July 10, 2006

How I spent my summer vacation XIV

Hume, Enquiry concerning human understanding

Hume was a mid-eighteenth century Scottish philosopher, important as the last of the textbook British Empiricist Triumvirate (consisting of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume), as a major influence on Kant, and of course in his own right. Hume was something of a prodigy, entering university with his older brother at age 12 and publishing his first book at 25 or so, but our selection focusses on more mature works written in his 30s.

The first of these is the Enquiry concerning human understanding. It is divided into twelve sections, but the single, continuous discussion of causality takes up several of these, and others are quite short and probably won't show up on the exam. Human understanding is concerned primarily with epistemology, providing a foundation for the discussions of metaphysics here and ethics in Principles of morals -- for Hume, as for most other early Moderns, epistemology is first philosophy, a prophylactic against the ridiculous (according to them) speculative metaphysics of the Scholastics. (I had a really terrible pun here. You should all be thankful I left it out.)

In particular, and as mentioned above, Hume is an empiricist, in much the same vein as Locke: we have impressions, including both the direct contributions of our sense organs and emotional states, and thoughts or ideas, divided into complex ideas and their simple components. Impressions are related to (simple) ideas by what contemporary Modernists call Hume's Copy Principle: simple ideas are nothing more or less than recollections and copies of the more vivacious and forceful impressions.

It is not entirely clear what status Hume gives the Copy Principle. Throughout the bulk of the book it is taken for granted, but Hume presents and fails to resolve a few challenges to its certainty early on. The most famous of these is the missing shade of blue: Consider, Hume says, an ordinary, sighted and rational adult human, who has simply never happened to encounter one particular shade of blue. Now imagine this human leafing through a large book of successive colour swatches, which also leaves out this particular shade of blue. It seems reasonable to believe the subject would notice the gap in the succession of colours; but then they would have the simple idea of that particular shade of blue, without ever having an impression of it. There are various ways to answer this challenge, such as arguing that the resulting idea is actually complex rather than simple, but Hume fails (omits?) to present one. In any case, it seems that the contentious ethical and metaphysical notions Humes is enquiring after could not arise in this way, and the missing shade of blue will not be a wrench in the empirical gears.

With the origin of ideas laid down, Hume argues there are three types of association between them, and two operations the understanding carries out on them. The three types of association are resemblance, contiguity of time and place, and succession; this last will be considered in more detail in the discussion of causation. The two operations are identifying a relation of ideas and establishing a matter of fact. Relations of ideas are absolutely certain and universal logical truths, including mathematical truth; this makes their epistemic content rather minimal, and hence they are only mentioned briefly. Matters of fact concern the contingent relations between our ideas and our impressions, ie, whether the world conforms to our ideas. Matters of fact are based on relations of cause and effect: if I do A, will I always get desired outcome B? Note that Hume applies this widely -- even principles that the mechanists presented as a priori (eg, conservation of momentum, transmission of motion by impact) are contingent and known only empirically.

Following Locke, Hume argues that we can have no knowledge of the primary qualities by which one thing necessitates another (in Locke's terminology). At best, all we can notice is that every time we have encountered A, we have also encountered B -- these two (kinds of) events are constantly conjoined in our experience. Thus, we have no rational, empirical basis for our idea of necessary connection. Yet we still seem to have this idea; so where does it come from? After spending three sections asking this question in slightly different ways, Hume argues that we must simply have some instinct by which we notice the constant conjunction of A and B on several occasions and connect the two in thought. Hence, Hume gives two definitions of causal connection:
1. A and B are causally connected if, whenever we encounter A, we also encounter B.
2. A and B are causally connected if, whenever we think of A, we also think of B.
Note that both definitions are highly subjective: they are descriptions of the situations where human beings say two things are causally connected, not accounts of real connection between A and B that explain why the one always follows the other. This is in line with the Lockean epistemic humility about primary qualities, but Hume goes further: not only can we not know the primary qualities of A and B that ground their necessary connection, but we have no idea of this connection except as we hypostatize our instincts into the things themselves.

The next metaphysical topic is liberty, by which Hume means free will. Here Hume points out that we presume a certain regularity in the actions, desires, and motivations of our fellow members of society: contracts will be followed through on, customers will generally wait patiently to pay for their items rather than shooting their way out of the store for a pack of gum and gallon of milk, drivers on the highway will not suddenly swerve across the median to ram us, and so on. This is precisely the same sort of regularity we encounter and presume will maintain among inanimate objects and other animals; if humans behaviour is generally less predictable in its particularities than that of, say, rocks falling, it's simply because humans are much more complicated machines than falling rocks.

On the other hand, our belief in free will comes about because that instinct that provides the belief in necessary connection in all other cases is absent when we consider our own actions. Rather than sounding like a thorough compatibilist, Hume finishes this discussion by arguing that belief in both regularity of human behaviour and free will are necessary for ethical theory: regularity accounts for appropriate incentives and punishments (how do you punish someone who enjoys being locked in a small room indefinitely?), while free will establishes that it is really the individual human being who is morally praise- or blameworthy.

The last two metaphysical topics are aspects of natural theology. Hume's scathing attack on miracles is famous -- miracles, by definition violations of well-established natural laws, are so outrageous that even the most trustworthy accounts ought to be dismissed virtually out of hand, and at best the rigorous thinker is obliged only to concede agnosticism -- but his criticism of natural theology in general is, I think, much more interesting. As background, recall Aquinas' solution to the problem of negative theology: rather than merely being content with describing God according to what God is not, Aquinas argues that we can make positive statements about God by analogy with properties of creatures. Thus, the creator whose existence is proved by the cosmological argument is infinitely just, infinitely loving, and so on. Hence, according to Hume, Aquinas (and like-minded theologians) start with some effects (the material world), infer a cause (a demiurge), and then draw out further effects (justice in the afterlife). Hume goes on to point out that the second inference is fallacious, or at best hypothetical: even if we concede the cosmological argument, all we have is the existence of some necessary creator, and no reason whatsoever to believe that it has the additional qualities Christians (and other theists) ascribe it. Indeed, this inference is extraordinarily anthropocentric, as it assumes that the demiurge has desires and motives similar to our own, ie, Aquinas is simply wrong to assume that the demiurge can be described in analogy with familiar creatures.

In the last paragraph of Human understanding, after defending his 'mitigated scepticism', Hume accuses all theology and metaphysics of being 'nothing but sophistry and illusion'.

Enquiry concerning the principles of morals

I'm not entirely sure why Hume's work on ethics is included on the reading list, though I suspect it may just come down to a crappy compromise. Locke (or Wollstonecraft) naturally contrast with Hobbes, but neither is a utilitarian; and Mill, I believe, does not address Hobbes so directly. Hume has a sort of proto-utilitarianism that explicitly rejects Locke's aprioristic method, and takes on Hobbesian egoism directly in one of the appendices. Of course, I think it would be far better to scrap Hobbes entirely in favour of Wollstonecraft and Mill, but I didn't get to make the list.

In any case, reconstructing Hume's precise position is rather difficult, as it's buried deep within the tedious list of examples that makes up the bulk of the text, and is often set down more in opposition to established views (those of Locke and Hutcheson, though rarely by name) than as a positive theory in its own right. Nonetheless, what we can get despite the complete lack of context is that Hume is trying to present a compromise position between Lockean rationalism and Hutcheson's theory of moral sentiments -- in particular, ethics requires both reason and feeling. Feeling -- including both our own self-love and our sympathies for our fellow humans -- provides the ends of ethics, establishing the various desires and aversions. Reason illuminates the utility of certain behaviours towards satisfying these desires and avoiding these aversions. Moral characteristics, such as justice or prudence, are therefore valuable in four possible ways:
1. Useful to society as a whole.
2. Useful to the individuals that possess them.
3. Immediately agreeable to the individuals that possess them.
4. Immediately agreeable to one's companions.
These four categories are not mutually exclusive. For example, wit is both useful to the witty individual, and is enjoyed by one's companions; on the other hand, honesty is not really immediately agreeable to anyone, but an honest individual prospers in an honest society. Hume presents his theory most explicitly in the first appendix.

In the conclusion, Hume discusses a certain problem case for his theory -- the 'sensible knave', a con artist who decides to be feign honesty, and tell the truth only when it is to his advantage. Hume's 'solution' is simply that the knave can rarely maintain the charade of honesty for long -- sooner or later he's bound to be found out. This case, and its solution, come remarkably close to Hobbes' consideration of the fool who denies the moral laws of nature, though of course Hume is diametrically opposed to Hobbes in almost every other respect.

Finally, questions on previous exams ask about Hume on 'ought and is' and 'ethical naturalism'. The former question concerns a passage in the Treatise -- a text not on the list. The reader is encouraged to consult Cohon's entry on Hume's moral philosophy in the Stanford Encylopedia for a discussion of it.

According to Wikipedia, ethical naturalism is a meta-ethical position that ethical terms ('good', 'virtue') can be defined using strictly non-ethical -- and, in particular, non-normative -- terms. However, the question of whether Hume is an ethical naturalist can only be answered once 'non-normative' is cleared up a bit. What Hume presents is, broadly speaking, a theory on which moral precepts explain how to satisfy a certain class of desires. If the satisfaction of desires is non-normative, then we might be able to call Hume a naturalist; but if not, then not.

Interesting philosophical link: To be a mother

Total pages read: 1816

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