Hume and Scepticism

Justin Broackes

Hume has had much to complain about in his readers, besides the (perhaps legendary) early lack of them. The first reviewers accused him of obscurity, egotism and ‘evil intentions’. Warburton charged him with framing a system of human nature on the principle of ‘necessity, in opposition to liberty and freedom’. A French reviewer complained: ‘Never has there been a Pyrrhonian more dogmatic.’ And as if Warburton’s ill-natured and uncomprehending critique were not enough, the London Review (no relation) some years later carried the no doubt fabricated story of Hume, in a fit of ‘violent rage’, demanding satisfaction at sword-point from the terrified printer of Warburton’s piece.

More recently the range of Hume interpretation, and the heat of dispute, have hardly diminished. The massive misinterpretation that must exist (given the massive disagreement among interpreters) is partly the result of Hume’s style – where beautifully clear sentences combine to make puzzling paragraphs and even more baffling books – and partly the result of a philosophy that seems to turn back on itself – containing a scepticism and a theory of belief each of which seems to put the other in question. One can easily get a sense of vertigo faced with these epistemological puzzles, which Quine has more recently made vivid without as yet inspiring much agreement on how to resolve them. Matters are not helped by the fact that on the one occasion when Hume replied in public to criticisms of his work, he had his eye on evading accusations jeopardising his candidacy for the Chair of Pneumatical Philosophy at Edinburgh. His ‘Letter from a Gentleman’ contains a response to the charge of denying the immortality of the soul, for example, that sounds less than totally ingenuous.

Robert Fogelin, who has written extensively on Wittgenstein and more recently on Hume, is mainly concerned in his latest book to correct an imbalance in Hume interpretation.[*] In the earlier part of this century a common view was that Hume’s main achievement was to work out the extreme sceptical consequences of British empiricism. Hume had shown that, on the empiricist principles of Locke and Berkeley, belief in the external world, in induction, and even in the self, was ungrounded and unreasonable. The conclusion was that our knowledge could reach no further than our present and perhaps past mental states. Reason had demonstrated the falsity of some of our deepest, even instinctive, beliefs. A rival interpretation subsequently gained ground, however, which insisted instead on the power of instinct over reason. Hume’s supposed sceptical conclusions were ones that human nature made it impossible for anyone, Hume included, to accept. Human nature was too strong for us to abandon belief that the sun would rise tomorrow, or that independent material objects exist. Far from being essentially destructive, the main aim of the Treatise was a constructive one: to develop a Science of Man (what we would call Psychology), and ‘to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into Moral Subjects’. The keyword of this interpretation, principally developed by Norman Kemp Smith in his magisterial book of 1941, was ‘naturalism’ – which covered the related views, that mental processes, including belief, can be the subject of empirical investigation, that one must or should acquiesce in one’s ‘natural’ beliefs, that empirical beliefs cannot be assessed rationally, and that reason is and ought to be the slave of instinct. From the point of view of the naturalistic interpretation, the scepticism attributed to Hume by the first interpretation is an unattainable state. If, on the first interpretation, reason proved the poverty of instinct and natural belief, on the second, reason was portrayed as their slave.

Fogelin’s main point is that the sceptical aspect of Hume’s philosophy is seriously undervalued by his naturalistic interpreters. Book I of the Treatise contains sceptical arguments concerning, among other things, the understanding (in Part III), reason (in Part IV s.1) and the senses (Part IV s.2). Hume’s scepticism about induction and about the senses is ‘wholly unmitigated within [its] domain’; his scepticism about reason is even more wide-ranging, having a ‘wholly unrestricted’ range of application. Hume’s scepticism is typically theoretical rather than prescriptive: he challenges the supposed grounds for a system of beliefs, holding ‘that we have no rational grounds’ for them, but he does not in general ‘call for a suspension of belief’ or even ‘for more caution in giving assent’. And according to Fogelin, this unmitigated ‘theoretical epistemological skepticism’ and Hume’s ‘naturalism’ (the attribution of which he accepts from the interpretations which he is rejecting) are ‘mutually supportive’.

Scepticism has the star part in Fogelin’s book, which discusses in turn all the main topics of Book I, and some key issues in the rest of the Treatise. When sceptical arguments are on stage, their role is to press an ‘epistemological skepticism that is wholly unmitigated’ – a recurrent phrase. Even with non-sceptical issues, such as belief, and the nature of our ideas, Fogelin has scepticism working out of sight, setting the stage for Hume’s views and clearing away any rivals.

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[*] Hume’s Skepticism in the ‘Treatise of Human Nature’. This book was discussed by Alexander Nehamas in the London Review of 3 October 1985.