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Is Hume a Sceptic with Regard to the Senses? FRED WILSON A PYRRHONISTARGUESthat every philosophical position can be shown to lead to contradiction and paradox. His point is that once this fact about philosophy is recognized, the mind will abandon philosophy, and content itself with custom and habit, and, in so doing it will, the Pyrrhonist holds, be content. Popkin' has argued that Hume is a radical Pyrrhonist who holds that not merely philosophy but also common sense leads to paradox and contradiction. Popkin advances a variety of arguments for this interpretation, ~but one in particular we shall discuss here. Specifically, Popkin argues that, for Hume, the mind in thinking about the world that we experience proceeds on the basis of two natural and inescapable principles of inference, namely, that of the imagination and that of causal reasoning; and while the former generates beliefs that ordinary perceptual objects are independently enduring bodies, the latter generates beliefs to the contrary. According to Popkin, then, for Hume the mind naturally and inevitably falls into contradictions. Life, rather than reason , is the only escape from this radical scepticism. For this argument the central text is, of course, Part 4 of Book 1 of the This paper develops an interpretation of Hume, further support of which can be found in the following papers not cited in the notes: "Wright's Enquiry concerning Humean Understanding ," Dialogue, forthcoming; "Hume'sDefence of Sciences,"Dialogue, forthcoming; "Hume's Cognitive Stoicism,"Hume Studies (1985, Supplement): 52-68; "Is There a Prussian Hume?" Hume Studies 8 (198~): 1-18; "Aquaintance, Ontology and Knowledge," The New Scholasticism 54 (197o): 1-48; "Effability,Ontology, and Method," PhilosophyResearchArchives 9 (1983):419-7~ "Hume's Defence of Causal Inference,"Dialogue 22 (1983): 661-94. ' R. H. Popkin, "David Hume: His Pyrrhonism and His Critique of Pyrrhonism," in V. Chappell, ed., Hume (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co., Anchor Books, 1966). ' I have discussed some other aspects of Popkin's casein "Is Hume a Scepticwith Regard to Reason?" Philosophy Research Archives lo (1984): ~75-32o; see also Wilson, "Hume's Theory of Mental Activity,"in D. F. Norton, et. al., eds., McGiU Hume Studies (SanDiego: Austin Hill Press, 1976). [49] 5 ~ JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY 27:1 JANUARY 1989 Treatise.3 In the Conclusion (Sec. 7) of that part Hume mentions this "contradiction " (266) and he then refers us back to Sec. 4 where he speaks (231) of a "direct and total opposition betwixt our reason and our senses." Such texts as these give strong support to Popkin's reading. Yet from those texts Popkin's interpretation does not follow. At least, so I shall argue. To be sure, these texts do show that Hume did reckon that conflicts exist between reason and our senses, and any interpretation of Hume must take account of this fact. The crucial point is, however, that these conflicts can be accepted and Popkin's reading rejected provided that one can show, as I think one can, that Hume holds that the contradiction between (causal) reason and imagination can be resolved rationally in favor of one side, specifically, that of (causal) reason.4 What I want to propose is that Hume argues that causal reason is what ought to be accepted. If so, then Hume does hold that the contradiction is resoluble, and, contrary to Popkin, no radical scepticism can be attributed to him, at least not on the basis of the texts just mentioned. There are two major points at which contradictions arise. One is the conflict between the system of the vulgar and the system of the philosophers in Part 4, Sec. 2. The other is the problem that arises with the modern philosophy as discussed in Part 4, Sec. 4. There is a further problem that arises with both the system of the vulgar and that of the philosophers--the problem of the continuing particular. That notion contradicts a major thesis supported by appeal to a Principle of Acquaintance which is surely the fundamental principle of Hume's philosophy. This is the thesis that impressions and other sensible particulars are momentary objects. It does not seem, however, that Hume needs such a particular.5...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4586
Print ISSN
0022-5053
Pages
pp. 49-73
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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