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More Mr Nice Guy
by Rick Lewis
With this issue we wish a very happy 300th birthday to the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Many people call him the greatest philosopher ever to have written in the English language, so we’re glad that his birthday gives us an excuse (not that we really needed one) to take a look at some of his main ideas and consider whether and why they still matter today.
As Tim Madigan says in his column, David Hume was regarded by his eighteenth century contemporaries as a really nice guy. Celebrated in Scotland, fêted in France, Hume had a wide circle of adoring friends. He was the great thinker you’d most like to go to the pub with. He loved to entertain at home in Edinburgh, and boasted of his “great Talent for Cookery.” He had a weakness for sugar lumps and would sneak them from the bowl on the table until his sister would whisk it away and keep it on her lap. An habitual generator of disturbing ideas with even more alarming consequences, he retained a sanity-preserving ability to disengage from them and go for a beer or three to chill out.
“I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends. And when, after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.”
When he lay dying, his friend Boswell was convinced that Hume must be in a terrible mental turmoil, as a result of facing imminent extinction without religious belief or the prospect of a future state to consol him. But on visiting Hume he found him cheerful and joking as usual, an experience which apparently left the pious Boswell deeply shaken.
The English language has changed a little since Hume’s day, but the warmth and sardonic good humour of Hume’s writings transcend such minor difficulties and help to transmit his ideas to us across the gulf of a quarter millennium. And what ideas they are. Hume was one of history’s most comprehensive sceptics. Parisian intellectuals called him Le Bon David, but a more appropriate nickname might have been Demolition Dave. He brought his devastating analytical skills to bear on beliefs which others have also doubted, such as the existence of God and the reality of miracles (see here), but he also had the gift of questioning things which others would deem too obvious to be worth a second glance. You believe in cause and effect? Ah, you haven’t read Hume yet (see here). You think you can work out what’s right to do just by studying the facts of the situation? Oh dear, you’d better get your head around what Hume said on the subject (see here on ‘Is’ and ‘Ought’).
Hume was what you might call a slow-burn philosopher. In his lifetime, and for long years afterwards, he was better known as a historian and author of a standard textbook, the History of England. Few bothered with his philosophical works. But the great Immanual Kant said that reading Hume’s works had “roused him from his dogmatic slumbers” and sent him off in a new direction entirely; and even after centuries of relative philosophical fame people are still discovering new things in Hume. His suggestion that you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ didn’t finally get serious attention until the 1960s, and the resulting spats in the scholarly journals lasted fifteen years. Even in those rarified academic circles the nice guy’s ideas provoked venomous disagreement. I remember a journal paper by Prof. Peter Geach in which he attempted to prove that Hume was wrong about the impossibility of deriving an ought from an is. At the end of a fairly abstract and technical argument, Geach rounded up with a paragraph or two furiously attacking those ethicists who defended Hume’s view on this point (such as Prof. Richard Hare), basically accusing them of being hippy degenerates bent on destroying the foundations of decent society. Hume’s supporters can get similarly excited.
I read about this controversy much later, as a result of fretting about what I should do with my life. I didn’t want to waste it, in case (as still seems likely) it turned out that we only get the one. I couldn’t see how to be sure to use it wisely unless I knew what it was for, so I reckoned I’d better try to puzzle out its purpose. What exactly is any human life for? Is it for expanding scientific knowledge? For helping the suffering? For raising children? For making as much money as possible? For becoming the world paintball champion? So I became very interested in the whole notion of purpose and of whether you can derive a knowledge of anything’s purpose simply from the facts about it, but I kept coming up against Hume’s wretched ‘is’ and ‘ought’. What ought you to do with your life? Nothing about how the world is can possibly tell you. At least, rightly or wrongly, that was how I read Hume and I thought that Hume was correct. There is no objective ‘purpose of life’ to find – only projects we ourselves freely choose. So I decided to just do whatever felt deep-down important to me personally. This turned out to be starting a magazine to popularise philosophy and share my meta-ethical confusion with a wider public. Cheers Dave.
None of the controversies David Hume provoked have been definitely settled, and who is to say that his writings won’t generate further philosophical disputes in the future? We could and perhaps should be in for much more trouble from Mr Nice Guy.