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93 HUME'S PYRRHONISM: A DEVELOPMENTAL INTERPRETATION* Hume's approach to philosophical problems is unique. Whether the issue is causality, external objects, or personal identity, we find the same approach. He begins by launching devastating attacks against popular theories. He then convinces us that his solution to the issue at hand is the only one that makes sense. But, then, he dashes our hopes by arguing that even his solutions contain 'contradictions', 'manifest absurdities', 'obscurities', and 'perplexities '. In short, Hume is a skeptic in the Pyrrhonian tradition in his belief that fundamental aspects of the human understanding are wrought with contradiction. Commentators invariably recognize these contradictions in Hume's writings, but further explanation is desirable. What are these contradictions which Hume finds inevitable, and when do they arise? This is the question I will try to answer. The answer is no less intriguing than Hume himself, for throughout his philosophical career, Hume continually discovered new contradictions. I will be arguing for a developmental interpretation of Hume's Pyrrhonism, the key area of change involving a contradiction with morality. Briefly, I will argue that in the main text of the Treatise. Hume discovers contradictions in areas involving external objects and causality, but denies that contradictions arise with morality. For, insofar as morality involves only the world of mental events, he believes it to be free from contradiction. However, in his discussion of 'the self in the Appendix to the Treatise, he changes his position and asserts that contradictions arise even for the world of mental events. In the conclusion to his second Enquiry, Hume 94 extends this Pyrrhonism even further in the face of another contradiction, this time directly involving morality. Thus, where Hume rejects Pyrrhonian moral skepticism in the Treatise, he comes to affirm it in the second Enquiry. I conclude by comparing Hume's lists of contradictions in the Treatise and first Enquiry showing that, again, Hume expanded the realm of Pyrrhonism. What I have been calling 'Pyrrhonism' (skepticism involving the discovery of contradictions) Hume also calls 'excessive consequential skepticism'. Some background here will be helpful. 'Excessive consequential skepticism' refers to the negative conclusions that skeptics come to at the end of an investigation, because of "either the absolute fallaciousness of their mental faculties, or their unfitness to reach any fixed determination in all those curious subjects of speculation , about which they are commonly employed" (E 150). Here the skeptic is at his strongest since, for a certain class of epistemological Iy foundational propositions P. (such as the existence of external objects), the best evidence supporting P also emplies 'not P.'. Hume notes, though, that this excessive skepticism, even when securely argued, cannot be followed in practice since it runs counter to our common experiences. It is a theoretical enterprise, and Hume objects strongly to those who recommend cynicism in such matters. Hume's excessive consequential skepticism (which is purely theoretical) stands in contrast to what he calls moderate consequential skepticism. This moderate variety involves two practical lessons which can be learned from Pyrrhonism or extreme theoretical skepticism. These lessons are what Flew has recently called Hume's effort at the 95 Containment of his skepticism. First, the philosopher should entertain "a degree of doubt, and caution, and modesty, which, in all kinds of scrutiny and decision, ought for ever to accompany a just reasoner" (E 162). Second, philosophers should limit their inquiries so they will "never be tempted to go beyond common life, so long as they consider the imperfection of those faculties which they employ, their narrow reach, and their inaccurate operations" (E 162). Although Hume opts for moderate skepticism, he makes it quite clear that the moderate variety is "the result of this Pyrrhonism, or excessive scepticism, when its undistinguished doubts are, in some measure, corrected by common sense and reflection" (E 161). In other words, Hume's moderate skepticism must presuppose the theoretical legitimacy of the contradictions that the excessive skeptic uncovers. The moderate skeptic, though, does not carry these problems over into common life. Thus, broadly construed, consequential skepticism involves three features: (1) the discovery of a contradiction within the understanding (excessivetheoretical ), (2) a recommendation for philosophical modesty (moderate-practical), and (3) a recommendation...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 93-119
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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