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Hume Studies . Volume XXV, Numbers 1 and 2, April/November 1999, pp. 43-65 Hume's Diffident Skepticism PHILLIP D. CUMMINS Introduction One of the chief problems facing interpreters of Hume's philosophy is what I shall call the integration problem. It is a global problem inasmuch as it casts a shadow on every component of his philosophy, but does not directly affect how we interpret their details. The integration problem arises at the end of Book I of A Treatise of Human Nature, where Hume seemed to acknowledge that his account of human understanding, his logic, leads directly to total skepticism regarding both everyday beliefs and abstruse thought. Nonetheless, he neither reconsidered and repudiated this virulent skepticism nor aborted and disowned his investigation of human nature, the project announced in the Introduction to the Treatise. Instead, he continues with Books II and III, neither of which dwells on or even acknowledges the skepticism with which Book I concludes. The resulting puzzle is not just about his decision to publish the three books as one work, since Hume appears paradoxically to endorse the triumph of skepticism and, yet, continue his pursuit of just the kind of knowledge the triumph of skepticism would entirely preclude. How, one is led to ask, can Hume consistently integrate the destructive skepticism of Book I with the constructive project of explaining and understanding human nature? It is not surprising that a wide range of proposals have been put forward by Hume scholars in response to this question. The crux of every such proposal is specifying how the skepticism of Book I is to be regarded. Is it genuine, a mere facade, or something in between? Phillip D. Cummins is at the Department of Philosophy, 269 English Philosophy Building, The University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA 52242-1408 USA. e-mail: phillip-cummins@uiowa.edu. 44 Phillip D. Cummins In this paper I shall not take another stab at solving the integration problem , but hope to lay the indispensable foundation for such an attempt by tracing the onset of Hume's skepticism in the Treatise. This will involve paying close attention to the text, distinguishing several senses of skepticism, and noting the ways in which Hume distanced himself from or aligned himself with the skeptical arguments he stated. This done, I shall also attend to his initial explicit responses to the skepticism he embraced or acknowledged. Rather than attempt a survey and critical assessment of competing hypotheses on the role of skepticism in the Treatise—perhaps an impossible task—I shall concentrate on making my reading as compelling as possible. My goal is to demonstrate the significance of Hume's introduction of the concept of diffident skepticism and thus take one small step towards solving the integration problem , if, indeed, it can be solved. 1. The Absence of Skepticism The title of part iv of Book I of the Treatise is "Of the sceptical and other systems of philosophy." Although skepticism is thus highlighted in part iv, little occurred previously to prepare readers for its prominent place there. Indeed, in parts i, ii, and iii, the word "sceptics" appears but once, while "sceptic," "scepticism ," and allied terms such as "Pyrrhonist" and "Pyrrhonism" are completely absent.1 In the Introduction to the Treatise, Hume uses "scepticism" once, while discussing a common prejudice against metaphysical reasoning. Such reasoning is identified with "every kind of argument, which is in any way abstruse, and requires some attention to be comprehended." According to Hume, because we have frequently "lost our labor" in researches that employ such arguments, we commonly reject them in favor of topics which are "natural and entertaining." He takes no such step, adopting instead the following stance: And indeed nothing but the most determined scepticism, along with a great deal of indolence, can justify this aversion to metaphysics. For if truth be at all within the reach of human capacity, 'tis certain it must lie very deep and abstruse; and to hope we shall arrive at it without pains, while the greatest geniuses have failed with the utmost pains, must certainly be esteemed sufficiently vain and presumptuous . I pretend to no such advantage in the philosophy I am...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 43-65
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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