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70 HUME'S LETTER TO STEWART A Note on a Paper by D. C. Stove In a recent paper , D. C. Stove raises an historical problem. There exists a letter, written in 1754 by Hume to John Stewart, then Professor of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh, in which the following words occur: . „ . J never asserted so absurd a Proposition, as that any thing might arise without a Cause: I only maintained, that our Certainty of the Falsehood of that Proposition proceeded neither from Intuition nor Demonstration; but from another Source. Some commentators, most notably Norman Kemp-Smith, take this as telling strongly in favour of a non-sceptical reading of Hume. Stove undertakes to show beyond reasonable doubt that the claim made in the letter is in blatant contradiction with central theses of Hume's published philosophy, so that it has to be regarded as useless as evidence for the interpretation of the latter. There is a mystery as to how Hume came to say something so clearly false about what he himself had written; Stove offers certain conjectures, none of which he finds wholly satisfactory. As the conclusion of the first, exegetical, part of his article, Stove advances the thesis that Hume held the falsity of the Causal Principle to be possible in at least three senses of "possible". These senses he specifies accurately, but doesn't wish to rest anything on the detail of his specification of the third; it is important only that it be stronger than either of the preceding two. This done, he takes a look at the letter to Stewart, and says, with reference to the first part of the 71 passage quoted above: That something might begin to exist without a cause, is evidently equivalent to the proposition that it is possib Ie for something to begin to exist without a cause. That, in turn, is evidently equivalent to the proposition that the falsity of the Causal Principle is possible. (Stove's o underlining) . It follows that what Hume says in the letter is simply false. It could be true only if the "might" referred to some sense of possibility even weaker than the weakest of Stove's three senses. But since that is mere self-consistency , there is no such sense. Now the argument to the contradiction relies on reading "might" as "it is possible" , in some sense of those words. Stove says, as we have seen, that they are "evidently equivalent", but the equivalence is certainly not evident, and it may well be asked whether it exists at all. After all, there are English constructions with "might" which don't have modal force: "Do you think something might have happened to them without our knowing about it?" The hearer is not, of course, being asked whether it- is possible that something should have happened without their knowledge; he is being asked for his opinion on whether something actually has so happened. "Most unlikely", would be a perfectly natural and acceptable response. Again : "ïou stay here, to take care of any problem that might arise before we get back". Obviously it is not intended that the hearer should start taking precautions against all possibilities , only that he should cope with whatever actually arises, if anything. 72 This is quite normal modern usage, and I know no reason to think that it wasn't also norT.il usage in the 18th Century. Admittedly, it isn't modern philocophers ' usage - we would be very careful, in writing or; logical matters, not to use the word "might" unless it was definitely the modal proposition that we had in mind, but earlier times haven't always been so professional about their vocabulary . Certainly, if Hume, in the letter to Stewart, was denying that he had ever asserted the possibility of the falsehood of the Causal Principle it would be, as Stove shows, extremely hard to see what he could have been thinking of. But if what he meant could have been as well expressed by "I never asserted ... that anything arises without a cause" then most of Stove's problems are over, for there is no 3 conflict with any of the theses (1) - (3) which he...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 70-75
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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