PHILOSOPHY – David Hume


The 18th century writer, David Hume, is one of the world’s great philosophical voices because he hit upon a key fact about human nature- that we are more influenced by our feelings than by reason. This is, at one level, possibly a great insult to our self image, but Hume thought that if we could learn to deal well with this surprising fact, we could be both individually and collectively a great deal calmer and happier than if we denied it. Hume was born in Edinburgh in 1711, to a family that was long established but far from rich. He was the second son and it was clear early on that he would need to find a job eventually, but nothing seemed to suit him. He tried law, the vocation of his father and his older brother, but soon decided that it was: “a laborious profession, requiring the drudgery of a whole life.” He was considered for academic posts at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Glasgow, but he didn’t land either job. So, he set out to become a public intellectual, someone who would make his money selling books to the general public. It was pretty hard-going. His first book, ‘A Treatise of Human Nature’, for which he had the highest hopes, met with a dismal reception. “Never literary attempt was more unfortunate than my Treatise”, he wrote. “It fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinction as to even excite a murmur along the zealots.” But Hume kept at it, realising that the blame largely lay with the way that he had expressed his ideas. And doggedly training himself to write in a more accessible and popular manner, eventually, he did find an audience. his later works: popular history books and collections of elegant essays were best-sellers of the day. As he would say, not without some pride: “The money given me by booksellers much exceeded anything formerly known in England; I was to become not only independent but opulent.” Humes philosophy is built around a single powerful observation: that the key thing we need to get right in life is feeling rather than rationality. It sounds like an odd conclusion. Normally we assume that what we need to do is train our minds to be as rational as possible, to be devoted to evidence and logical reasoning and committed to preventing our feelings from getting in the way. But Hume insisted that whatever we may aim for – reason is the slave of passion. We are more motivated by our feelings than by any of the comparatively feeble results of analysis and logic. Few of our leading convictions had driven by rational investigations of the facts. We decide whether someone is admirable, what to do with our spare time, what constitutes a successful career, or who to love on the basis of feeling above anything else. Reason helps a little, but the decisive factors are bound up with our emotional lives, with our passions, as Hume calls them. Hume lived in a time known as the Age of Reason, when many claimed that the glory of human beings consists in their rationality, but for Hume a human is just another kind of animal. Hume was deeply attentive to the curious way that we very often reason from not to our convictions. We find an idea nice or threatening and on that basis alone declare it true or false. Reason only comes in later to support the original attitude. What Hume didn’t believe however was that all feelings are acceptable and equal. that’s why he firmly believed in the education of the passions. People have to learn to be more benevolent, more patient, more at ease with themselves and less afraid of others. But to be taught these things they need an education system that addresses feelings rather than reason. This is why Hume so deeply believed in the role and significance of public intellectuals. These were people who (unlike university professors that Hume grew to dislike immensely) had to excite a passion-based attachment to ideas, wisdom and insight. Only if they succeeded would they have the money to eat. It was for this reason that they had to write well, use colorful examples and have recoursed wit and charm. Hume’s insight is that if you want to change people’s beliefs reasoning with them like a normal philosophy professor won’t be the most effective strategy. He’s pointing out that we have to try to adjust sentiments by sympathy, re-assurance, good example, encouragement and what he called “art”. And only later, for a few determined souls, should we ever try to make a case on the basis of facts and logic. A key place where Hume made use of the idea of the priority of feeling over reason was in connection with religion Hume didn’t think it was rational to believe in god. That is – he didn’t think there were compelling logical arguments in favor of the existence of a deity. He himself seems to have floated between mild agnosticism (there might be a god, I’m not sure) and mild theism (there is a god, but it doesn’t make much difference to me that there is). However the idea of a vindictive god, someone ready to punish people in an afterlife for not believing in him in this one, this he considered a cruel superstition. Hume’s central point is that religious belief isn’t the product of reason. So arguing for or against it on the basis of facts doesn’t touch the core issue. To try to persuade someone to believe or not believe with well-honed arguments seemed particularly daft to Hume. This is why he was a foremost defender of the concept of religious toleration. We shouldn’t treat those who disagree with us over religion as rational people who’ve made an error of reasoning and so need to be put right, but rather as passionate emotion-driven creatures who should be left in peace so long as they do likewise with us. Trying to have a rational argument over religion was for Hume the height of folly and arrogance. Hume was what is technically known as a skeptic someone committed to doubting a lot of the common sense ideas of the day. One of the things he doubted was the concept of what is technically called “personal identity”. The idea that we have that we can understand ourselves and have a more or less graspable and enduring identity that runs through life. Hume pointed out that there is no such thing as a ” Core Self ” “When I enter most intimately into what I call “myself”,” he famously explained, “I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch “myself” at any time without a perception and can never observe anything but the perception. Hume concluded that we aren’t really the neat definable people reason tells us that we are and that we seem to be when we look at ourselves in the mirror or casually use that grand and rather misleading word ” I “. Yet, despite being skeptical of temper Hume was very happy for us to hold onto most of our common-sense beliefs because they are what help us make our way in the world Trying to be rational about everything is a special kind of madness. Hume was making a slight dig at Descartes. The French philosopher had died 60 years before Hume was born. But his intellectual influence was still very much alive. He had argued that we should throw out every fruit of the mind that wasn’t perfectly rational. But Hume proposed that hardly anything we do is ever truly rational And yet he ventured that most beliefs are justified simply because they work They’re useful to us. They help us to get on with what we want to do. A test of a belief isn’t its provable truth but its utility Hume was offering a corrective which we sometimes badly need to our fascination with prestigious but not actually very important logical conundrums In opposition to academic niceties he was a skeptical philosopher who stood for common sense Championing the everyday and the wisdom of the unlearned and the ordinary. Hume took a great interest in the traditional philosophical topic of Ethics A conundrum of how humans can be good. He argued that morality isn’t about having moral ideas It’s about having been trained from an early age in the art of decency through the emotions Being good means getting into good habits of feeling. Hume was a great advocate of qualities like wit, good manners and sympathy because these are the things make people nice to be around outside of any rational plan to be good. He was hugely struck by the fact that a person and here again, he was thinking of Descartes could be ostensibly rational and yet, not that nice. Because being able to follow complex argument or deduce trends from data doesn’t make you sensitive to the sufferings of others or skilled at keeping your temper. These qualities are the work of our feelings So, if we want people to behave well, what we need to do is to rethink education We have to influence the development of feeling We have to encourage benevolence, gentleness, pity and shame through the seduction of the passionate sides of our nature, without delivering dry, logical lectures. Hume’s philosophy always emerged as an attempt to answer a personal question. What is a good life? He wanted to know how his own character and that of those around him could be influenced for the best. And oddly, for a philosopher, he didn’t feel the traditional practice of Philosophy could really help. Though he was scholarly, he was in large part, a man of the world. For some years, he was an adviser to the British ambassador in Paris who welcomed his shrewd wisdom. He was much liked by those around him, known by the French as ‘Le Bon David’, a humane, kind and witty conversationalist, much in demand as a dinner companion. he insisted. That’s the way Hume lived. Not in the intellectual seclusion of a monastery or ivory tower, But deeply embedded in the company of other humans, dining. He especially liked roast chicken, chatting about love and career and playing Backgammon. Hume died in Edinburgh in August 1776, at home, in his house in St. Andrew’s Square His doctor wrote about the last hours to Adam Smith, for many years, Hume’s best friend. Hume remains a rather outstanding thing. A philosopher, alive to how much Philosophy can has to learn from common-sense.

100 Comments

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *