Sunday, January 22, 2012

Hume's Treatise

The Ninth Edition Britannica article on Hume is written by Robert Adamson, Professor of Logic and Philosophy at Owens College (Victoria University of Manchester) and subsequently at the Universities of Aberdeen and Glasgow.

Adamson argues that, despite Hume's subsequent discounting of his Treatise, through its "freshness and concentrated vigour" Hume is at his best in his first major work. According to Adams, "none of the principles of the Treatise are given up in later writings, and no additions are made to them". While this is debateable, it serves to underline the prominent place that the Treatise must hold for students of Hume.

Hume sent a copy of the Treatise to Butler, who as we have already noted was of some influence to Hume's thinking. Hume ranks Butler alongside Locke and Berkeley as the originators of the experimental method in moral science; Butler warmly commended Hume's essay to his friends. Both share Hume's sceptical conclusions regarding belief in matters of fact. Butler however,  retains confidence in the rational proofs for the existence of God alongside an a priori view of conscience.

I will no doubt return to arguments for and against the existence of God in later posts, but it is interesting to note that Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion was published posthumously in 1779, originally with neither the author's nor the publisher's name.

The title page of the Treatise from the 1739 edition contains the following:

A Treatise of Human Nature : Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects.
Rara temporum ƒelicitas, ubi ƒentire, quæ velis; quæ ƒentias, dicere licet.

One of the regrets of my comprehensive school education is that I was not given the opportunity to study Latin or Greek. Fortunately, Google came up with the meaning of the quotation from Tacitus: "Rare are the times you can, in turn, feel what you want and say what you feel. Try it."

Introduction to the Treatise

The opening sentence of the Introduction is as follows: "Nothing is more usual and more natural for those, who pretend to discover any thing new to the world in philosophy and the sciences, than to insinuate the praises of their own systems, by decrying all those, which have been advanced before them."

The opening sentence might lead one to suspect that Hume is not going to follow this path, but as you read further you realise that in fact, this is exactly what Hume is setting out to do.

"Principles taken upon trust, consequences lamely deduced from them, want of coherence in the parts, and of evidence in the whole, these are every where to be met with in the systems of the most eminent philosophers, and seem to have drawn disgrace upon philosophy itself."

So Hume is attempting to come up with a whole system of philosophy, and is not merely commenting on previous attempts. This is why I admire Hume, the scope and originality of his Treatise is very impressive.

Hume goes on to point out that in philosophical debates "'Amidst all this bustle, 'tis not reason which carries the prize, but eloquence....The victory is not gained by the men at arms, who manage the pike and the sword; but by the trumpeters, drummers and musicians of the army". Here we get a clear "heads-up" that Hume is going to attempt to cut through the eloquence of his predecessors, which presumably hides their muddled thinking, and shine a light of reason on human nature. I find this amusing, given that Hume himself is so eloquent.

Hume's objective is to address the questions of metaphysics. He acknowledges that this is not going to be easy: "For if truth be at all within the reach of human capacity, 'tis certain it must lie very deep and abstruse".

Next, Hume stresses the connection between all of the sciences and the science of Man, i.e. Human Nature. By improving our understanding of metaphysics, he will no doubt have a significant influence on all other branches of human knowledge. Again, we begin to see the ambition of Hume's project - he isn't messing about on the periphery! Hume puts this very clearly: "In pretending therefore, to explain the priciples of human nature, we in effect propose a compleat system of the sciences, built on a foundation almost entirely new, and the only one upon which they can stand with any security."

Next, Hume introduces the importance of experience and observation, the scientific method: "And as the science of man is the only solid foundation for the other sciences, so the only solid foundation we can give to the science itself must be laid on experience and observation."

Hume recognises that his re-thinking of human nature, based on scientific method, may not be to everyone's taste. He stresses the credit that will come to England by advancing the frontiers of philosophy and appeals for moderation by praising the English traditions of toleration and liberty. At this point we begin to understand that his arguments will be somewhat controversial.

In a footnote, Hume gives credit in the introduction to "some late philosophers in England", namely Locke, Shaftsbury, Mandeville, Hutchinson and Butler who have begun to "put the science of man on a new footing" but we begin to suspect that Hume's self-confidence will deliver us something more comprehensive and final.

To be continued.

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