May 7, 2011

Happy 300th!

It's the 300th birthday of David Hume. 

I don't actually have much to say about the Scottish philosopher other than that I always assumed that Hume's line about how you can't really tell the rock falls because you dropped it is more or less a joke that a bunch of German philosophers took too Teutonically. Personally, I like the philosophy of Hume's Scottish contemporary Thomas Reid a little more, but Hume was certainly a great man.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

Real causation was a philosophical issue at the time.

Anonymous said...

Of course David Hume was famously a race realist. But 300 years ago, who wasn't? In fact, 75 years ago, who wasn't? Reid? Famous for being an imminent Aberdonian. Who else comes from Aberdeen?

Gilbert Pinfold.

Chief Seattle said...

I've only read a little Hume, but the first thing I noticed is that he wrote clearly and everything was so straighforward it barely qualified for the high title of philosophy. Kudos to a man who felt secure enough to not obfuscate.

headache said...

Funny that you mention "German philosophers". When my mother took philosophy in Germany in the 1950's as part of her PhD preparations, the professor said she should start with Anglo-Saxon philosophers since you can read them in a few days and there is little of substance in them. Anglos are considered to be merchants by Germans.

dearieme said...

Since the Greeks there's really only Hume who's worth bothering with.

Anonymous said...

"Since the Greeks there's really only Hume who's worth bothering with."

uhhhh...no.

but philosophy is hard and for smart people, as Steve pointed out.

Anonymous said...

I've always thought of Steve as a "common-sense intellectual," which is actually a pretty rare kind of intellectual, so I guess it makes sense that he would be a big fan of the founder of the "school of common sense."

Anonymous said...

"Since the Greeks there's really only Hume who's worth bothering with."

Most scholars say Kant is the most significant philosopher since the Greeks. Hume would rank after Kant, Descartes, and even Hegel.

"but philosophy is hard and for smart people, as Steve pointed out."

Very true. I've never felt like more of an idiot then when I tried to mount arguments contrary to my philosophy professors back in college.

Al said...

For Germans I'd focus on Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger. I've wanted to get into Heraclitus for a while.

Mark Caplan said...

Headache wrote:
"...start with Anglo-Saxon philosophers since you can read them in a few days and there is little of substance in them. Anglos are considered to be merchants by Germans."
An odd characterization considering that the Germans are the preeminent manufacturers and salesmen in today's global economy and London is the West's recognized intellectual and artistic capital.

The Vienna Circle of German and Middle European philosophers were heavily indebted to the Anglo philosophers, foremost to David Hume.

James Kabala said...

The real reason is to undermine traditional arguments for the existence of God. If no cause can be proved, how can one argue that a First Cause must be beyond all?

Anonymous said...

Real causation was a philosophical issue at the time

Medieval Christians, especially Duns Scotus, realized that, in addition to Aristotelian causation, we need a second type of causation that involves the possibility of free choice of the will in determining its effects. This type of causation was invented (or discovered) in thinking about God's causal efficacy.

The first major school of thought which exploited the explanatory potential of the idea of causation through free choice of the will is Scottish Enlightenment thinking. I'm sure you have heard about Adam Smith, but you may not know about Smith's influence on Darwin's thinking. I mention this school, because another member of the school, Adam Ferguson, with his theory of the stages in the history of mankind, had an important influence on Hegel and, through Hegel, on Marx. It is characteristic of the causal factors that operate in this school that the fact that these factors can be explained after they have occurred does not mean that they could have been predicted before they occurred. "The owl of Minerva only takes its flight after the setting of the sun". (After it happens we can explain why it had to happen, but not before.) That marks a sharp break with the type of causation found in physics from Aristotle through Newton. Laplace if known for having said that if he were given the position and momemntum of everything now, he could predict the whole future of the universe---but he might, just as well, have said he could know the whole history of the universe. With classical causation what you can infer from the present about the past you could (in principle) have predicted in the past about the present. Ferguson and Smith realized that that standpoint won't work for human history and human futures.

Incidentally, most of Hegel's disciples did not interpret him as a socialist. Marx belonged to a small splinter group. And compare Hegel's "owl of Minerva" remark to Marx's comment: "Hitherto philosophers have contemplated the world. The point is to change it."

Anonymous said...

I remember thinking how clever I was back in high school telling my mother, "should and is are not related." Only to find out later that David Hume had already hit on that notion over 250 years ago. Kinda took the wind out of my teenaged sails.

Anonymous said...

I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the Whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor even any individual, eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the Whites, such as the ancient Germans, the present Tartars, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are Negro slaves dispersed all over Europe, of whom none ever discovered the symptoms of ingenuity; though low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one Negro as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly.- David Hume

Anonymous said...

Steve,

Just as a general point: Killing OBL is probably the single greatest tangible victory in the history of US counter-terrorism. I say this as someone who has served in the military and was privy to the planning and execution several special-ops missions. You can't take that away from Obama. His achievement is great regardless of your point of reference, it is relativistically covariant.

Moreover, conservatives are always whining about Obama's supposed weakening of America's international stature. Killing OBL is an achievement that everyone can grasp. It is vicerally tangible to people with 1st through 3rd world dispositions. It's most longing effect may well be strengthening and reaffirming America's stature on the world stage, and for that it is truly great.

K(yle) said...

"Incidentally, most of Hegel's disciples did not interpret him as a socialist. Marx belonged to a small splinter group."

I think there is a distinction, at that time in Europe in particular, between 'socialist' and being of the left.

The left in that day and age would have been heavily influenced by classical liberalism which was not very socialistic. Nationalists, of the right, were more socialist in their outlook.

Looking through the lens of the 21st century, Hegel would almost certainly be considered of the right, leaning heavily on Nationalism.

Marx was indeed an extreme off-shoot. The structure of some of his early thought was Hegelian, but a lot of Hegel's actual premises were thrown out the window in favor of Marx's own inserts.

Dutch Boy said...

Hume is in the British tradition of anti-philosophy rather than philosophy since British philosophers are typically epistemological pessimists (you can't love the truth if you cannot know what it is).

steve burton said...

"Most scholars say Kant is the most significant philosopher since the Greeks. Hume would rank after Kant, Descartes, and even Hegel."

Hmmm...do they? I guess it depends on which "scholars" you ask.

Personally, I think that Hume is both the greatest thinker and the most brilliant writer among all those who tried to work out the implications of early modern discoveries about the physiology of perception.

Admittedly, Kant was much better at inventing mystifying professional lingo - and Hegel was astonishingly successful in creating the fashion for obscurity which bedevils certain quarters of the philosophy biz to this day.

But David Hume was The Dude.

Deckin said...

"I always assumed that Hume's line about how you can't really tell the rock falls because you dropped it is more or less a joke that a bunch of German philosophers took too Teutonically."

As much as I love this site and as much as Steve has changed my thinking on so many things, in some areas, it's really best to leave things to those with more training.

To wit: Hume never doubted that things happen because they are caused to happen. Kant himself makes that very point in the preface to his Prolegomena and it's your hero Reid who most egregiously makes the mistake of thinking he did.

Hume's complaint is that, regardless of what happens in the world (Newton was one of his idols), our judgments of causality are of suspect justification. That's a lot different from doubting that rocks fall because we drop them.

ecrasez said...

Sailer : "Personally, I like the philosophy of Hume's Scottish contemporary Thomas Reid a little more."

You like it a little more? Great argument, Steve.

Anonymous said...

Reid invented non euclidean geometry.

Hume never claimed that Reid had misinterpreted him and there is support in Hume's writings for Reid's interpretation of Hume. Hume (along with Hobbs) represents the strain of liberalism which held that no one way of life is the best.

Locke represents the other face of Liberalism, Rawls is in that tradition too.

Can't help noticing that an awful lot of philosophers did not father children.

David Gress said...

I'm with Reid, too, but from what I know of David Hume the man, there are few people with whom I'd rather have a good conversation. "David, do you really believe that reason is the slave of the passions?" "Well, David," puff, puff on his pipe, "that is not the sort of question easily answered. In my philosophy" ...

Three hours, several pipes and several glasses of whisky later, David H. rises, a bit unsteadily, to go to his home in Edinburgh. And I am left with the impression of a man who, though he claims to doubt the power of reason, nevertheless will reason until the day he dies.

And so he did.