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193 The Sceptical Realism of David Hume. By John P. Wright (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1983) Pp. 269. £19.75. Wright distinguishes two well-established but conflicting interpretations of Hume's philosophy. (1)Hume's central aim is to show how far it is possible to construct our ordinary conception of man and the world out of impressions of sense and reflection. Some see Hume as partially successful in this project and interpret him as a precursor of latter forms of positivism, phenomenalism and even of logical empiricism. Others who see the project as unsuccessful view him as a witting or unwitting sceptic whose philosophy ends in the self destruction that must attend any consistent attempt to follow out the modern "way of ideas" approach to philosophical problems. (2)Hume's central aim is to discredit the rationalistic conception of man as a being independent of nature. On this view, Hume accepted the theory of ideas from his predecessors but supplemented it with a theory of natural belief which functions to fill the gaps and discontinuities which a rigorous examination of our ideas reveals. The sceptical parts of his philosophy serve only to eliminate the rationalistic conception of man and to show what must be added to the theory of ideas to account for our common sense, scientific conception of the world. While granting a grain of truth to both interpretations, Wright argues that they distort what is distinctive about Hume's philosophy. He explores in some depth the historical background of Hume's epistemology and shows that Hume's conception of knowledge is firmly rooted in the Cartesian framework of Descartes, Malebranche, the Port Royal Logic, and, with some qualifications, Berkeley. One barrier to apprec- 194 iating the peculiarities of Hume's scepticism and realism is that most of us have inherited a postKantian , positivistic conception of knowledge according to which the concept of knowledge applies to phenomena. Hume, however, accepted the Cartesian ideal that knowledge is a grasp of ultimate reality through a rational analysis of our ideas. But in Hume's hands this rationalistic thesis yields sceptical results. For what Hume discovered is that rational analysis of our ideas shows that, except for mathematics, our ideas are inadequate representations of the reality they purport to be about. Such a conception of knowledge places Hume in the classical humanist tradition of learned ignorance and cuts off all possibility of a positivistic or phenomenalistic reading. Nor can natural beliefs (Kemp Smith and Stroud) be added to our ideas to form our common sense conception of the world, for Hume shows that rational analysis of such natural beliefs as causality and matter lead us to reject both common sense and scientific beliefs. The aim of Hume's philosophy, Wright concludes, is to show that we are related to a world of independent objects through natural judgments which involve a systematic confusion of ideas. Natural judgments cause us to ascribe properties to objects which do not belong to the sense-derived ideas which represent them. Against all forms of positivism and phenomenalism, the rationale of Hume's scepticism is not to constrict our scientific conception of reality to our ideas but to push beyond our ideas to reality by showing their limits. Questions of whether Hume is or is not a sceptic are often misplaced within a post-Kantian concept of knowledge. Viewed this way, the question is whether Hume thought the basic beliefs and inferring procedures of common sense and science are justified, where justification means roughly the Kantian notion of 195 applying a rule grounded in the structure of experience. But Hume's scepticism is not the problem of justifying judgments within experience. His problem is how, given our ignorance of the world due to the inadequacy of our ideas, is it possible (for philosophers especially) to have any beliefs at all? Similarly, following Kant, the problem of moral philosophy is, what is right action and what justifies it? Hume's problem, by contrast, is, what is the source of action? Against the background of the learned ignorance, gained by working through the inadequacy of our ideas, Hume offers a psycho-physical, causal account of our scientific and moral...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 193-197
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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