The Humean Assault

When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

David Hume, The Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Section xii, part III)

3 replies on “The Humean Assault”

mr. hume is indeed a dude but i would protest against the overly empiricist interpretation given by this selective quote…more than an empiricist, hume seems to me to be a naturalist – not getting naked on the beach but more seeing reason for what it is i.e. something quite interesting but which will ultimately not really get you anywhere. this is best and most succinctly illustrated in his essay about aesthetics ( where he`s all over the place to such a deliberate degree that this mission within his whole philosophy becomes clear. and perhaps this decisively, this is the man who said at the end of his magnum opus, the culmination of his lifes work

“I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly depraved of the use of every member and faculty. Most fortunately it happens that, since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when, after three or four hours amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther…”

interestingly his theory of personal identity i.e. what makes us same person over time is extremely buddhist in flavour…and he completely doesnt believe in causation. or reality

which is perhaps a controversial reading but undoubtedly hume is the key to revolutionising understanding of the history of western philosophy…he awoke kant from his dogmatic slumbers,

nuff said


Thanks for that, and thanks for the quote. It’s one which i’ve being trying to find again for about ten years, always half-remembering but never remember the author or enough of the words to be able to pin it down. Now it has come back to me – not through memory, but thanks to you. Awesome.

And I agree about the limitied utility of reason…

I disagree that reason can’t get you anywhere. First of all it depends where you want to get – do you want excitement, or inner peace, or sex, or love, or perhaps the truth. For getting all of these reason is a useful tool, thinking accuratly about yourself and the world seems to me likely to improve improve your chances of getting where you want to be. Admittedly it is only one tool, but far from a useless one. I think that the truth is a special case. Here I think that reasoning, along with experiment, are the best tools, better than any other. I think Hume is talking about truth in Toms quote, for which reason is a good tool, and this is why Hume extolls it. In Niels quote it seems that Hume is talking about ones feelings, for which reason can lead to despair as they are too complex to understand. It depends where you want to get as to the virtue of reason.

p.s. I think that ultimatly reason and experiment will solve our emotional problems also, we just haven’t reasoned and experimented enough, so we must just try and despair. But give it a century or three…

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