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Hume Studies Volume XX, Number 1, April 1994, pp. 59-71 Despair and Hope in Hume's Introduction to the Treatise of Human Nature JAMES T. KING This paper deals with the Introduction to the Treatise of Human Nature because I think it identifies how Hume conceives the chief problem he confronts in that work, and I focus on the ninth paragraph in the Introduction because I believe it reveals Hume's characteristic way of addressing that problem.1 Skepticism and Antiskepticism in the Scholarship on Hume Among the disputes which dominate in the scholarship on David Hume the most persistent and perhaps most vexing is whether he is to be viewed ultimately as a skeptic or as a thinker with a constructive philosophical program . For roughly the first one hundred and twenty-five years after his death Hume was characterized as a skeptic, or rather was denigrated as a skeptic, for skepticism was then deemed a peril, if not a perversion. Norman Kemp Smith challenged the skeptical reading and opened the way for alternative interpretations , an amazing variety of which we can now say have succeeded one another without any having established itself. Thus while it is no longer plausible to say either that Hume was nothing but a skeptic or that he did not seriously advance skepticism, the matter of how to compose Hume's skepticism with his nonskeptical program continues to challenge his readers and commentators. James T. King is at the Department of Philosophy, Northern Illinois University, DeKaIb, IL 60115 USA. 60 James T. King There is little danger that this paper will alter the unsettled state of Hume scholarship. And this for two reasons. First, I have no wish to pigeon-hole Hume under one or another of the conventional identifying tags—the "isms"—which serve historians of philosophy more or less well in dealing with other classical figures. Further, I believe there is both skepticism and constructivism in the Treatise, and so, rather than trying to eliminate the one or the other, I propose to explore how and why Hume advances constructive and skeptical programs together and as parts of the same effort. If one looks for them, there are several points in his philosophical writings where Hume brings the tension between skepticism and constructivism to the surface—notably in the Conclusion of Book I with transition to Book II of the Treatise, in the first Enquiry, and in the Dialogues. Strangely, however, scholars have scarcely noticed that Hume did just this in the opening pages of his earliest published work. On several counts this is a regrettable oversight. First, the Introduction to the Treatise of Human Nature is written in relatively straightforward nontechnical language and stands independent of the particular philosophical problematics in which, as the book unfolds, Hume's reader naturally gets caught up. Thus it not only gives a very clear indication of the author's designs but may even, hopefully, afford an outline for an overall interpretation of his philosophical work. Further, this text is especially promising because in the Introduction Hume lays out the plan of the book and coaxes the reader into the frame of thinking which would hopefully make for the genial acceptance of the Treatise. If we seek clues as to how Hume wants us to think about the basic tension in his work, then the Introduction to the Treatise is the first place to look. Further, in the case of an author self-consciously as radical and as ambitious as Hume, the Introduction is an especially fertile source of information about what he takes to be obstacles standing in the way of the proper appreciation and understanding of his work. The Structure of the Introduction to the Treatise If the structure of the typical happy-ending story is an alternation of good times, bad times, and finally the victory of good times renewed, Hume's Introduction represents an inversion. It starts with bad news about the state of learning, advances toward hope of a New Era, but instead of moving to the consolidation of good news, it then records despair, offers a resigned accommodation , and ends with an uneasy balance between ambition to remake the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 59-71
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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