Friday, July 20, 2018

David Hume’s Doubts About Skepticism

Statue of Hume in Edinburgh
David Hume believed that skepticism is irrefutable in philosophical theory, but it is hard to be a skeptic when one is attending to the concerns and activities of everyday life. In his A Treatise of Human Nature he states that after he has had dinner and played a game of backgammon, the skeptical arguments all appear cold, strained and ridiculous, and he does not feel like entering into them any further.

In the Treatise, there is a conflict between the conviction that skepticism is unavoidable in philosophical thoughts and the feeling that in practical life skepticism is not useful. By the concluding section of Book 1, Part 4, of the Treatise, Hume’s philosophical standpoint on skepticism has led him to an intellectual crisis. He complains:
I am first affrighted and confounded with that forlorn solitude, in which I am plac’d in my philosophy, and fancy myself some strange uncouth monster, who not being able to mingle and unite in society, has been expell’d all human commerce, and left utterly abandon’d and disconsolate. Fain wou’d I run into the crowd for shelter and warmth; but cannot prevail with myself to mix with such deformity. I call upon others to join me, in order to make a company apart; but no one will hearken to me. Every one keeps at a distance, and dreads that storm, which beats upon me from every side. I have expos’d myself to the enmity of all metaphysicians, logicians, mathematicians, and even theologians; and can I wonder at the insults I must suffer? I have declar’d my disapprobation of their systems; and can I be surpriz’d, if they shou’d express a hatred of mine and of my person? When I look abroad, I foresee on every side, dispute, contradiction, anger, calumny and detraction. When I turn my eye inward, I find nothing but doubt and ignorance. All the world conspires to oppose and contradict me; tho’ such is my weakness, that I feel all my opinions loosen and fall of themselves, when unsupported by the approbation of others. Every step I take is with hesitation, and every new reflection makes me dread an error and absurdity in my reasonings. 
After a few pages, he blames the contradictions and imperfections in human reason for his intellectual problems:
The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another. Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? and on whom have I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, inviron’d with the deepest darkness, and utterly depriv’d of the use of every member and faculty. 
He goes on to assert that in practical life skepticism has no role to play:
Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hour’s amusement, I wou’d return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain’d, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther. 
It is worth noting that the Treatise consists of three parts — Book 1 (Of the Understanding); Book 2 (Of the Passions); and Book 3 (Of Morals) — but the discussion of skepticism is confined to the Book 1 (much of the discussion is in Part 4). In the Book 2 and Book 3 there is not a single mention of the word “skeptic” or any related word. Also, the Treatise does not have any discussion of the influential skeptical schools, like the Pyrrhonists or the Academics. So on the whole a very small part of the Treatise is devoted to the discussion of skepticism.

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