Hume's Scepticism and Realism - His Two Profound Arguments against the Senses in An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding

Tampere, Finland: University of Tampere (2007)
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The main problem of this study is David Hume’s (1711-76) view on Metaphysical Realism (there are mind-independent, external, and continuous entities). This specific problem is part of two more general questions in Hume scholarship: his attitude to scepticism and the relation between naturalism and skepticism in his thinking. A novel interpretation of these problems is defended in this work. The chief thesis is that Hume is both a sceptic and a Metaphysical Realist. His philosophical attitude is to suspend his judgment on Metaphysical Realism, whereas as a common man he firmly believes in the existence of mind-independent, external, and continuous entities. Therefore Hume does not have any one position; accordingly, a form of “no one Hume” interpretation (Richard Popkin, Robert J. Fogelin, Donald L.M. Baxter) is argued for in the book. The key point in this distinction is the temporal difference between Hume’s philosophical and everyday views. It is introduced in order to avoid attributing a conscious contradiction to him (a problem which has not attracted enough attention in the literature). The method of the work is modelled on Peter Millican’s work on Hume and induction. The approach to the main problem is to study the two “profound” arguments against the senses that Hume presents in the Section 12 of An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748). These arguments are first reconstructed in detail resulting in Millican-type diagrams of them and then Hume’s endorsement of them is established on the basis of the diagrams. The first profound argument concludes that Metaphysical Realism and thus any Realistic theory of perception is unjustified as well as the existence of God and the soul. The second argument goes further having first conceptual conclusion: the very notions of Real entitity, material substance, and bodies are completely out of the reach of the faculty of understanding. Therefore they ought to be rejected according to Hume. This is a consequence of the consistent use of the Humean faculty of reason: idea-analysis and inductive inference. The second profound argument thus concludes that believing in Metaphysical Realism is inconsistent with the rational attitude that is to refrain from this belief. Hence, if we attributed both of them to Hume, we would end up with a great philosopher who embraces a manifest contradiction. The study is finished by arguing that this sceptical and Metaphysically Realistic interpretation concurs well with (1) Hume’s professed Academical philosophy and (2) project of the science of human nature. (1) According to Hume, Academical philosophy is in the first place diffidence, modesty, and uncertainty including suspension on certain issues. Secondly, it is restriction of the range of topics for which experience can provide a standard of truth. This kind of empiricist epistemological realism is coherent with the sceptical attitude on Metaphysical Realism because the latter does not rule out inter-subjective consensus on what we experience. (2) Suspension of judgment on Metaphysical Realism coheres with the mind-dependency of the objects of Hume’s science of human nature: the understanding, passions, morals, aesthetics, politics, and the human culture in all of its manifestations. Although the study takes the first Enquiry to be Hume’s authorised word on the understanding, his juvenile work A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40) is argued to support this “no one Hume” interpretation. Hume’s other works are also discussed when needed.



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Jani Hakkarainen
Tampere University

Citations of this work

Hume's Scepticism and Realism.Jani Hakkarainen - 2012 - British Journal for the History of Philosophy 20 (2):283-309.

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References found in this work

What is Justified Belief?Alvin I. Goldman - 1979 - In George Pappas (ed.), Justification and Knowledge. Boston: D. Reidel. pp. 1-25.
The identity of indiscernibles.Max Black - 1952 - Mind 61 (242):153-164.
Three Versions of the Bundle Theory.James Van Cleve - 1985 - Philosophical Studies 47 (1):95 - 107.
Bare particulars.Edwin B. Allaire - 1963 - Philosophical Studies 14 (1-2):1 - 8.
Hume and thick connexions.Simon Blackburn - 1990 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 50:237-250.

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