Book Write-Up: The Cambridge Companion to Hume

David Fate Norton and Jacqueline Taylor, ed.  The Cambridge Companion to Hume: Second Edition.  Cambridge University Press, 2009.

David Hume was an eighteenth century Scottish philosopher.  The name stood out to me when I first encountered it because as a child I watched the Worldwide Church of God’s World Tomorrow television program, and one of its anchors was named “David Hume.”  The name of David Hume, the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher, would come up quite a bit in my studies.  I read and heard that Hume was an epistemological skeptic, one who had doubts about the existence of an external world or the human ability to know it truly.  Yet, Hume was a naturalist, one who did not believe in miracles because they contradicted what we ordinarily see in nature.  The two ideas seemed to me to contradict each other: we cannot trust our ability to know the world, and yet we should trust what we ordinarily sense enough to exclude the possibility of miracles?  As I read more, another question would come to my mind about Hume.

Last month, I read and blogged about a book by a professor of philosophy whom I had as an undergraduate.  The professor was Noah Lemos, and his book that I read was entitled Common Sense: A Contemporary Defense.  Lemos was defending the Common Sense tradition of philosophy, which largely maintained that we can assume things that many people take for granted—-such as the existence of an outside world and our ability to understand it, on some level—-rather than being skeptical about these things and feeling a need to justify them before doing philosophical work.  The Common Sense tradition is often seen as contrary to David Hume’s philosophy, particularly Hume’s skepticism.  And yet, Dr. Lemos made one statement about Hume that made me wonder how seriously Hume took his epistemological skepticism.  Hume essentially acknowledged that the outside world is irresistible to us.  Sure, we may reach skeptical conclusions while we are in our study, but, once we leave our study and go out into the world, we cannot resist it.  We have a strong sense that the world is real, and we act accordingly.  Hume did not seem to believe that was a bad thing.  I wondered how Hume squared his epistemological skepticism with his idea that the outside world is irresistible to us.

Later, I read and blogged about James M. Byrne’s Religion and the Enlightenment: From Descartes to Kant.  Byrne’s book surprised me because it argued that Immanuel Kant was actually trying to refute David Hume’s epistemological skepticism, whereas I had long believed that Kant himself was an epistemological skeptic.  As I look at Byrne’s discussion of Hume and Kant again, I see that there were things that I did not completely absorb in my first reading, which now stand out to me.  What I got out of Byrne’s discussion in my first reading was that Hume argued that “experience is composed of a series of fragmented impressions working on our senses” (Byrne’s words, page 208), calling into question whether we can truly trust our experience.  Kant responded by focusing on human reason and by saying that we can know things as they appear to us, not as they truly are.

From Manfred Kuehn’s Kant: A Biography (see my post about this book here), I learned that Hume was essentially an empiricist, or at least overlapped with empiricism: Hume believed that what we think we know comes from our experience of the world, and that there are no a priori (prior to experience) conclusions we made.  Many would claim that math is a priori—-that its principles were true before we experienced them, and that they are true apart from our experience.  1+1=2 is just true!  But my impression is that Hume believed that we reached the conclusion that math is true on the basis of our experience and our senses, not apart from experience.  According to Kuehn, as I understood him, Kant in his early writing career radically distinguished between what we know from the senses and what we know a priori, or rationally.  Later, Kant would posit that we rationally organize and conceptualize the world around us.  As Byrne says on page 210 of Religion and the Enlightenment, Kant proposed that “the universality and necessity required for true knowledge do not come from the structure of the world, which we only know in the flux of phenomena anyway, but rather from the structure of human cognition itself.”  Kant turned his attention from the outside world to the subject, the people who through reason seek to understand and conceptualize the outside world.

These are the things that I have learned so far about Hume and Kant, and I admit that I have a long way to go and that my understanding is far from adequate or organized.  What, though, did I get out of reading The Cambridge Companion to Hume?  I decided to check this book out from the library because it looked to me to be quite lucid.  And, while there were plenty of discussions that I did not follow, there was enough repetition in the book that I could learn more about Hume’s philosophy, even if I did not always grasp the basis for his conclusions.

On epistemology, Hume was a skeptic.  He did not believe that there was any way to justify rationally or philosophically our ability to understand the outside world.  Hume also maintained that what we thought we knew came from our experience and our senses, and he doubted that these things were fully reliable or iron-clad.  According to Hume, we believe that there is cause and effect in the world because we regularly observe one thing following another, but there is no way for us to know for certain that this one thing will always follow another in the future.  Hume also referred to a previous skeptical argument that our eyes are not necessarily reliable in helping us to represent the outside world: when we push on our eye, after all, we see one object becoming two objects, even though it is still one object.  Hume also focused on impressions, as Byrne said, and, as Kant would say later, Hume maintained that we only “know” the outside world as it appears to us, not as it truly is.  Another point that Hume continually made was that we have passions inside of us.  For Hume, reason serves the passions rather than vice versa: we use reason to try to get what we want.  While Hume does not believe that all passions are bad or unruly—-he acknowledges the existence of calm passions—-my impression (and I am open to correction on this) is that he may have held that the passions get in the way of us ever being able to understand the outside world.

According to one essay in the book, however, there were skeptical arguments prior to Hume, and Hume’s project was to show us how we can move past them.  Hume, as Dr. Lemos said, believed that the outside world was irresistible, and Hume also maintained that we need to act accordingly in order to survive.  Our weakness in yielding to our senses is what saves us, according to Hume!  Why bring up reasons to doubt our senses, then, if it does not make much of a difference in how we live our lives?  According to one essay, Hume did so to teach people humility, so that they would not be so dogmatic.

I have heard some evangelicals or Christians use Humean insights to argue that it is perfectly all right for Christians to have faith, to believe in something without the basis of evidence.  After all, we accept the existence of the outside world, which cannot be proven!  We believe that certain effects follow certain causes, even though we cannot know for sure that those “effects” will always follow those “causes”!  Why, then, are Christians so wrong to believe in God and Jesus Christ, even though there is no proof that Christianity is true?  But, according to an essay in The Cambridge Companion to Hume about Hume and religion, Hume believed that the two were apples and oranges.  The outside world and the existence of cause and effect are irresistible to virtually everyone, Hume noted, whereas there are people who manage to resist believing in religion.

The essays in The Cambridge Companion to Hume about Hume’s stance on morality and religion were very interesting parts of the book, at least to me.  There were debates about the basis or origin of morality: Was God necessary for morality to exist, or is morality simply rules that people have devised in order to live together in peace?  My impression is that Hume’s stance was that morality is rooted in how humans are psychologically—-he does not locate it in human reason, but largely in human passions.  Hume disagreed with overly pessimistic conceptions of human nature—-whether that be the Christian doctrine of original sin or Hobbes’ view that human nature gravitated towards war and conflict—-for Hume thought that there was enough virtue in human beings for virtue to be conceptualized and practiced by them, on some level.  Hume also held that morality helps humans to live together in peace.

On religion, Hume objected to certain philosophical arguments for the existence of God.  I have heard his objections from atheists and even some Christians.  I one time attended a debate between Christians and atheists about the existence of God, and one of the Christians said that, if we saw a hamburger on the street, we would conclude that somebody made it, and that we should similarly conclude that God made the universe because it looks so orderly and designed.  The atheist responded: “I know that hamburgers are made because I have seen it done.  Have you ever seen universes being made?”  The idea seems to be that we cannot draw conclusions that God made the universe or that God designed the universe as it is, and the reason is that there is only one universe.  We have nothing with which to compare it.  Hume also questioned the idea that the universe demonstrates design by pointing to the bad or harmful aspects of nature: Would God design that?  Yet, in his writings, Hume still indicates that he may believe that the argument from design makes sense, on some level.  One of the essays explores the possibility that Hume did so to avoid prosecution, but it concludes that Hume truly did believe that there was something to the argument from design, flawed as it might be.

On Hume and miracles, Hume did argue against accepting the existence of miracles, or testimony for them.  The author of one of the essays asked if Hume could legitimately do this: How could Hume question the existence of cause and effect and allow for the possibility that the world may not follow certain laws or regularities in the future, on the one hand, while maintaining that people should rigidly follow their understanding and observation of natural laws, on the other hand?  Good question!

The book also contains chapters about Hume’s stance on politics, economics, and art.  These topics did not intrigue me as much as the chapters about epistemology, politics, and religion, as important as they may be to those who desire to understand David Hume and his thoughts.  The chapter about art overlaps some with Hume’s epistemology, since Hume believed that art makes an impression on us, and our passions play a role in our response to it; Hume also wrestled with how people can have different responses to art, due to their different backgrounds or culture.  The chapter about Hume’s histories was interesting to me because it touched on whether we can know that certain histories are reliable, and which parts are.  This overlaps with the question of what we should do when a historian mentions miracles.  There was one statement in particular that stood out to me in that chapter, however: A woman wrote to David Hume to tell him that his history really made her feel good about herself, for she got in touch with her virtue by feeling sorry for Charles I when he was executed.  Her reaction to Hume’s narration of that really made her feel that she was virtuous!  I’ve felt the same way in my viewing of television programs!

Good book!  I will be looking at other philosophy books in the Cambridge Companion series in the future.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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2 Responses to Book Write-Up: The Cambridge Companion to Hume

  1. James this is such an excellent piece!


  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thanks Laurie! It was longer than I hoped for, but it does somewhat go hand-in-hand with that Outward Quest blog post that I reblogged.


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