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Hume's Impasse DANIEL BREAZEALE There is nothing so foolish and deluding as a partial skepticism. For whilst the doubt is cast only on one side, the certainty grows so much the stronger on the other. Whilst only one face of folly appears ridiculous, the other grows more solemn and deceiving. Shaftesbury x THE QUESTIONTO BE CONSIDEREDis the relation of Hume's celebrated scepticism to his own constructive philosophical projects and analyses. Since Thomas Reid there have been those who detect an unresolved tension between, on the one hand, Hume's Enlightenment devotion to science with its attendent opposition to dogmatism and superstition and, on the other, his explicitly sceptical manner and principles. Some (e.g., Green and Kolakowski) find this tension unresolvable in principle and utterly subversive of Hume's positive ambitions; others (e.g., Flew and Passmore) propose revisionary interpretations of Hume that will mitigate the tension. Still others adopt the view made popular by Kemp Smith and Hendel, according to which the special virtue of Hume's philosophy is precisely his employment of the principle of "natural interpretation" to overcome the apparent conflict between science and scepticism. The reading of Hume proposed here fits comfortably into none of the traditions, largely because of the emphasis placed upon the changes, both in the character of Hume's scepticism and, more fundamentally, in his own conception of his philosophical project. I shall argue: that Hume began his study of human nature with reformist aspirations toward an accurate and serf-evident "science of man"; that the critical method adopted in pursuit of this goal occasioned corrosive doubts concerning the very possibility of science ; that reflection upon the failure of his initial effort led Hume to replace his earlier scientific ideal with a less rigorous program of "natural, unforced interpretation"; that this new "academical philosophy" succeeded neither in providing workable criteria for distinguishing justifiable belief from superstition nor in avoiding the excesses of unmitigated scepticism; and, finally, that there is evidence that Hume was aware of and tacitly conceded these difficulties. Unorthodox as this developmental reading of Hume unquestionably is, the alternative is to admit the ultimately muddled and even self-contradictory character of a timeless "philosophy of Hume," which, as every student learns, received brilliant if flawed expression in the Treatise, was stylistically and prudentially recast in the Inquiries, and elaborated and illustrated in subsequent writings. Perhaps other readers have shared my suspicion that underlying the superficial differences between the Treatise, Inquiries, and Dialogues there are strikingly different conceptions of the philosophical enterprise and of the relation thereto of scepticism. This essay examines such a possibility. x Characteristicsot Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merdll, 1964),p. 56. [311] 312 HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY (1) The youthful author of A Treatise of Human Nature informs us of his intention to establish a new science of supreme importance, one which alone can provide the secure foundation which is presumed lacking in the other sciences. To this "science of man" all others are subordinate, either because, like psychology, they constitute its branches, or else because, like physics, they "lie under the cognizance of men" (T, p.xix).2 Since every question is thereby included within its province, no decision on any subject may be more certain than this foundational science. Given the utility and importance of the proposed inquiry there can be no mystery about Hume's hope that the principles of this science would be received as "an undoubted truth" (T, p.624). Any ambiguity present in Hume's hope to establish a science of human nature "which will not be inferior in certainty.., to any other of human comprehension" (T, p. xxiii)3 has vanished from the self-puffery of the "Abstract," in which we are assured regarding the science of human nature that "there seems to be all the reason in the world to imagine that it may be carried to the greatest degree of exactness" (IHU, p. 183). The manner in which this exactness and certainty is to be assured is presented in the subtitle of the Treatise: "an attempt to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects." In unmistakable allusion to Newton, we are told that...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4586
Print ISSN
0022-5053
Pages
pp. 311-333
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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