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Hume Studies Volume 30, Number 2, November 2004, pp. 265-296 A Symposium on Louis E. Loeb, Stability and Justification in Hume's Treatise The Unity of Hume's Philosophical Project MICHAEL WILLIAMS 1. Introduction In both his Treatise of Human Nature and Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, Hume presents a protean figure.1 By turns, he appears as a naturalistic theorist of the mind, a proto-Positivist critic of speculative metaphysics, and an utter skeptic. Can these various characters be seen to work together? On the whole, Hume's interpreters seem to think not. The typical approach is to pick a dominant personality, leaving Hume's other philosophicalpersonae to be squeezed in as an afterthought, deprecated, or simply ignored. Louis Loeb is a shining exception.2 His new book, subtle and densely argued, offers an account of Hume's epistemology that makes a sustained effort to come to terms with its multi-faceted character. However, while Loeb's interpretation marks a real advance in our understanding of Hume, it is not one that I find ultimately persuasive. As I shall try to show, for all his insights, Loeb too fails to provide a satisfyingly unified account of Hume's philosophical pro j ect. In the course of explaining why I think this, I shall indicate how I think a better account ought to go. 2. Varieties of Skepticism The key to understanding Hume is to come to terms with the ways in which Hume is and is not a skeptic. So before going farther it will be useful to distinguish the Michael Williams is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Philosophy at The Johns Hopkins University , 347 Gilman Hall, Baltimore, MD 21218, USA. e-mail: mwilliams@jhu.edu 266 Michael Williams various forms that skepticism takes, or might be thought to take, in Hume's epistemological writings. The distinctions I shall introduce will also make it easier to characterize different ways of reading Hume, Loeb's included. First, we must distinguish between epistemological skepticism, which has to do with knowledge and belief, and conceptual skepticism which has to do with meaning. So for example, where an epistemological skeptic may wonder whether beliefs of a certain broad kind can be justified, a conceptual skeptic will wonder whether the words we use to express such purported beliefs are so much as meaningful. It seems clear that both kinds of skepticism figure in Hume's theory of the understanding. However, commentators differ sharply over their relative importance. Second, we must distinguish two forms of epistemological skepticism: theoretical (or Academic) skepticism and suspensive skepticism (or Pyrrhonism). As its name suggests, theoretical skepticism is a thesis (or family of theses) about the epistemic status of human beliefs: for example, the thesis that such and such beliefs do not amount to knowledge or are not justifiable. It is important to note that one can entertain such a thesis in a purely speculative or theoretical way, without becoming inclined to relinquish any fundamental beliefs. By contrast, Pyrrhonism involves an actual breakdown in belief. Again, though we seem to be able to find both Academic and Pyrrhonian elements in Hume's epistemological outlook, commentators are seriously at odds over how to put them together. Third, both theoretical and suspensive skepticism can be either qualified (Hume says "mitigated") or unqualified (we can say "radical"). The most important form of qualified theoretical skepticism is anti-Rationalism. Anti-Rationalism embraces such theses as that our beliefs never amount to knowledge, or are not supportable by (what we can show to be) truth-conducive reasons. By contrast, theoretical skepticism in its most radical form is the claim that no beliefs are in any sense more reasonable than others: i.e., that normative-epistemological distinctions between beliefs are completely indefensible. We can make an analogous distinction with respect to suspensive skepticism. A qualifiedly skeptical outlook might take the form of anti-Dogmatism: we hold beliefs, but in an open-minded, fallibilist spirit, taking nothing to be altogether certain, suspending final judgment. Alternatively, we might suffer a complete breakdown of belief. Once more, we find serious differences of opinion among commentators. In what way is Hume's skepticism mitigated, or qualified, if indeed it is qualified...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 265-296
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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