"General Rules" in Hume's Treatise
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"General Rules" in Hume's Treatise THOMAS K. HEARN, JR. IT COULDBE CONFIDENTLYASSERTED in 1925 that Hume was "no longer a living figure." x Stuart Hampshire records that when he began his philosophy studies in 1933, Hume's conclusions were regarded at Oxford as "extravagances of scepticism which no one could seriously accept." 2 That virtually no Anglo-American philosopher would now share such opinions about Hume testifies not only to the general change in the philosophical climate but, in addition, it reflects a transformation which has occurred in the interpretation of Hume's philosophy. In eitecting this transformation .much credit is due to the work of Norman Kemp Smith. Kemp Smith argued that preoccupation with Hume's empiricist heritage and his scepticism had blinded scholars to the fundamentally constructive intent of his philosophy, and, indeed, that only from the perspective of his positive achievement was it possible to grasp the nature and significance of Humean scepticism. This paper, in keeping with the basic orientation of Kemp Smith, sets out a central feature in the attempt to describe and assess Hume's constructive, nonsceptical point of view: Hume attributes to general rules "a mighty influence on our actions and understanding ..." (374).4 This paper examines the Treatise to show that this was not just a casual comment. To discuss the "influence" of general rules requires an examination of their character and the various aspects of "action and understanding " in which such rules function. The thesis to be developed can be stated briefly. In Book I Hume introduces two sorts of general rules which must be distinguished carefully . One type of rule describes a propensity of the imagination to extend the scope This research was supported by a grant from the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities. x Charles W. Hendcl, Studies in the Philosophy of David Hume (New York, 1963), p. 20. (First published in 1925.) For Professor Hendel's later comments on this statement, see pp. xxi ft. "Hume's Place in Philosophy" in David Hume, ed. D. F. Pears (London, 1963), p. 3. a Proper stress is due here to the phrase "basic orientation." There is much about Kemp Smith's understanding of Hume which is mistaken in my view. 9 The page references in parentheses refer to the Svlby-Bigge edition of A Treatise o/ Human Nature (Oxford, 1888). [4o5] 406 HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY of judgments formed in one set of circumstances to other resembling but non-identical circumstances. The other type of general rule, the discussion of which largely occupies this paper, functions to correct certain natural propensities which result in erroneous belief or action if permitted to operate unchecked. The same pattern, a natural tendency requiring correction by general rules, is exhibited in all three books of the Treatise, and can be said to represent one of the basic ingredients in Hume's account of human nature and experience. It is somewhat surprising that in a book which patiently discusses almost evcxy theme in the Treatise, Kemp Smith's study contains no discussion at all of rules. This is the more puzzling as Kemp Smith clearly recognized that by reflection the understanding supplies principles which are normative for the interpretation of experience.5 Our aim in this study is to discuss what for Hume these principles are, and, as far as possible, how they fit into the Humean account of human nature. A fuller understanding of the nature and function of such reflective principles is required to spare Kemp Smith's interpretation from a seeming inconsistency. This apparent inconsistency arises because Kemp Smith takes the slavery of reason to the passions as the "key" to his understanding of Hume, but then develops the view that for Hume reason/s a passion, in Hume's words, "a wonderful and unintelligible instinct." (179)6 The inconsistency disappears when it is recognized that Kemp Smith's account of Hume requires a more subtle and complex understanding of the role of reason than that suggested by the emphasis on the "slavery of reason" especially in the early parts of the book. This study represents a way of supplying the broader and more const,ructive understanding of reason which...