A Short Digression: David Hume in Perspective

David Hume was a great writer and a great philosopher but this doesn’t mean that he produced perfect philosophy. Two of the best assessments I have seen are one by William Russell (see What is Enlightenment?) and Gilbert Ryle.

Hume thought of himself as the inaugurator of the natural science of the human mind. He was to be the Newton of the moral sciences, that is to say, of the sciences, of the studies, which we know today as psychology, sociology, political science, history, economics, ethics and literary and artistic criticism. The experimental methods by which Newton had disclosed what could be disclosed of physical nature would be applied by Hume to disclose what could be disclosed of Human nature. What the Principia did for the one realm would be matched for the other realm by A Treatise of Human Nature: being an Attempt to introduce the experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects.

In fact, Hume’s would-be mechanics of mental operations had even less foundation in experiment and observation than had Hartley’s. A present day student of psychology would learn much from reading Hume, but he would learn no psychology. Whether, for the structure of his projected experimental science, Hume borrows concepts from mechanics or concepts from biology, whether he thinks in hydraulic or physiological models, he not only establishes no laws, he hardly even isolates his phenomena. His particles of mental life, namely his impressions, ideas and passions, are the products of theory, not authentic data for theory. His organising principles of association, custom and vivacity are sham counterparts to attraction, inertia and attractive force.

Hume’s Newtonian enterprise was an ambitious failure. His psychological theory certainly helped his philosophical achievement, but not by containing any new scientific discoveries, or even fertile scientific mistakes. The examples set by the other sciences gave him a new horizon; his belief in the scientific nature of his own ideas gave him extra boldness.

Gilbert Ryle, Hume, pp. 158-9

Both agree that one of Hume’s principal contributions was essentially disruptive. There is nothing inconsistent with acknowledging Hume’s great contribution while criticizing aspects of his philosophy that express better than most a shift in our thinking that was taking place at the time.

I think of John Gray as our contemporary John Hume and one of our most important living philosophers. It is the great philosophers that produce ideas worth criticizing.

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