- Character and Causation: Hume's Philosophy of Action by Constantine Sandis
In Character and Causation: Hume's Philosophy of Action, Constantine Sandis takes Hume's empiricist tenet that all meaningful ideas copy impressions as the key to understanding his general philosophy. Sandis then applies "the Copy Principle" to Hume's view of persons and their actions. Portraying Hume's approach (at least in the Treatise) as one of conceptual revision, the result, Sandis says, is that our ideas of persons, reasons, causality, agency, free will, and other related concepts have ordinary meanings (not the abstruse philosophical ones) without ontological implications. The author describes his book as a series of connected essays. The chapters work together to present an anti-metaphysical, naturalistic, and nonskeptical picture of Hume's action theory. Each chapter is readable and trim, but the book covers a great deal of territory in a short space. At times, I craved more detailed arguments and help understanding the views in Sandis's original portrait of Hume. However, both Hume scholars and action theorists will surely find this book thought-provoking and worth grappling with. A brief epilogue discusses how Hume's "soft revisionism" bears on contemporary discussions of agency and action.
Sandis takes Hume's project to be one of establishing what we ordinarily mean in using the terms that stand for problematic concepts like necessity and self. It is not a project of determining what we can properly mean, since expressions just have meanings; they are neither correct nor incorrect. (There are echoes of Wittgenstein throughout the book, and Sandis invokes him explicitly in Hume's [End Page 139] defense in chapter 3, "Necessity, Power, and Freedom.") Furthermore, Hume's is not a project of investigating the ontology of causation, agency, and so on.
Consequently, Sandis suggests, debates, such as the "new Hume" debate, which revolve around questions like whether Hume was a realist, anti-realist, quasi-realist, or skeptical realist, are misguided. Causation involves the idea of necessary connection, of which we have no impression. So, Sandis argues, since we cannot meaningfully say anything about necessary connection, we have no idea to project onto the world and nothing to affrm or to deny. "Hume's conceptual revisionism about necessity thus tempers both skepticism and metaphysical realism in a move made routinely [by Hume] in relation to every major philosophical controversy of his day" (47). In much of the book, Sandis applies this revisionist interpretation of Hume to topics of free will, substance, self, identity, and motivation and morality.
At the heart of Sandis's reading of Hume's action theory is the notion of agency, which is rarely emphasized in analyses of Hume. Sandis develops this conception of agency, first, via discussion of necessity and freedom. Necessitation of action and liberty are easily compatible because of the way Hume defines each within his practice of conceptual reform. He describes cause in terms of constant conjunction of experiences, and necessity in terms of human expectation. Liberty, in his terms, is the ability to do as we will (desire), not the capacity to do anything regardless of the will. Thus, I am free when my motives are regularly conjoined with actions such that observers can predict certain behaviors on my part. Second, agency is tied to the self (mind) and personal identity. In the case of self (and substance), we have no idea of it apart from the ideas of varying qualities; the notion of an uninterrupted self or substance over time is a fiction. However, Sandis argues, Hume offers revised ideas of the self, of substance, and of identity, which follow from Hume's own "theory of meaning" (69). I cannot trace all the twists Hume's discussion of personal identity takes, but in the end, Sandis thinks it "allows us to talk of 'self' and 'identity' in a way that requires nothing beyond the sort of casual observations that he allows for across all his works" (69)—simply as qualities we suppose are tightly connected by relations of contiguity and...