restricted access The Failure of Hume's Treatise
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THE FAILURE OF HUME'S TREATISE The Treatise is, of course, a failure; Hume tells us so himself. Hume's reservations about the Treatise both in later writings and even within the work itself are well known. What is less clear is exactly why Hume found the Treatise so unsatisfactory. This is a complicated question, for to explain why the Treatise does not live up to Hume's expectations presupposes an understanding of the more fundamental problem of what Hume's expectations were in the first place. In what follows I present a theory about what it was that Hume hoped to accomplish in the Treatise and why this project was ultimately unsuccessful. In the first two sections of this paper I discuss three philosophical positions with which Hume was concerned, and I present three faculties of the understanding which he isolates in the Treatise. In the third section I argue that Hume's goal is to match these three philosophical positions with the three faculties, and by doing so to provide both a critique of unsatisfactory positions and a foundation for his own "science of man." I conclude by showing that this matching project is ultimately unsuccessful , thus dooming the Treatise to at least partial failure. My analysis is based primarily on Treatise I; without argument here I subscribe to Kemp Smith's thesis that Treatise I represents the most advanced stage of thinking in the 2 Treatise . This explains to me how Hume can continue to write Books II and III after the partial failure of the project which he registers in the conclusion of Treatise I. I read the conclusion to Book I as the conclusion of the whole project. Three Philosophical Positions The three philosophical positions which I wish to discuss are described by Hume at one point as that of the vulgar, that of a false philosophy , and that of the true (T222). 58. Let us discuss them in that order: 1.Vulgar Superstition. Hume frequently discusses and criticizes a set of beliefs and ways of thinking which for convenience I call "vulgar superstition." The real enemy here is popular religion, which for Hume is the clearest expression of this mode of thought. In the Treatise Hume is more wary of criticizing popular religion than he sometimes was in later works, but the general target of his remarks is still clear. The kinds of thought Hume has in mind here are bigotry, superstition, credulity, prejudice , and indoctrination. This type of thinking presents a constant barrier to human enlightenment and progress, and for Hume the role of philosophy is to attack superstition and keep it in check. As Hume expressed it a few years later, One considerable advantage that arises from philosophy, consists in the sovereign antidote which it offers to superstition and false religion. All other remedies against that pestilent distemper are vague, or at least uncertain. 2.Dogmatism. Another target which Hume attacks in the Treatise is a dogmatic or rationalistic approach to philosophy, best exemplified by Cambridge Platonism and Cartesianism. This type of philosophy seeks to base ethics upon pure reason, to know things with certainty, and to penetrate the ultimate nature of man, God, and the universe. Hume hopes to show the fallacy of all this philosophy (T 413) by showing that reason can never motivate action, that only fools claim to know things with certainty (T 270) , and that we must be content to understand the appearance of things rather than to know their secret causes (T 64) . 3.The Science of Man. Hume's own position, the "science of man," is presented as a middle ground-empirical rather than a priori and scientific rather than superstitious. The goal of this true philosophy is to discover the original qualities of human nature (T 562) , resulting in a Newtonian analysis of man himself. For Hume true philosophers are characterized by their moderate scepticism (T 224), so Hume's system is to be built on probable judgments rather than certain ones, and it will deal with appearances rather than essences. Here again Hume follows the "constructive scepticism" of Newton. Hume sees considerable danger in following either rationalism or superstition, but he has great...