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JOHN PASSMORE AND HUME'S MORAL PHILOSOPHY1 A quarter century ago, the message undergraduates absorbed about David Hume was as an extremely favourable one. He was the great precursor of logical empiricism and so his philosophy, at least in its main lines, must be nearer the mark than that of any other of the great names. Hume had discovered the right view of causation. He had exposed and banished school metaphysics. He had rightly drawn attention to the problem of induction. He had discovered the isought gap and revealed the practical impotence of reason in the face of the passions. But for his weight problem, he could have walked on water. Those were the circumstances in which I first read John Passmore's book on Hume. Because he was plainly not, like many of Hume's critics, an apologist for Thomism or any of Hegel's offspring, his work could not be dismissed on the grounds of parti pris. It was 2 a shock, therefore, to find him, in Hume's Intentions , presenting an image of Hume a considerable distance this side of idolatry. Passmore's critical and, for its time, boldly unfashionable appraisal is to be admired, taken to heart, and extended. Hume's Intentions concentrates on Hume's philosophy of the understanding. It takes up strands of that philosophy and points to their inherent implausibility and mutual incompatibility. Yet these problems also vitiate other parts of Hume's position. In this paper I attempt to introduce the Passmorian method of reasoning into what are nowadays the moral subjects. Let me remind you of the structure of Passmore's book: it does not mount a consecutive argument so much as take up, tease out, and display one or other leading element in the Humean philosophy. Thus we have chapters on Hume as an enthusiast for the 110. moral (that is, human, or social) sciences, as a critic of traditional Aristotelian logic, as a developer of more suitable methods for scientific advance, as a positivist, a phenomenalist, an associationist theoretician in psychology, and a sceptic. We learn as we read that in these respects Hume is not consistent. Principles which he espouses, principally negative and sceptical principles, lead to conclusions too extreme to suit his major purposes. Accordingly, they must not be pressed to their proper conclusions. Hume's philosophy of the study must be abandoned rather than actually taken seriously. Thus, for example: in methodology, Hume insists that reason cannot yield results in the contingent and fallible natural and human sciences. This should lead him to the view that any scientific hypothesis which goes beyond immediate experience is, so far as reason goes, as good, or as bad, as any other. But he recoils from this, distinguishing sensible men from the foolish and superstitious on the basis of the regularity and consistency of the experiences on which the wise rely. Yet as Passmore points out, on Hume's principles, the preference for regularity and consistency cannot be more than a prejudice. Prejudices do not admit of any genuinely rational defence. There is real substance to the superiority claimed for the wise. Again, consider Hume's positivism. He offers a beguilingly short way with nonsense, especially learned and theological nonsense. School metaphysics and superstition (i.e. Christianity) are to be banished by the use of the impressions and ideas test: When you come upon a word whose meaning you would discover, ask if it refers to an impression or an idea. If to an impression, well and good, its meaning is to be found in present experience. If to an idea, ask from which impression (or impressions) the idea did (or could) Ill, derive. If you cannot find any suitable impressions, the idea is chimerical, and is to be excised from thought as a pathological intruder. This procedure produces most satisfactorily negative results when it comes to the Trinity and the sacraments, or essence, inherence, substantial form, and such metaphysical extravagances. Unhappily the very same procedure, the impressions and ideas test, also wrecks the foundations of Hume's own thought. As Passmore makes sure we remember, the test robs Hume of the resources with which to account for substance and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 109-124
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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