Hume’s definitions of ‘Cause’: Without idealizations, within the bounds of science

Synthese 191 (16):3803-3819 (2014)
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Interpreters have found it exceedingly difficult to understand how Hume could be right in claiming that his two definitions of ‘cause’ are essentially the same. As J. A. Robinson points out, the definitions do not even seem to be extensionally equivalent. Don Garrett offers an influential solution to this interpretative problem, one that attributes to Hume the reliance on an ideal observer. I argue that the theoretical need for an ideal observer stems from an idealized concept of definition, which many interpreters, including Garrett, attribute to Hume. I argue that this idealized concept of definition indeed demands an unlimited or infinite ideal observer. But there is substantial textual evidence indicating that Hume disallows the employment of idealizations in general in the sciences. Thus Hume would reject the idealized concept of definition and its corresponding ideal observer. I then put forward an expert-relative reading of Hume’s definitions of ‘cause’, which also renders both definitions extensionally equivalent. On the expert-relative reading, the meaning of ‘cause’ changes with better observations and experiments, but it also allows Humean definitions to play important roles within our normative practices. Finally, I consider and reject Henry Allison’s argument that idealized definitions and their corresponding infinite minds are necessary for expert reflection on the limitations of current science



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Miren Boehm
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

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References found in this work

Cognition and Commitment in Hume’s Philosophy.Don Garrett - 1997 - Philosophical and Phenomenological Research 62 (1):191-196.
Hume's Foundational Project in the Treatise.Miren Boehm - 2016 - European Journal of Philosophy 24 (1):55-77.
Hume's two definitions of "cause".J. A. Robinson - 1962 - Philosophical Quarterly 12 (47):162-171.

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