Needing Hume

Allan Ramsay, David Hume, 1711 - 1776. Historian and philosopher

Like many other philosophers, I’ve always had a soft spot for him: a 12-cylinder genius, and yet a wonderfully plain writer with the lightest of touches – but above all (by all accounts) a wonderful man: modest, funny, friendly, and generous.

Not a mere dabbler in scepticism, he saw that there is a deep, deep problem in our knowledge: all of it assumes that past causes give us reason to trust in future effects. His devastating attack on this nostrum has never been adequately countered, and he concluded (and was entirely cheerful about the fact) that human beings may well be wrong about essentially everything, all the time.

Long before Darwin, but taking a cue from Aristotle’s anti-Platonic empiricism perhaps, he also understood that we are animals, and that this is a key to our nature and to everything that flows from it in any sane ethics and politics.

Here’s philosopher Julian Baggini, writing in Aeon, on why we need him now:

This fundamental moderation is, I think, another reason why Hume has never become a popular philosopher. He is just too damned sensible. Reasonableness and balance are seen as boring, signs of lack of spark or originality. Hume was always suspicious of what he called ‘enthusiasts’ and it is perhaps telling that the meaning of this word now has an unambiguously positive meaning. We would do well to remember that the word derives from the Greek entheos: having a god (theos) within. To be an enthusiast in Hume’s sense is to forget one is human and act as though one were a god, sufficient in reason and knowledge to be entirely confident about what one believes.

Hume knew that this error was all the more likely when we believed we knew God and his intentions. In his essay ‘Of Superstition and Enthusiasm’ (1741) he described how ‘the mind of man’ is ‘subject to an unaccountable elevation and presumption’. In this state of mind, humanity gets above itself, thinking it has within it the divine. This gives rise to a form of ‘false religion’ in which ‘no sublunary beauties or enjoyments can correspond’ and ‘every thing mortal and perishable vanishes as unworthy of attention’. The best prophylactic against this is to fully embrace our humanity and, with that, humility, accepting our limitations. Secular enthusiasts who elevate human rationality and nobility too highly make the very same mistake, creating a kind of godless religion of humankind which is just as pernicious.

The full article is here.

And see my piece on Hume’s curious connection to Buddhism.