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137. PROBABILITY IN HUME'S SCIENCE OF MAN This paper is an attempt to make sense of a fragment of Hume's positive philosophy, namely his theory of how we apportion belief on the basis of ambiguous evidence. The topic is one that has received little critical attention from philosophers. One reason for this neglect is the belief that Hume's discussion of probable reasoning is not addressed to philosophical questions, but rather is concerned merely to give a psychological theory of why we tend to make the inferences we do. Another is the view that Hume's psychology of probability is too obscure to merit serious study. I hope to show, however, that Hume's discussion of probable reasoning contains more philosophy, and more interesting psychology, than the prevalence of these attitudes would suggest. The main philosophical content that I see in Hume's account of probable reasoning is that it embodies a certain theory of belief, worked out in some detail. Here the central notion is the "belief-feeling" , vivacity. After an initial discussion of Hume's use of this notion, I hazard the opinion that vivacities are related to probabilities by a simple subtraction formula (§1). The investigation of Hume's account of probable inference (§2) gives strong grounds for thinking that this conjecture is indeed correct. Finally, an examination of what Hume says about the influence of probability on the passions unearths a bold theory of the specific psychological mechanism by which the subtraction of probabilities is effected (§3).§1 Degrees of belief Hume's philosophy makes heavy use of the quality of perceptions which he referred to variously as "force", "liveliness", "violence", "vivacity", "strength", "firmness" and so on. As the variety of these terms indicates, Hume was not entirely happy with any of them. He says it is 138. impossible by words to describe this feeling, which every 2 one must be conscious of in his own breast (A19) . But we need to use some word, and rather than emulate Hume's diverse usage it will be convenient to adhere uniformly to the single term 'vivacity'. The first use to which Hume puts vivacity is in distinguishing impressions from ideas. Intuitively, impressions are either sensations, passions or emotions, whereas ideas are the perceptions involved in thinking or reasoning. And Hume maintains that we can distinguish these two kinds of perceptions by their differing degrees of vivacity: all impressions have greater vivacity than any idea. Apparently Hume thinks that the difference in vivacity between impressions and ideas is normally quite considerable, although in a few instances there is only a small differential (T2) . Vivacity is again used by Hume to distinguish between belief and conception. Although to have an idea of God, say, is not the same thing as to believe in God, Hume argues that what distinguishes the latter is only the manner of conception. In belief, the idea feels different to an idea that is entertained incredulously. And this difference in feeling is identified by Hume with a difference in vivacity (T96) .3 In general, Hume thinks of beliefs as being ideas, not impressions (T86 being an exception) . This is the natural view, if one thinks of the distinction between impressions and ideas as a distinction between feeling and thinking (T2, A9 ) . What distinguishes beliefs then is a somewhat intermediate vivacity, inferior to the vivacity of an impression but superior to the vivacity of a mere conception . A third use to which Hume puts vivacity is in making the distinction between memory and other beliefs. Just as beliefs are distinguished from other conceptions by their greater vivacity, so likewise memories are distinguished from other beliefs by their greater vivacity (T153) . 139. Each of these three applications of vivacity seems to be implausib^e. Introspection inevitably suggests that impressions are not always more vivacious or forceful, or whatever, than ideas. Similarly it seems that our beliefs, and even our memories, are often less vivid than our fancies, contrary to what Hume claims. A considerable part of Hume's appendix to the Treatise is concerned with such objections. Hume appears to allow that what we would naturally call the vivacity of ideas is not a quality...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 137-153
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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