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§1. Background:Skepticism and the Fideism of Nature

§1. Background:Skepticism and the Fideism of Nature

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Idealists) led the way (following Hume’s eighteenth-century Scottish critics

Reid and Beattie) in understanding him as a radical skeptic and saw his

views as the reductio ad absurdum of empiricism. In this century the logical

positivists of the Vienna Circle (including Schlick and Carnap) saw Hume

as their great predecessor, while Kemp Smith, in his very important study

The Philosophy of David Hume (), which has made a lasting contribution

to the reading of Hume, gave pride of place to Hume’s psychological naturalism and de-emphasized his skepticism.

More recently several writers, among them Burnyeat and Fogelin, have

tried to right the balance and to present an interpretation that emphasizes

both the skepticism and the naturalism, and indeed sees them as complementary and working together. Since both skepticism and naturalism are

prominent in Hume’s text, an interpretation that succeeds in making them

work in tandem is to be preferred, other things being equal. Today I begin

with a brief sketch of this interpretation.1 The view that results I shall sometimes refer to as Hume’s fideism of nature, for reasons that will become

clear as we proceed.

. Let’s begin by distinguishing several kinds of skepticism as follows.

In each case, the meaning and point are given in part by the contrast:2

(a) theoretical in contrast with normative skepticism

(b) epistemological in contrast with conceptual skepticism

To explain: theoretical skepticism calls into question on various grounds

the soundness or basis of some scheme of beliefs or system of thought.

Radical skepticism holds that the beliefs in question have no reasoned support; they are completely ungrounded. Moderate skepticism holds them

to be less well grounded than is usually thought. By contrast, normative

skepticism (established perhaps on the basis of theoretical skepticism, but

possibly on other grounds) enjoins us to suspend belief altogether, or more

moderately, to give less credence to them than is usually done. A person

who follows a form of normative skepticism is a practicing skeptic.

Epistemological skepticism accepts a scheme of beliefs as meaningful

and intelligible but questions the grounds and reasons for them. Conceptual

1. See Robert J. Fogelin, Hume’s Skepticism in the Treatise of Human Nature (London: Routledge

and Kegan Paul, ).

2. Ibid., pp. –.

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skepticism denies that they are meaningful and intelligible. (It was in part

because there are places where Hume expresses a conceptual skepticism

concerning certain concepts that the Vienna Circle saw him as a predecessor; note what Hume says about substance and attributes and about primary

and secondary qualities.) To illustrate: Hume’s skepticism about induction

is epistemological; he doesn’t doubt that inductive inferences are meaningful. Similarly, in his philosophical theology Hume’s arguments may undermine the familiar proofs for the existence of God, but he doesn’t doubt

that the idea of God is sufficiently intelligible so that the merits of those

proofs can be examined. He thinks that the evidence for the God of Religion

(as opposed to the evidence for an Author of Nature) is negligible, but

nevertheless the question has sense.

. In view of these distinctions, let me make the following points. Hume

seems to affirm a theoretical and epistemological skepticism that is radical,

wholly unmitigated: this is his Pyrrhonism. Only our immediate impressions and ideas are immune from doubt. Whereas Hume’s normative skepticism is moderate: it is part of his psychological naturalism that it is not

in our power to control our beliefs by acts of mind and will, for our beliefs

are causally determined largely by other forces in our nature. He urges us

to try to suspend our beliefs only when they go beyond those generated

by the natural propensities of what he calls custom and imagination (custom

here is often a stand-in for the laws of association of ideas). Only beliefs

that go beyond these can be undermined by skeptical reflection. What is

crucial for Hume is that the beliefs that go beyond custom and imagination

are not reinvigorated—do not come back—when we leave our study and

return to everyday social life. We may, in fact, find ourselves purged of

the religious enthusiasms that corrupt our reason and support the monkish

virtues which render us unfit for society.

This sketch gives an idea of how radical, unmitigated theoretical and

epistemological skepticism works in tandem with Hume’s psychological

naturalism in his fideism of nature. The fact that such skepticism, however

correct its reasoning may be, cannot be sustained except by solitary philosophical reflection, and then not for long, reveals to us that for the most

part other psychological forces such as custom and imagination regulate

our everyday beliefs and conduct (paragraph  of E:iv: at T:). But, as

I’ve noted, Hume believes that this radical skepticism has a salutary effect

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on our moral character and enables us to live peaceably in society and to

accept without resignation or lament the conditions of human life—mortal

and fragile though our life may be. The upshot of this philosophical pilgrim’s progress, as it were, is someone who shares the beliefs of ordinary

people on everyday matters, and who when going beyond this does so with

circumspection guided by probability and the weight of the evidence. As

for matters beyond experience, belief is suspended.

It is important to observe here that this view is not itself said by Hume

to be the result of reasoned argument. Rather it is the outcome of the

psychological interplay of two kinds of forces: those of his skeptical philosophical reflections on the one hand and those of his natural psychological

propensities of custom and imagination on the other. Hume does not, then,

defend his view by using his reason: it is rather his happy acceptance of

the upshot of the balance between his philosophical reflections and the

psychological propensities of his nature. This underlying attitude guides his

life and regulates his outlook on society and the world. And it is this attitude

that leads me to refer to his view as a fideism of nature. (See T:, ,

, .)

§. Classification of the Passions

. So much for a few background remarks about how Hume’s skepticism

and his psychological naturalism work in tandem. I now turn to his moral

philosophy. He proceeds by trying to show that reason alone cannot be a

motive that influences our conduct; rather it has only a secondary role

limited to correcting false beliefs and identifying effective means to given

ends (in II:iii:). He then tries to show that it is not reason but moral sense

that is the (epistemological) basis of moral distinctions (in III:i). He offers

several quite brief knockout arguments to try to establish these claims. I

postpone considering these arguments until the fourth and fifth meetings

on Hume. Today I discuss what I shall call his official view of rational

deliberation (in II:iii:) and then raise some questions about it, which we

shall pursue next time. For while in his official view Hume’s skepticism

seems radical and unmitigated with regard to reason, we should ask how

far this is really so, and how exactly he characterizes rational deliberation.

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. I begin with Hume’s classification of the passions. At the outset of

the Treatise (–; and later ff.), Hume classifies the items of experience,

which he calls “perceptions,” as follows:



of sensation

(e.g., of color, smell,

touch; of pleasure and pain)


of reflection

(e.g., the passions, desires, emotions)

In Hume’s theory, impressions both of sensation and of reflection strike us

with greater force and violence than do the ideas that derive from them;

impressions are both prior to and more lively and vivid than ideas.

Impressions of reflection, however, may derive from impressions of sensation indirectly via ideas. Hume gives this account (T:f.): the impression

of sensation, say of a pleasure or a pain, gives rise to a corresponding idea

of pleasure or pain, which is “a copy taken by the mind” (T:). Then this

idea of a pleasure or pain, when it returns upon the soul (as Hume says),

produces a new impression of reflection, a reflexive impression of a desire

or an aversion, a hope or a fear, as the case may be. These impressions of

reflection may themselves be copied by memory or imagination, and in

this way they give rise to further ideas. Impressions of reflection are antecedent to the ideas derived from them, but they are posterior to impressions

of sensation from which they may be indirectly derived via an idea of pleasure or pain, this idea itself arising from an antecedent impression of pleasure or pain (T:). Thus all ideas originate from antecedent impressions of

sensation somewhere down the line; the same holds for impressions of

reflection, which derive from pleasures and pains. Hume’s concern is not

with natural philosophy—mechanics and astronomy—but with moral philosophy, with the science of human nature (see the Introduction to the

Treatise, xvii–xix). Since “the examination of our sensations belongs more

to anatomists and natural philosophers than to moral” (T:), it is impressions of reflection (passions, desires, and emotions) that are the focus of

his attention (T:).

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§1. Background:Skepticism and the Fideism of Nature

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