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283 11 Mindless Desires and Contentless Minds Hume’s Enigma of Reason What Hutcheson is unable to do is to imagine how the self might advance from a strictly apperceptive relation to countless instances of affection to a reasoned and continuous sense of moral agency. To be sure, on Hutcheson’s account the self knows itself to be experiencing specific types of affect at specific moments in time, but it no longer appears to know anything else. The gap between the certitude of the moral sense and “disjoined,” quotidian existence is too wide, their mediation too tenu­ ous; and with Shaftesbury’s aesthetic focus having effectively disappeared, the fragmentation of the person into a series of discrete and seemingly unrelated states looms larger than it ever did. Yet above all, it is the apparent inarticulacy of Hutcheson’s moral sense that threatens to wreak havoc with reason. Inasmuch as eighteenth-­ century moral philosophy, following Locke, credits with reality only those phenomena that can be empirically demonstrated—and, conversely, dismisses as nonexistent anything inaccessible to its empiricist nomenclature of proof—the concepts of person and mind as the putative sources of rational deliberation and moral orientation are put under severe epistemological pressure. This dilemma looms particularly large in David Hume’s discussion of the will and the “direct passions ” in his Treatise of Human Nature (1739–1740). While acknowledging that “tho’, properly speaking, it [the will] be not comprehended among the passions,” those being his main topic here, Hume also recognizes the need to clarify the relationship 284 progressive amnesia between will and ­passion in more explicit ways than either Shaftesbury or Hutcheson had done. To that end, he opens his chapter by defining the will as a strictly contingent , momentary spike whereby the individual psyche becomes aware of yet another “new” state. Once again we encounter the quintessentially nominalist premise that self-awareness can only arise as a result of a rupture, an instant of conspicuous discontinuity exposing the tattered fabric of human consciousness. In an early letter to Hutcheson, Hume had rejected the notion that human beings possess some natural, intrinsically rational purpose, and that they therefore enjoy a basic teleological orientation . “I cannot agree to your Sense of Natural. ’Tis founded on final Causes; which is a Consideration, that appears to me pretty uncertain & unphilosophical. For pray, what is the End of Man? Is he created for Happiness or for Virtue? For this Life or for the next? For himself or for his Maker … these Questions … are endless, & quite wide of my Purpose.”1 Far from according consciousness any providential design, Hume sees it as but a virtual substratum of discrete experiences and, hence, as liable to being disrupted by so many heterogeneous sensations: “by the will, I mean nothing but the internal impression we feel and are conscious of, when we knowingly give rise to any new motion of our body, or new perception of our mind” (HT, 257). If anything, Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) states the same point in more uncompromising terms yet: “The motion of our body follows upon the command of our will. Of this we are every moment conscious. But the means, by which this is effected; the energy, by which the will performs so extraordinary an operation; of this we are so far from being immediately conscious, that it must for ever escape our most diligent enquiry.” To clinch his point, Hume mounts an argument whereby conscious, de­ liberative, and reflective action is gradually lost in the fog of physiological, non-­ cognitive processes. Thus a command of the will does not move the leg to which, ostensibly, it is directed but only “certain muscles, and nerves, and animal spirits, and, perhaps, something still more minute and more unknown.” In what resembles the nightmarish bureaucracy of Franz Kafka’s Castle, any edict issued by the mind will produce “immediately another event, unknown to ourselves, and totally different from the one intended … This event produces another, equally unknown.” From which Hume concludes that the power of volition is itself unintelligible, for “were it known, its effect must also be known, since all power is relative to its effect. And vice versa, if the effect be not known, the power cannot be known or felt.”2 1. Hume, Letters, 1:33; for a discussion of Hume’s changing view of Hutcheson’s moral sense arguments, including letters written in 1739 and 1740, see Rivers, Reason, 2:242f. 2. Enquiries, 65–66. Mindless Desires...


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