David Hume, sculpture by Sandy Stoddart on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh
David Hume was always a nerd, something I love about him. Since he was a young boy, he always had his face buried in a book. And he was a happy nerd, self-described as having a ‘cheerful’ and ‘sanguine’ (optimistic) personality. I like that too.
Perhaps that’s why he was able to enter into his self-described ‘New Scene of Thought’. It was a whole new philosophy, one which included, as a central guiding principle, that the honest thinker should never claim to know, or to understand, that which the human mind can’t know or understand, and if they can’t know or understand it, they shouldn’t make strong claims of knowledge about it. But another guiding principle is this: the process of learning and thinking critically is among the noblest endeavors there is.
This sounds simple enough. But to the thinkers and to the everyday person in his time, this was not the way people thought. It was the end of the long period of scholasticism, of academics and theologians who took great pride in devising complex and subtle arguments about anything and everything under the sun (and above it), and whose authority was not to be challenged. If you were a member of this elite, you better support this system or you better find another occupation if you don’t want to be financially, and reputationally, ruined. if you were an everyday person, you should stay in your place, accept what the great thinkers have to tell you, and don’t ask too many questions.
It’s also a challenge to the way many people think today, from the strong skeptic who says ‘no one can know anything at all, so who cares?’ to the theocrat who says ‘I know the author of the universe, I know what he says, and I know what everyone must believe and how they should act’. We live in an age where screaming pundits dominate the media, who are certain ‘the other side’ is leading us all straight to ruin; where politicians are more reluctant to serve the public interest by putting aside their differences and working together on important issues; where the funding and communication of science is up for grabs to the highest bidding corporations.
Hume challenged the philosophers, the theologians, all those who made extraordinary claims about the ultimate nature of reality and of the workings of the human mind. He thought that they were undermining, even destroying the great project of philosophy by being so abstract, and so extravagant in their claims. Too many, Hume thought, had pretensions of knowing exactly how the universe came into being and how it worked, what was ultimate source of morality, what is meant by ‘the soul’ and how human beings are defined by it, and so on. These thinkers based their claims on two things: that the author of the universe has communicated these things to them and that they knew what the author meant, and that the elaborate arguments they constructed were all based on irrefutable logic and careful reasoning. Or some combination of these.
Yet these philosophers and theologians were in violent disagreement all the time, sometimes with the such disastrous results as a willingness, even an enthusiasm, for silencing, oppressing, even killing those with different opinions. This was so for even such highly abstruse arguments as to whether there were one or three persons in God, or what was the nature of the invisible force that made the planets go around the sun.
How do we account for such disagreements, when they originated from such seemingly perfect sources, revelation and logic?
That’s because, Hume said, they got this wrong: that there’s such a thing as perfect human knowledge or understanding, or even that there is any mind at all that exists that knows all there is to know about everything. The honest thinker is the one that understands that a mind is a limited, fallible thing, and that the one way to know the most we can know is to carefully observe the world then only accept those ideas as true which observation can support. ‘The wise man…proportions his belief to the evidence.’ That’s another thing they got wrong: they tried to go so far with their logic, that the evidence they founded it on was so far removed, or so slight, I’d liken it to building a pyramid of elephants on a ball in a cartoon circus. Better to have a pretty solid foundation before you try such a thing.
Hume’s ‘New Scene of Thought’ helped make philosophy a reinvigorated, attractive scene for the curious and the thoughtful. Philosophy, at the time, referred to all areas of study whose project was to discover and understand as much as could be known about the universe.
Funnily enough, it’s the attitude that human beings are fallible in our perceptions and our thinking, that enabled us to learn out as much as we have so far about so many areas of life, and that made the scientific process not only sucessful, but possible. That means when we observe something, or think something, we can’t just run out and proclaim our discoveries, just like that. We have to talk to each other compare notes, patiently test our theories again and again, and even if we’ve done all that, be able to say, humbly, ‘I was wrong’ if a better explanation comes along. This doesn’t mean we can’t believe in anything. It means that belief is always on a spectrum, is stronger or weaker depending on the support we have for it: whether it’s supported by observation and evidence, whether it consistently leads us to make successful predictions and form quality explanatory theories, and so on. But it should never be absolute. We should always be open to finding out more, and always suspicious if someone tells us they have the final, absolute answer.
It took this optimistic, friendly (Hume was well known to be a kind and genial person), and careful thinker, of great integrity, to form such a beautifully honest philosophy. Always having his nose in a book, he was well-read, and understood that there was an incredibly wide range of human thought and experience to draw from, much of it contradicting each other. And his reaction was not that we should resolve these contradictions by finding some orthodoxy and sticking to it, or saying at all that is not strictly logical in some abstract, perfect sense is valueless. He was able to take it all at face value for what it was: the natural outcome of what it means to have a human mind. The human mind is not just a reasoner, or a believer: it also perceives, dreams, thinks, feels, hallucinates. It’s variable, and it’s fascinating, and it all needs to be taken into account, if you want to pursue understanding to the utmost that you can.
If you don’t yet have the answer, you must always be ready to say, honestly, ‘I don’t know’. That leaves you able and ready to say the next best sentence in the quest for knowledge: ‘Let’s find out.’
And this is only his epistemology (the study of knowledge) and his answer to metaphysics (the study of the fundamental nature of reality). Don’t get me started on his moral philosophy, which is even more awesome….. ’cause that will be the topic for another essay.
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Sources and inspiration:
Morris, William Edward. ‘David Hume‘. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2009.