- Loeb’s “Standard” Questions about Hume’s Concept of Probable Truth
It is an honor to receive such extensive comments from Louis Loeb (“Setting the Standard,” Hume Studies 40 [this issue]), whose work I admire and from whom I have learned much. In particular, his landmark 2002 book, Stability and Justification in Hume’s “Treatise” and his 2010 collection of essays, Reflection and the Stability of Belief: Essays on Descartes, Hume, and Reid (both published by Oxford University Press) are essential reading for anyone who wants to understand early modern epistemology. Some of what I have learned from him is reflected in the book on which he is now commenting (Garrett, Hume) which is not, of course, to say that he approves of all of the uses I make of his work, nor that I agree with everything he says about mine.
My book has a number of different aims, about which I say a bit more in my reply to Peter Millican (Garrett, “Millican’s Questions”). Loeb’s comments, however, are very helpfully focused on my treatments of what I take to be two partially overlapping classes of Humean concepts—that is, of the mental entities that Hume himself calls “abstract ideas.” These two classes of concepts are the sense-based (including concepts of colors, sounds, tastes, and smells, but also beauty and deformity, virtue and vice, causation, and probability) and the normative (including beauty and deformity, virtue and vice, truth and falsehood, and probable truth and probable falsehood). In addition to occupying chapters 4 and 5, my treatments of them constitute a good deal of the backbone for the rest of the book and of what Loeb calls the “new interpretation” (243) that it provides. [End Page 279]
In the first section of his paper, Loeb provides a partial sketch of my account of these two kinds of concepts (including a helpful chart of their partial overlap). In doing so, he attends especially to the role played by “standards of judgment” for various sense-based concepts—hence the title of his paper—and to what I call “semantic ascent”1 in relation to the epistemically normative concepts truth and probable truth. The remaining four sections of his paper are devoted to critical questions and objections specifically about my treatment of probable truth as a (mediately2) sense-based concept governed by a standard of judgment. These questions concern, in order, the role of semantic ascent and the standard of judgment for probable truth in overcoming “Pyrrhonian” skepticism in favor of “mitigated” skepticism (section 2); the role of “convergence” in relation to the standard of judgment for probable truth (section 3); the relation of the belief in bodies (that is, “continu’d and distinct existences”) to the standard of judgment for probable truth (section 4); and the analogy between probable truth and virtue as sense-based concepts in relation to standards of judgment (section 5). To facilitate reference and comparison, I will divide my reply into five corresponding sections. In the hope that it will provide useful context, however, I will preface my specific replies by noting some general points of agreement and disagreement that influence how he and I see the answers to the questions he raises.3
First, Loeb and I agree that a process of “correction,” related in some way both to standards and to rules, plays an important role both in Hume’s moral theory and in his epistemology. Second, we agree that the pleasures offered by stable belief and the pains involved in doubt and vacillation play important and distinctive roles in Hume’s explanation of the normative evaluation of beliefs. Third, we agree that Hume accords beliefs a defeasible antecedent authority even in the absence of any non-question-begging arguments for their truth. These are important matters, and I am rendered more confident about them—through a sympathetic mechanism that Hume himself notably explored—by Loeb’s concurring judgments.
On the other hand, Loeb and I disagree about three important matters as well. First, we disagree about the basis of this defeasible authority. He locates its original source in a methodological stance of accepting pre-theoretic intuitions. This stance...