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  • Scepticism About Persons in Book II of Hume’s Treatise
  • Donald C. Ainslie

Book ii of Hume’s Treatise—especially its first two Parts on the “indirect passions” of pride, humility, love, and hatred—has mystified many of its interpreters.1 Hume clearly thinks these passions are important: Not only does he devote more space to them than to his treatment of causation, but in the “Abstract” to the Treatise, he tells us that Book II “contains opinions that are altogether as new and extraordinary” (T 659) as those found in Book I. And, he says, these opinions constitute “the foundation” (T 646) for his treatment of morals and politics in Book III.2 The mystery arises, however, because in the actual text of [End Page 469] Book II Hume never spells out what makes his opinions on the passions “new and extraordinary,” nor why they are foundational for his moral theory.

Thus some of his interpreters, notably Norman Kemp Smith, conclude that Hume was simply mistaken in his assessment of his treatment of the passions. While his accounts of the will and of motivation (in the early Sections of Part iii of Book II) are significant, Kemp Smith takes the extended analysis of the indirect passions to spring merely from his misplaced enthusiasm for associationist psychology. As such, the philosophical lessons to be learned from the first two Parts of Book II are slim.3 Páll Árdal, in contrast, tries to construct for Hume what he seems to have omitted—a philosophical rationale for his obvious interest in the indirect passions. Árdal starts by drawing attention to the role these passions play in Hume’s moral philosophy, in particular, his repeatedly connecting the indirect passions to the moral sentiments of approval and disapproval. Árdal concludes that Hume means to equate the moral sentiments with particular kinds of indirect passions. The first two Parts of Book II are of interest, on Ardal’s reading, because it is there that he shows us how moral sentimentalism can be founded on something more fully naturalistic than Hutcheson’s somewhat mysterious “moral sense.”4

I argue against Árdal’s interpretation in §2. But this reopens the problem of accounting for Hume’s interest in the indirect passions. I offer my view in §§3–5 where, like Árdal, I provide a reconstruction of Hume’s discussion of these passions in order to show how it has an underlying philosophical motivation. My claim is that Hume relies on the indirect passions to explain how we form beliefs about persons as bearers of features that make them into who [End Page 470] they are. It is by feeling an indirect passion towards someone that we think of her as more than accidentally related to some quality, such as her country, her riches, her family, or even her character traits. In support of my interpretation I point to the many parallels Hume draws between the indirect passions and the associative mechanism he offers to explain our forming causal beliefs (I.iii). And I suggest that, just as Hume’s associative explanation of causal beliefs is necessitated by his scepticism about intrinsic “necessary connexions,” so also his associative mechanism for our beliefs about persons—the indirect passions—is necessitated by a certain kind of scepticism about persons. This is not the scepticism about persons that we find in “Of personal identity” (I.iv.6), where Hume argues against the view that our perceptions inhere in a simple soul; it is rather a scepticism about there being intrinsic features of persons that define them as who they are.

But, before I explain in more detail what my claim amounts to, it will help to have available a brief description of the mechanism that Hume’s takes to explain the indirect passions.

1. THE MECHANISM FOR THE INDIRECT PASSIONS

A passion, for Hume, is a simple impression felt in response to various circumstances. Because of their simplicity, we cannot define passions by putting their characteristic feeling into words; instead, Hume thinks, we can only delineate “such circumstances, as attend them” (T 277). Passions are indirect if those circumstances include as an outcome the focusing of attention onto a person...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4586
Print ISSN
0022-5053
Pages
pp. 469-492
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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