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David Hume: Scepticism, Science, and Superstition


Section ii: 'Scepticism with regard to the senses' (i.e. the nature of our ideas ... textbooks is obsessive about ideas, impressions, and associationist psychology. ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: David Hume: Scepticism, Science, and Superstition

David HumeScepticism, Science,and Superstition
3. The Treatise andthe first Enquiry
Dr Peter Millican Hertford College, Oxford
A Treatise of Human Nature
  • Book I Of the Understanding and Book II Of the
    Passions published January 1739.
  • Book III Of Morals published November 1740,
    together with an Appendix in which Hume gives
    corrections to Book I (and confesses failure over
    personal identity).
  • Humes first and most ambitious work, presenting
    a synthesis of epistemology, metaphysics,
    psychology and morals.

Passions and Morality
  • A Passionate Animal
  • We are driven not by reason, but by passions,
    based largely on discoverable psychological
    mechanisms that we share with the animals.
  • Morality based on Sympathy
  • Morality cannot be founded on rational insight
    (or on any religious principles).
  • The true foundation of morality is a natural
    instinct, sympathy, which leads us to care about
    others (something that pure reason cannot do).

The Great Infidel
  • Secularism
  • Humes outstanding characteristic, in context, is
    that he is an infidel, a non-believer. This
    informs almost all of his work
  • Naturalism
  • Man is an animal rather than a semi-divine
    creature halfway between beasts and angels.
  • Scepticism
  • Hence our reason is a natural operation, not a
    faculty of divine insight into things.

Treatise Book I
  • Follows Lockes Essay by starting with the origin
    of ideas a pervasive theme.
  • Part I ends with a somewhat Berkeleian account of
    general ideas (denying what they take to be
    Lockean abstraction).
  • Part II, Of the ideas of space and time denies
    infinite divisibility, inferring from the nature
    of our ideas to the nature of space and time
    themselves. This part in particular seems
    uncharacteristically metaphysical.

  • Part III, by far the longest part, is mainly
    devoted to causation and causal inference.
  • Part III Section i presents an important
    distinction between types of relations (cf. Part
    I Section v). Some of these can yield
    knowledge (i.e. certainty, susceptible of
    demonstration), whereas others cannot.
  • The main discussion of Part III (from Section ii
    to xiv) investigates the nature of the idea of
    cause and effect.
  • On the way it discusses induction (or probable
    reasoning) and rational judgement.

  • Part IV discusses various sceptical topics
  • Section i Scepticism with regard to reason
  • Section ii Scepticism with regard to the
    senses (i.e. the nature of our ideas and beliefs
    about the external world)
  • Section iii Of the antient philosophy
  • Section iv Of the modern philosophy (i.e. the
    modern distinction between primary and secondary
    qualities etc., which Hume rejects)
  • Section v Of the immateriality of the soul
    (argues that matter could cause thought)
  • Section vi Of personal identity

Understanding Treatise Book I
  • Parts of the Treatise are very confusing
  • I iv 2 and I iv 6 seem to mix discussion of the
    origin and nature of our ideas, bringing in
    associationist psychological explanations of how
    our minds are misled, which seem to have deeply
    sceptical metaphysical implications.
  • In I iv 2 and I iv 7, Humes thought seems highly
    dynamic, from assured to sceptically confused
    (and, at least in I iv 7, back again).
  • The despairing Appendix leaves us unsure what
    to make of I iv 6 what is left?

The Appendix to the Treatise
  • Published with Book III of the Treatise.
  • Only 18 months after publication of Book I,
    admits to bad expression and a mistake.
  • Dissatisfied with his description of the nature
    of belief, and various other minor faults.
  • Upon a more strict review of the section
    concerning personal identity I neither know how
    to correct my former opinions, nor how to render
    them consistent. (Hume never again discusses
    personal identity in any work.)

The Hume of the Treatise?
  • Associationist and Destructive Sceptic?
  • The well-known Hume of many textbooks is
    obsessive about ideas, impressions, and
    associationist psychology.
  • Major topics are origin of ideas, causation,
    the external world, and personal identity.
  • Induction is reduced to association of ideas and
    thus shown to be irrational.
  • Account of the ideas of external objects and
    personal identity seems to indicate that both are
    completely incoherent.

Humes Core Concerns
  • Pro-Science, Anti-Superstition
  • Humes mature works, and even much of the
    Treatise, paint a very different picture.
  • Keen to introduce the experimental Method of
    Reasoning into Moral Subjects (the subtitle of
    the Treatise).
  • Gives advice on the appropriate basis and methods
    of such empirical science.
  • Attacks superstition, especially religion.
  • Avoids self-destructive scepticism.

Disillusion with the Treatise (1)
  • January 1739 Treatise published
  • June 1st 1739, letter to Kames
  • My fondness for what I imagined new
    discoveries, made me overlook all common rules of
  • October/November 1739 Abstract written
  • Completed by March 1740, the Abstract suggests a
    major rethink and restructuring, anticipating the
    Enquiry in many ways.

The Abstract of the Treatise
  • Sets out the Chief Argument of the Treatise
    almost entirely based around Book I Part iii and
    closely related issues induction, belief, Copy
    Principle and causation, free will.
  • Aside from these topics, no part of the Treatise
    gets more than a single paragraph!
  • Approach to some topics, selection of topics, and
    their ordering, is much closer to the Enquiry
    than to the Treatise.
  • Suggests Hume was already rethinking in late
    1739, when the Abstract was probably written!

Disillusion with the Treatise (2)
  • March 16th 1740, letter to Hutcheson
  • I wait with some Impatience for a second
    Edition principally on Account of Alterations I
    intend to make in my Performance.
  • I am apt, in a cool hour, to suspect, in
    general, that most of my Reasonings will be more
    useful by furnishing Hints exciting Peoples
    Curiosity than as containing any Principles that
    will augment the Stock of Knowledge that must
    pass to future Ages.

Disillusion with the Treatise (3)
  • November 1740 Book III is published
  • together with Appendix, confessing errors.
  • May 21st 1745, Letter from a Gentleman
  • I am indeed of Opinion, that the Author had
    better delayed the publishing of that Book not
    on account of any dangerous Principles contained
    in it, but because on more mature Consideration
    he might have rendered it much less imperfect by
    further Corrections and Revisals. (L 33)

Disillusion with the Treatise (4)
  • Spring 1751, letter to Gilbert Elliot
  • I give you my Advice against reading the
    Treatise. I was carryd away by the Heat of
    Youth Invention to publish too precipitately.
    So vast an Undertaking, pland before I was one
    and twenty, composd before twenty five, must
    necessarily be very defective. I have repented
    my Haste a hundred, a hundred times.

Disillusion with the Treatise (5)
  • February 1754, letter to John Stewart
  • I shall acknowledge a very great Mistake viz
    my publishing at all the Treatise of human
    Nature, a Book, which pretended to innovate in
    all the sublimest Parts of Philosophy, which I
    composd before I was five twenty. Above all,
    the positive Air, which prevails in that Book,
    which may be imputed to the Ardor of Youth, so
    much displeases me, that I have not Patience to
    review it.

Humes Advertisement
  • several writers Reid, Beattie, who have
    honoured the Authors Philosophy with answers,
    have taken care to direct all their batteries
    against that juvenile work the Treatise.
    Henceforth, the Author desires, that the
    following Pieces EHU, DOP, EPM, NHR may alone
    be regarded as containing his philosophical
    sentiments and principles.
  • Enquiry, Advertisement, 1775

A Timeline of Humes Life
Treatise Book I 1739
A new scene 1729
Reids Inquiry 1764
Born 1711
Beattie 1770
France 1734-7
Abstract 1740
Enquiry 1748
Advt 1775
The Basis of Humes Preference
  • Putting the Evidence Together
  • Hume consistently expresses support for empirical
    science, and attacks superstition.
  • But the Treatise gives a very dubious basis for
    making this distinction, since it portrays all
    our mental life as so incorrigibly irrational.
  • The philosophy of the Enquiry, foreshadowed by
    the Abstract, is far more suitable.
  • This gives a plausible explanation for Humes
    preference for the Enquiry.

The Aims of the Enquiry
  • A manifesto for inductive moral science and how
    to pursue it, distinguishing
  • mental geography, or delineation of the distinct
    parts and powers of the mind (1.13)
  • discovery of the secret springs and principles,
    by which the human mind is actuated in its
    operations (1.15).
  • Examine the limits of possible enquiry, to
  • undermine bogus metaphysics and the superstition
    that it supports (1.11-12).

  • Sections IV and VII
  • Causes are discoverable by experience alone
    rather than by rational understanding.
  • Factual inference is founded on assumption of
    uniformity, irresistible due to custom.
  • The only appropriate scientific ambition is to
    resolve observable phenomena into simple,
    quantifiable laws that describe them, rather than
    aspiring to intelligibility or rational insight.
  • Section V Part ii
  • A sketch of an example of such resolution of
    phenomena the operation of custom on the mind is
    somewhat analogous to association.

  • Section VI
  • Probabilistic inference is a natural development
    of induction, based on custom.
  • Section VIII
  • Inductive reasoning is equally applicable to the
    moral sciences as to the physical.
  • It is to be pursued in the same way, through a
    probing search for uniform hidden causes.
  • Section IX
  • Analogical inference is another development of
    induction, where similarity is imperfect.
  • Man is part of nature, alongside the animals.

  • Section X
  • We should proportion our belief to the
    evidence, and carefully scrutinising testimony
    with an inductively-informed critical eye.
  • Section XI
  • Inductive inference is subject to a constraint of
    proportionality, and arguably a prohibition on
    speculation about unique phenomena.
  • Section XII
  • Metaphysical insight into matter is a dead end.
  • Restrict areas of enquiry, with induction based
    on methodizing and correcting.
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