The Early Days of a Better Nation

Saturday, August 20, 2011

A Treatise of Humean Nature

When the hero of Alastair Gray's Lanark was a typically tormented teenager, he happened to open a book. The book began:
All the perceptions of the human mind resolve themselves into two distinct kinds, which I shall call IMPRESSIONS and IDEAS.
As he read on, he found that the text soothed his mind by lifting him right out of his problems, and giving him something else to think about. This is one way that philosophy can be applied to everyday life. Another, of course, is by mining the great philosophers for nuggets of practical wisdom. Not many of us have time to do that, or have any idea where to begin prospecting, but thanks to the division of labour (you'll find that in Adam Smith) someone else can do the mining for us, and package the result in a book you can read on the bus.

Read the rest here.

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Reading that book had the opposite effect on Kant.

When I was last in Edinburgh, I saw that someone had put a dunce cap on the statue of Hume on the Royal Mile. I'm sure there must be statues more deserving of dunce caps....

I don't think Duncan Thaw had dogmatic slumbers. He just had disturbed nights.

Re the dunce cap - we really should have a statue of Duns Scotus.

All I have read of Hume is the first part of his Treatise. Its main problem is simple. If one limits mental content to some notions of impressions and ideas, then it is hard to see where, for example, hypothetically held assumptions, beliefs with propositional form (e.g. predicative), and perhaps propositions fit into this system. If any of these are needed in a full theory of mind but cannot be fitted into Humean notions, then something might well be wrong with Hume's system. I think that Reid, then Pritchard, and more recently Sellars have dismissed Hume's epistemology on such grounds.

I agree that Hume's framework is ultimately unworkable. As Wittgenstein points out, most of modern philosophy proceeded on the implicit (and therefore unrecognised) assumption that all concepts are nounlike. (It's also too psychologistic.)

But I think Hume (like many philosophers with unworkable frameworks) achieved great and salvageable insights despite his framework. Some of the most interesting recent work on the Scottish Enlightenment, to my mind, involves extricating the insights from the framework. (In a way that's what Kant took himself to be doing too.)

I agree, Roderick, although I'm not acquainted with much of the recent literature on this. Kant thought that the notions of impressions and ideas were jointly inadequate to yield one notion that Kant deemed crucial: empirical intuition, which somehow grounds predicative judgements. I don't know if this is correct, but Kant, Husserl, and Sellars did.

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