- Character and Causation: Hume's Philosophy of Action by Constantine Sandis
Constantine Sandis's suggestive new book consists of a series of discrete studies of aspects of Hume's philosophical system that culminate in an argument for the conclusion that "on Hume's view . . . we are only morally responsible for that subset of actions that have been motivated by our character traits" (90). That final conclusion is the end of a wide-ranging and systematic argument that feels too compressed in the scant one-hundred and twenty-three pages in which it is presented, especially since the philosophical and exegetical theses that Sandis presents along the way are intriguing and receive just enough support to make the reader long for a more robust consideration of them.
Sandis's grand argument begins with the familiar approach of understanding Hume's Copy Principle as placing strict limits on the possible contents of our mental representations, thereby requiring Hume to revise our understanding of our own ideas. Sandis dubs this "soft conceptual revisionism" (2). In the early chapters of the book, the most important result that this approach yields is Hume's revision of our concept of necessary connection [End Page 406] to comprise only constant conjunction and temporal priority. The upshot of Sandis's discussion is to earn Hume a sense of 'necessity' and 'causation' that meets his criterion of meaningfulness and grounds the aforementioned account of action. Actions turn out to be those bodily movements with certain causes, properly construed, as either acts of will or character traits.
Another important piece of Sandis's argument is his provocative claim that "a belief just is the feeling or sentiment accompanying an idea" (23), which "firm conception consists in feeling that something is the case" (24). At first blush, Sandis appears to make the radically heterodox claim that Hume holds that there is a distinct impression that is annexed to, accompanies, all believed ideas, despite the fact that Hume explicitly argues against that thesis (App 3–9/SBN 624–27). Upon closer inspection, however, Sandis denies the radical heterodoxy (24), and his actual claim is more anodyne. Despite his continued reference to belief as a sentiment or feeling, which terms Hume uses to denote distinct impressions (e.g. T 220.127.116.11/SBN 318–19 and T 18.104.22.168/SBN 1–2.), Sandis's actual claim appears to be that we should understand Hume's use of 'belief' to refer to the liveliness of these enlivened ideas, rather than the ideas themselves. What Sandis takes that nominalization to earn him is that beliefs, including moral beliefs, can produce action alone because they "are all sentiments" (99), and Hume is free to hold that we can be motivated directly by at least some of our beliefs, without the need for an additional conative perception. (In this sense, Sandis takes Hume to be non-Humean about motivation.) That is, Sandis holds that the liveliness of some of our ideas can itself be the cause (in the proper Humean sense) of some of our actions.
That thesis is significant for Sandis insofar as discovering the cause of our actions brings to bear the question of the disappearing agent (78): if our actions have causes outside of our control, even if these causes are literally parts of us, then in what sense are we responsible for those actions? Sandis's answer on Hume's behalf is that while some actions are bodily movements caused by particular volitional perceptions (acts of will), we are only responsible for those actions that are also caused by manifestations of the long-term dispositions that constitute a person's character. In support of this answer, Sandis also advocates for a revisionist understanding of Hume's account of the self as a bundle of perceptions (chapter 4), an interpretation of Hume's notion of character as long-term behavioral dispositions (chapter 5), a rejection on Hume's behalf of what Sandis calls the Conflating View of Motivating Reasons—the thesis that the reasons for...