Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Four Contrasting Voices of David Hume

Hume's engraving in first volume of
The History of England, 1754
David Hume begins his A Treatise of Human Nature with a swagger—asserting that he is in pursuit of science of man.

In his Introduction to the Treatise, he says, “Here then is the only expedient, from which we can hope for success in our philosophical researches, to leave the tedious lingering method, which we have hitherto followed, and instead of taking now and then a castle or village on the frontier, to march up directly to the capital or center of these sciences, to human nature itself; which being once masters of, we may everywhere else hope for an easy victory. From this station we may extend our conquests over all those sciences, which more intimately concern human life, and may afterwards proceed at leisure to discover more fully those, which are the objects of pure curiosity. There is no question of importance, whose decision is not comprised in the science of man; and there is none, which can be decided with any certainty, before we become acquainted with that science. In pretending therefore to explain the principles of human nature, we in effect propose a complete system of the sciences, built on a foundation almost entirely new, and the only one upon which they can stand with any security.”

Despite the confident beginning, Hume turns into a skeptic towards the closing section of the book 1 of the Treatise and he offers skeptical lamentations: “Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favor shall I court, and whose anger must I dread?”

But the man in pursuit of the science of man and the man of skepticism are not the only two voices of Hume. Robert J. Fogelin identifies four contrasting voices of Hume in his book Hume’s Skeptical Crisis: A Textual Study.  Here’s an excerpt from Fogelin's Introduction:
There are four contrasting Humes, or at least four contrasting voices of Hume, inhabiting Hume’s writing. The first is the confident Hume, projector of a complete science of human nature. The second is the melancholy Hume, wracked with Pyrrohonian doubts he seems incapable of shaking. Third, we have the chastened Hume, modest in his expectations and reasonably content with his lot. There is also a fourth voice or standing point found in Hume’s writings, important but easily overlooked. This is the standpoint of the ordinary people engaged in the affairs of daily life: the standpoint of the vulgar. 
But which perspective represents the real Hume? Fogelin observes that:  
all four standpoints are real in representing the way matters strike Hume when operating at a particular level of reflection. At the start of the Treatise, and well into it, Hume is an enthusiast for the new science of human nature he is developing. Hume’s standpoint undergoes a radical skeptical transformation in response to the appalling things his pursuit of the science of human nature reveals to him. This is full-throated skepticism. The third standpoint emerges from Hume’s recognition that radical skepticism cannot be disposed of by employing arguments against it. When matters are placed on an argumentative basis, the Pyrrhonist always wins. For Hume, the slide into radical skepticism can only be countered by yielding in some measure to our vulgar propensity to believe things that are not based on sound arguments and, more deeply, even things that run counter to sound arguments.

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