Hume's skepticism about inductive inference

Journal of the History of Philosophy 21 (1):31-56 (1983)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content: Hume's Skepticism about Inductive Inference N. SCOTT ARNOLD IT HAS BEEN A COMMONPLACE among commentators on Hume's philosophy that he was a radical skeptic about inductive inference. In addition, he is alleged to have been the first philosopher to pose the so-called problem of induction. Until recently, however, Hume's argument in this connection has not been subject to very close scrutiny. As attention has become focused on this argument, a debate has been shaping up concerning just what Hume intended to establish here. The principal purpose of this article is to settle this interpretive issue as decisively as the texts permit. I should also like to locate Hume's main argument about induction in the larger context of his discussion of skepti- cism in book 1 of the Treatise. I shall suggest that arguments for the radical skepticism commonly attributed to Hume can be found only very late in book 1 of the Treatise and that the most famous argument about inductive inference establishes and is intended to establish only a relatively modest form of skepticism. The argument under consideration can found in book l, part 3, section 6 of the Treatise. It can also be found in essays 4 and 5 of the Enquiries and in the abstract of the Treatise published anonymously by Hume. I shall concen- trate on the Treatise version since it is the first and perhaps most explicit formulation of the argument and because part of my purpose is to place this argument in the larger context of book 1 of the Treatise. The received opinion concerning Hume's argument has it that Hume was highly skeptical about the mind's claims to knowledge about the future (or, more generally, about the unobserved). All beliefs arrived at via inductive I should like to thank M. G. Anderson, John Bahde, Jon Nordy, and Robert Paul Wolff, as well as David Fate Norton and a referee for the Journal of the History of Philosophy, for helpful comments on earlier drafts on this article. 32 HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY inferences are unreasonable or unjustified. The alternative interpretation, to be defended below, is that Hume held that no such belief is or can be rendered certain relative to past experience and that such beliefs are not, upon that account, unreasonable or unjustified. Something like this inter- pretation has been defended by Tom L. Beauchamp, Thomas Mappes, and Alexander Rosenberg. ~ My view differs from theirs in that I shall argue that Hume did offer arguments for the more radical skepticism commonly attri- buted to him (though it is unclear whether he regarded them as decisive). These arguments, however, come at the end of book ~ of the Treatise and are independent of the more famous argument to be discussed below. Defenders of the received view are both numerous and distinguished. Versions of this interpretation of the main argument can be found in the writings of Karl Popper, Wesley Salmon, F. L. Will, and Norman Kemp Smith; most recently a variation on the standard interpretation has been defended by Barry Stroud. The fullest and most elaborate defense of the standard interpretation can be found in a monograph by D. C. Stove. '~ Stove's discussion is perhaps the most impressive because of his painstaking efforts to lay bare the structure of Hume's reasoning and to give a line-by- line analysis of the argument. This has the effect of bringing more clearly into focus the main grounds for the standard view. If this standard interpre- tation is correct, then Hume's position is that scientific method is epistemically no better than "superstition" and "enthusiasm." And, Hume would be among those for whom this claim, if true, would be very bad news, because one of his primary purposes in the Treatise is to construct a science of man. Thus, this argument is of considerable internal significance because, if my opponents are correct, Hume appears to have cut the ground out from under what he took to be one of his most important projects -- the construc- tion of a science of man. The other feature of this argument that makes it worthy of serious con- sideration is that it is philosophically...



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