith, who thought homo sapiens was more rational than he actually is.

Rather, while Hume is, as Blackburn notes, a friend to pragmatists, he's no postmodernist. And, per another famous comment of his, urging that most philosophical writing from the ancient Greeks up to Bishop Berkeley be consumed to fire, he was an anti-metaphysician indeed. And, he was in all likelihood an atheist, too, not just a deist.

How anybody could accuse him of anything close to postmodernism, or nihilism, even, I have no idea.

So, let us end with Blackburn's encomium:
Hume’s road is subtle, and too few philosophers dare take it. Yet the whirligig of time may bring in its revenges, as a new generation of pragmatists look at much contemporary writing with the same horror as Hume directed at Spinoza, Nietzsche at Kant, or Russell at Hegel. Meanwhile one soldiers on, hoping, as Hume himself did, for the downfall of some of the prevailing systems of superstition.
Let us, in an age of New Ageism on one hand and Gnu Atheism on the other, let us try to take his road, and his subtlety.

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