October 28, 2022
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
Fortunately for us, David Hume wrote a lot of his thoughts down in his book A Treatise on Human Nature. Yet it might not have been so. At the end of Book I, Hume admits, in lengthy detail, that he doubts himself, his work and his ideas. I find this reassuring for the rest of us who question our ideas as well. Book I, “Of the Understanding,” concludes with the generic title “Conclusion of this Book.” In this conclusion, however, he writes of being hesitant and reserved. This passage sums up the feelings of someone who has written a bold idea and feels certain of rejection. Not only afraid of reception, though, he also notes how awfully lonely the writing process can be.
“I am first affrighted and confounded with that forelorn 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; and can I wonder at the insults I must suffer? I have declar’d my dis-approbation 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 reasoning.”
He further explains that human reasoning is flawed in many ways, which makes his process even more challenging and dubious. For example, Hume says that “Nothing is more dangerous to reason than the flights of the imagination, and nothing has been the occasion of more mistakes among philosophers.” Yet, he also notes that one must rely on reasoning as it is the primary tool for human knowledge. He acknowledges also that human reasoning relies in great part upon the imagination, and the ability to identify previously unasked questions. Though he wishes to avoid contradiction, Hume understands that he must follow reason and allow imagination to open doors to new questions. Since this is the only system available to humans, Hume affirms, “We have, therefore, no choice left but betwixt a false reason and none at all.” Such daunting work leads him to feelings of loneliness, desolation and failure.
“But what have I here said, that reflections very refin’d and metaphysical have little or no influence upon us? This opinion I can scarce forbear retracting, and condemning from my present feeling and experience. 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.”
Although he feels foolish for his human faults, Hume then expresses a desire to add to human knowledge if at all possible. To understand understanding draws him on until he determines to write about reason. Finding that philosophers have largely ignored questions of human nature, he writes,
“I cannot forbear having a curiosity to be acquainted with the principles of moral good and evil, the nature and foundation of government, and the cause of those several passions and inclinations, which actuate and govern me. I am uneasy to think I approve of one object, and disapprove of another; call one thing beautiful, and another deform’d; decide concerning truth and falsehood, reason and folly, without knowing upon what principles I proceed. I am concern’d for the condition of the learned world, which lies under such a deplorable ignorance in all these particulars.”
He concludes Book I with the following: “I may have fallen into this fault after the example of others; but I here enter a caveat against any objections, which may be offer’d on that head; and declare that such expressions were extorted from me by the present view of the object, and imply no dogmatical spirit, nor conceited idea of my own judgment, which are sentiments that I am sensible can become no body, and a sceptic still less than any other.”
In this chapter, Hume offers us a fantastic view into his inner demons as well as his thought process. A Treatise of Human Nature is well worth the effort for anyone interested in the history of philosophy, Hume, or the evolution of thought itself.
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