Extreme Skepticism and Commitment in the Treatise


The extreme skepticism that Hume’s dangerous dilemma introduces at the end of the first Book of the Treatise is deeply unsettling, in part because it seems to undermine Hume’s commitments to common life and philosophy, but also because Hume seems not to take its sweeping doubts seriously. He refuses to abandon his daily activities and philosophical pursuits, and he offers no clear account of what entitles him to sustain them. This paper explores a variety of tactics for addressing these opposing elements of his thought. The most radical approach has Hume endorse nothing whatsoever in the Treatise, a maneuver that prevents any conflict between his doubts and his commitments from arising, though at a tremendous cost. A more charitable strategy allows Hume to speak with one consistent voice throughout the text by rejecting, repurposing, or restricting either his doubts or his commitments in a way that resolves the tension between them. Yet a third approach takes Hume to advance incompatible and irreconcilable positions but holds that the inconsistency in his thinking is not as destructive as it initially appears. None of the most promising ways of developing these proposals eliminates or satisfactorily eases the conflict in Hume’s work, and the enormous obstacles that they face give us little reason to hope for something better.