Lesson 9: Radicalizing the Project: Hume and Rousseau

A. Basic Themes

Hume and Rousseau follow the trajectory of modern philosophy to a concluding limit; Hume traces out the principle of radical doubt and skepticism to the point where the very self and world disappear. The late Professor Prufer would say that in Hume's skeptical account there are but "free floating impressions illuminating nothing for nobody." For his part Rousseau traces out the radical quest for a state of nature. He goes beyond rational self interest to find a languid but perfectible ape like creature. Both Rousseau and Hume are well aware of the unlivableness of their philosophy. So conservative custom wins the day for Hume; for Rousseau, it is revolutionary constructions.

B. Outlines and Study Guides

1. Outline of Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

I. Axioms
  • 1. "Only perceptions are present to the mind" (Idealism) 
    Q - What is mental "representation"? Is this a good doctrine of signs?
  • 2. "Whatever is distinct is separable" (Atomism)
II. Criteria for understanding
  • 1. Meaning of terms reduces to sensations: "from what impression is the supposed idea derived?" 
    Q - Is this an adequate account of human experience and meaning? 
    Are these sensations available without a public world of things and people?
  • 2. The truth of propositions depends on the source - the a priori (independent of experience) and the a posteriori (depends on experience).
    • a. RELATIONS OF IDEAS. a priori. Logical truth, based on tautology (A = A, A ( not A). The truth is necessary because the contrary is a contradiction
    • b. MATTERS OF FACT. a posteriori. empirical truth based on association of perceptions in experience. The truth is not necessary because the contrary is always possible (i.e., conceivable or imaginable). Matters of fact can only be stated in the form "That it is (or was)" we cannot know "why" the fact is.
    Q - Does scientific theory not tell why a law holds? Are all contraries of matters of fact possible just because they are imaginable? Any thing may go?
III. Hume's Problems: non-perceptual factors in human understanding
  • A.
    • 1. The being of things (independence, continuity, coherence); blink the eye turn the cube.
    • 2. The power of a cause (agency). do you "see" the power?
    • 3. The uniformity of nature. Why should the future resemble the past, or this lemon be like that lemon.
  • B. Hume's solution: custom fills in the blanks and impels us to believe in beings, causes, nature: "Without the influence of custom, we should be entirely ignorant of matters of fact, beyond what is immediately present to the memory and senses" (sec. 5) Custom spreads vivacity from present perception to absent.
  • C. Are these non-perceptual factors so irrational? Unintelligible? A topic for metaphysics.

The practical resolution: the mixed life or the moderate skeptic Hume still has the basic dualism plaguing Cartesian philosophy: the two worlds of common sense and philosophy. Philosophy corrects common sense; common sense corrects philosophy. In the end, practical life and instinct must rule over reason and theory. There are four stages to this outcome. Hume explicitly mentions three of them, but the extra one is implicit. The three major stages are: 1. common life without philosophy; 2. philosophy; 3. common life with philosophy.

For Hume, philosophy includes the theoretical sciences, e.g. Newton was a "natural philosopher."

Point of view World Speech
A. Vulgar common sense world of things and causes "the very perception is the external object" mere opinion dogmatic, arbitrary "runs out of control"
B. Philosophic - Scientific "reflections of common life methodized, corrected" verified laws
C. Philosophic - Skeptic fragmented world: unconnected, free-floating impressions illuminating nothing for nobody 
"only perceptions are present" thus common world is soon destroyed by the slightest philosophy
"all human life must perish ... all discourse all action must cease"
D. Mixed life; Mitigated Skeptic common world regained: nature is too strong for principle; skeptical doubts vanish like smoke when it comes to practice; custom is necessary to the preservation of the species; practice must prevail over theory enlightened opinion: humble - philosophy is an amusement; science is probable; no metaphysics

2. Questions on Hume

Hume's philosophy begins with some important distinctions and criteria about human knowledge.

  • What is the difference between impressions and ideas?
  • What is the difference between relations of ideas and matters of facts?
  • What are the non-perceptual factors in human understanding and how does Hume raise skeptical doubts concerning them? How does Hume account for these? factors in human understanding?

"Be a philosopher, but amidst all your philosophy, be still a man." Comment on this famous maxim of Hume's by addressing yourself to the following questions:

  • Why be a philosopher? Why not be simple and vulgar?
  • Why does philosophy threaten one's humanity.
  • What corrects philosophical excess?

At the end, in the world of practice the philosopher is just like everybody else; or is he?


1. David Hume - The Project

An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding: "When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity school or metaphysics, for instance; let us ask 'Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number?' No. 'Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence?' No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion."

2. On Hume's Character

"Upon the whole, I have always considered him both in his lifetime and after his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will admit." Adam Smith 1776

"Despite the difficulty of his thought, however, despite the profusion of his output and the range of his interests, neither critic nor admirer -- neither Christian nor unbeliever -- had the slightest hesitation in placing Hume among the most radical of radical philosophers. When Boswell and Johnson talked about Hume, they talked about him with an unphilosophical aversion that smacks almost of fear." Peter Gay, The Enlightenment, 1966


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