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We didn’t spend much time looking at Hume way back in philosophy university land – a rather unfortunate oversight – as the quiet rational approach to life he articulates is not only reasonable, but sensibly accessible, a quality I find quite appealing.  Julian Baggini’s essay on Hume is a great primer on the subject of his philosophy and how he approached life.  I excerpt the description of some of the main principles of Hume’s philosophical arguments.

“Hume’s philosophy does not add up to an easily digestible system, a set of rules for living. Indeed, Hume is best known for three negative theses.

First, our belief in the power of cause and effect, on which all our reasoning about matters of fact rests, is not justified by either observation or by logical deduction. We only ever see one thing following another: we never observe any power that makes one thing necessitate an effect. Even if we could be satisfied that we had established x caused y, logic can’t establish any general principle of causation, since all the regularities we have observed in nature were in the past, but the principle of cause and effect is assumed to apply in the present and future. Logically, you can never arrive at a truth about the future based entirely on premises that concern the past: what has been is not the same as what will be.

Hume did not deny cause and effect were real. We could not reason about any matter of empirical fact without assuming their reality, as his own writings frequently do. However, he was clear that this linchpin of sensible thinking is not itself established by reason or experience. This is philosophically strong stuff but hardly the source of inspirational Instagram quotes.

Hume is also well known for his arguments against various aspects of religion, although he never came out as a fully fledged atheist. Most famously, he argued that it would never be rational to accept the claim of a miracle, since the evidence that one had occurred would always be weaker than the evidence that such things never happen. It would always be more likely that the witness to a miracle was mistaken or lying than that the miracle actually took place. But again, skepticism about the claims of traditional religion does not amount to a substantive, positive philosophy.

Hume’s third notable negative claim does have the benefit of a stirring slogan, albeit one that is somewhat opaque: ‘Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.’ Reason by itself gives us no motivation to act, and certainly no principles on which to base our morality. If we are good it is because we have a basic fellow-feeling that makes us respond with sympathy to the suffering of others and with pleasure at the thought of them thriving. The person who does not see why she should be good is not irrational but heartless.

As these three core claims illustrate, Hume’s philosophy is essentially skeptical, and skepticism seems to take away more than it offers. However, understood correctly, Humean skepticism can and should be the basis for a complete approach to life. It is built on the skeptical foundations of a brutally honest assessment of human nature, which could be seen as the essence of Hume’s project. It is not accidental that his first attempt to set out his philosophy was called A Treatise of Human Nature. Humanity was his primary subject.

Hume saw human beings as we really are, stripped of all pretension. We are not immortal souls temporarily encaged in flesh, nor the pure immaterial minds Descartes believed he had proved we were. Humans are animals – remarkable, highly intelligent ones – but animals nonetheless. Hume did not just bring human beings down to Earth, he robbed us of any enduring essence. Arguing against Descartes’s claim that we are aware of ourselves as pure, undivided egos, Hume challenged that when he introspected, he found no such thing. What we call the ‘self’ is just a ‘bundle of perceptions’. Look inside yourself, try to find the ‘I’ that thinks and you’ll only observe this thought, that sensation: an ear worm, an itch, a thought that pops into your head.”

I’m impressed by what Hume has to say, and intend to read further on his philosophical suppositions – I recommend you do as well, as his thoughts seem to be a reasonable tonic to these chaotic times.

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