Hume — An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section I

(“fat, smug sort of guy in red” —

In an effort to gain more teaching experience outside of the Architecture department, and more in line with the critical theory I’m currently exploring, I’ve volunteered to handle some TA duties for an undergraduate ethics course next quarter. Mind you, this is no ethics course like the one I was required to take as an engineering student, but one where the students read Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Mill, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, and so forth. In preparation, I picked up a copy of Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding — henceforth Understanding — that has been sitting untouched on my shelf for about eight years.

Originally published in 1748, Understanding is a reworking of Book I of his earlier publication, A Treatise on Human Nature (note that he published another book with a similar title — An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, which was a reworking of Book III of the Treatise — in 1751). In the advertisement of the last edition of Understanding, he asserts that the Treatise was a juvenile work, and that “the following Pieces may alone be regarded as containing his philosophical sentiments and principles.” Following David Harvey’s sound advice to “read Marx on Marx’s terms,” I’m going to read Hume with his request in mind. The following are my reading notes and I encourage discussion. The page numbers refer to the Hackett edition, edited by Eric Steinberg.

Section I

Hume lays out two different manners by which “Moral philosophy, or the science of human nature” (1) can be treated:

1) Man is born for action and is influenced by taste and sentiment. These philosophers are empiricists, and observe the best elements of daily life, and direct us toward them through our feelings (Empiricists? Hume’s position). He considers this easy and obvious philosophy.

2) Man is born to reason and human nature is explored via speculation. Though these philosophers move from observations to general principles, they proceed to develop the original principles that are the underlying causes for all actions (Metaphysicians?). Hume calls this abstruse philosophy.

Hume maintains that in society, this second version of the philosopher is a character that forms one pole that stands in opposition to another pole marked by the even more despised ignoramus: “The most perfect character is supposed to lie between those extremes; retaining  an equal ability and taste for books, company, and business…” (3). This is, he asserts, what being reasonable is all about: being amiable, agreeable, and entertaining. However, Hume thinks that some relaxation — some action uninhibited by reason —  is in order.

This attack on “dogmatic rationalism,” doesn’t just dismiss rationalism altogether. Rather, it renders it as subservient to the sentiments. In fact, Hume argues that without rationalism, humane philosophy “can never attain a sufficient degree of exactness in its sentiments, precepts, or reasonings” (4). Moreover, he avers that “accuracy is, in every case, advantageous to beauty, and just reasoning [is advantageous] to delicate sentiment” (5). I read this as putting rationalism — here taking the form of accuracy and just reasoning — in its proper place, in which it directs all actions stemming from sentiments toward perfection. Rather than orient this faculties toward popular superstitions (religion?) — as he suggests metaphysicians do — he argues that these abilities should be exercised in all human endeavors and by everyone.

Hume turns these powers of accuracy and just reasoning toward the operations of the mind (he says ordering the objects of our senses “has no merit” (7)). In doing this, he asserts that the mind is endowed with several distinct powers, with the most important distinction lying between immediate perception (which he will come to call Impressions in Section 2) and reflection (Thoughts and Ideas in Section 2). Lastly, he argues that truth and falsehood exist in all propositions regarding perception and reflection, and that they exist within the realm of human understanding, though of course some concepts are much more difficult to follow than others  (7). Nevertheless, all philosophizing should aim to present a humane and clear understanding of its subject matter (again, this is something that the metaphysicians fail to do, according to Hume). In closing, he has two central goals: “reconciling profound enquiry with clearness” and undermining “the foundations of an abstruse philosophy” (8). Admirable goals, I’d say.

Check out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Hume here.

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