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Hume and Pascal: Pyrrhonism vs. Nature José R. Maia Neto The view that Pyrrhonism is not practically viable was, according to Richard H. Popkin, held during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuriesbydifferent philosophers suchas Mersenne,Arnauld, Pascal, Ramsay, and others.1 Among the anti-sceptics, this position was usually taken as an argument against Pyrrhonism. Popkin points out that Hume's main contribution to the "Pyrrhonian controversy" is to show that (i) "the Pyrrhonian doctrine was the logical outcome of philosophical analysis,"2 (ii) that the infeasibility of Pyrrhonism does not weaken its epistemological force but only its psychological plausibility, and (Ui) that this implausibility obtains because nature (the common affairs ofeveryday life and the feeUngs, impressions, and ideas thereby generated) impels the philosopher to believe.3 Popkin alsomakes an allusion to the similaritybetweenHume and Pascal on this issue.4 In this paper I compare the dilemma posed by Pascal as apropaedeutic tofaith withthe "dangerous dilemma" alluded to, but avoided, by Hume in the conclusion of book 1 of the Treatise. The dilemma follows from (i) above. At a certain point in his epistemological enquiry the philosopher is forced tomake a hard choice between the quite disadvantageous alternatives: either to continue his philosophizing, which, leading to Pyrrhonism, may bring despair and cause the annihilation ofhis life, or to abandon philosophy, makinghim aprey ofthe "errors, absurdities, andobscurities"ofanon-critical life.5 In what follows I compare Hume's solution to this dilemma with Pascal's. ? In the following passage Hume shows the toughness of the dilemma and offers a first answer to it: What party, then, shall we choose among these difficulties? If we ... condemn all refin'd reasoning, we run into the most manifest absurdities. If we reject it in favour of these reasonings, we subvert entirely the human understanding. We have, therefore, no choice left but betwixt a false reason and none at all. For my part, I know not what ought to be done Volume XVII Number 1 41 JOSE R. ???? NETO in the present case. I can only observe what is commonly done; which is, that this difficulty is seldom or never thought of; and even where it has once been present to the mind, is quickly forgot, and leaves but a small impression behind it. (T 268) Note that in this first answer Hume manages to avoid the normative response that the dilemma demands. He provides, instead, a descriptive account which is a kind of solution because it purports to show that human psychology makes it unlikely that someone could reach the point at which he or she would have to choose between the two parties. The dilemma does not arise because nature stops the self-subversion ofreason. Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herselfsuffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent ofmind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. (T 269) Hume means by nature in this passage both human nature and the social and natural environments which, in so far as they demand specific reactions, generate appropriate beliefs. Those beliefs imposed by nature are necessaryforour survival. So, the mere interaction ofthe philosopher with the world outside his closet suffices to dispel his sceptical crisis. According to Hume, this determination of nature is absolute and necessary. "I find myself absolutely and necessarily determin'd to live ... I may, nay I must yield to the current ofnature" (T 269). This view is reaffirmed in the Enquiry. Nature is always too strong for principle. And though a PYRRHONIAN may throw himself or others into a momentary amazement and confusion by his profound reasonings; the first and most trivial event in life will put to flight all his doubts and scruples, and leave him the same, in every point ofaction and speculation, with the philosophers of every other sect, or with those who never concerned themselves in any philosophical researches.6 So, it would appear that the dilemma is just a fleeting impression in the imagination of the philosopher during a momentary sceptical crisis. Nature provides that such a crisis is not prolonged...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 41-49
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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