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Hume Studies Volume XX, Number 2, November 1994, pp. 219-240 Infinite Divisibility in Hume's First Enquiry DALE JACQUETTE The Limitations of Reason The arguments against infinite divisibility in the notes to Sections 124 and 125 of David Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding are presented as "sceptical" results about the limitations of reason. The metaphysics of infinite divisibility is introduced merely as a particular, though especially representative problem, among several that Hume discusses. Hume first writes: The chief objection against all abstract reasonings is derived from the ideas of space and time; ideas, which, in common life and to a careless view, are very clear and intelligible, but when they pass through the scrutiny of the profound sciences (and they are the chief object of these sciences) afford principles, which seem full of absurdity and contradiction.1 There follows an intuitive appeal to the apparent incoherence of the consequences of infinite divisibility in the geometry of space and measurement of time. Hume enlists natural belief against the infinite divisibility thesis in the mathematics of extension: But what renders the matter more extraordinary, is, that these seemingly absurd opinions are supported by a chain of reasoning, the Dale Jacquette is at the Department of Philosophy, The Pennsylvania State University, 246 Sparks Building, University Park PA 16802 USA. e-mail: DLJ4@PSU.EDU 220 Dale Jacquette clearest and most natural; nor is it possible for us to allow the premises without admitting the consequences. Nothing can be more convincing and satisfactory than all the conclusions concerning the properties of circles and triangles; and yet, when these are once received , how can we deny, that the angle of contact between a circle and its tangent is infinitely less than any rectilinear angle, that as you may increase the diameter of the circle in infinitum, this angle of contact becomes still less, even in infinitum, and that the angle of contact between other curves and their tangents may be infinitely less than those between any circle and its tangent, and so on, in infinitum? The demonstration of these principles seems as unexceptionable as that which proves the three angles of a triangle to be equal to two right ones, though the latter opinion be natural and easy, and the former big with contradiction and absurdity. (EHU 156-157) The implied sense of contradiction is then extended by Hume to the problem of infinite divisibility in time. The absurdity of these bold determinations of the abstract sciences seems to become, if possible, still more palpable with regard to time than extension. An infinite number of real parts of time, passing in succession, and exhausted one after another, appears so evident a contradiction, that no man, one should think, whose judgment is not corrupted, instead of being improved, by the sciences, would ever be able to admit of it. (EHU 157) The contradictions involved in traditional concepts of extension and time demarcate the limits of which reason is capable. But Hume's answer is more complex than merely surrendering to skepticism over the prospects of reason achieving understanding in the metaphysics of space and time. He tries to show that what he calls "Pyrrhonian" skepticism is ultimately self-defeating in its application of reason against reason. In place of a negative conclusion, he offers another solution to the paradoxes of infinite divisibility. What is remarkable about Hume's pronouncements against the infinite divisibility of extension and time, that may signal a change in his methodology if not his overall position on divisibility in the Enquiry from that of A Treatise of Human Nature, is his straightforward claim that natural belief rebels against the concept of infinite divisibility as its consequences apply to the metric of space and time.2 As in the Treatise, Hume pits natural disbelief in infinite divisibility against abstract metaphysical reason. But in the Enquiry, he does not invoke reason merely to correct the excesses of natural belief for the skeptical deflation of natural belief, say, in the necessity of causal connection , or the existence of mind-independent continuants. On the contrary, Hume Studies Infinite Divisibility in Hume's First Enquiry 221 Hume here appears instead to invoke natural disbelief in...


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