FSPB: Hi, Don, thank you for joining us.
DG: Thanks, Rico—it’s a pleasure.
FSPB: Congratulations on the upcoming publication of Hume. Could you tell our readers, briefly, the central focus of the book.
DG: As you may know, it is part of the Routledge Philosophers series edited by Brian Leiter. As such, its primary aim is to explain and explore Hume’s most important contributions to philosophy on the widest possible range of topics, doing so in a way that will be readily accessible even to readers with little prior knowledge of them. Whereas writing on Hume often focuses on one or another particular argument without trying to see how that argument fits into the whole, I am particularly concerned to emphasize the interrelations among Hume’s contributions and the systematic character of his thought.
FSPB: Let’s start with a rather general, and slightly contentious, question. Since there are so many intriguing philosophical problems on which people are working right now, why might someone be interested in studying the works of figures from the 17th and 18th century? Why, in fact, are you interested in studying the history of early modern philosophy?
DG: The 17th and 18th centuries are a period in which many of the most important of those intriguing philosophical problems were first formulated in a recognizably modern form, and it is the period in which a remarkable number of the greatest philosophical minds in human history set out some of the most promising basic lines of approach to them. There are never that many fundamentally different approaches to a philosophical problem, and the early moderns developed many of them. Are you interested in how to reconcile the intentionality of mental states with a naturalistic metaphysics? So was Spinoza, and he has some ideas for you. Are you wondering what kind of continuity is required for personal identity and why it matters? Locke has already mapped out much of that terrain. It’s really quite stunning to think of all the puzzling and important topics—induction, causation, free will, motivation and practical reason, the emotions, moral epistemology, the meaning of moral discourse, convention, and so on—for which one of the main contemporary approaches is widely dubbed “Humean”. Yet the early moderns also had philosophical concerns and debates that are initially quite foreign to us and are fascinating to learn about. The history of early modern philosophy is incredibly valuable and incredibly interesting. If you like philosophy at all but you don’t enjoy exploring the history of early modern philosophy, then I don’t think you are doing it right.
FSPB: Since you are, quite likely, best known for your work on Hume, let me spend the rest of our time in this interview focusing on that aspect of your research.
DG: Well, if you twist my arm …
FSPB: Hume is perceived by many as a radical skeptic—one whose system would require us to believe little, if anything—but according to you that reading is inaccurate. Why do you reject this skeptical reading of Hume?
DG: I reject it because Hume himself explicitly rejects what he calls “excessive scepticism” in favor of “mitigated scepticism”—that is, a general but moderate diminution of doxastic certainty, combined with agnosticism about “high and distant” topics such as “the origin of worlds”—and because he describes himself as contributing to a “science of man” that will provide a foundation for all the sciences “almost entirely new, and the only one on which they can stand with any security.” So really, the question should be: “Why does anyone accept the radical skeptical reading?” As it happens, I do have an explanation for it. Hume’s project is an investigation of his cognitive faculties by means of those very faculties. Those faculties begin, as they must, with a kind of provisional authority, but they are all of them—even reason itself—subject to criticism and revision. Philosophers are so accustomed to putting forward their own a priori normative epistemic principles that they don’t notice the fact that Hume doesn’t begin with any such principles. (Nor could he—his own account of human cognitive faculties makes no room for them.) So they read what Hume readily admits are psychologically disturbing findings about the operations and limitations of our cognitive faculties, combine them with normative epistemic principles that they themselves regard as obviously true a priori, and then attribute to Hume arguments that he never gives for negative epistemic conclusions (e.g., “no beliefs are rationally justified”) that he never asserts. In fact, throughout Book I of the Treatise, Hume mostly just allows our various cognitive faculties to testify about one another’s operations; it is only at the end of Book I that he brings his own reflective epistemic sensibility fully to bear on the epistemic normative question of what to believe in the light of all this accumulated testimony. While he there reports experiencing extreme skepticism, he doesn’t endorse it. On the contrary, he concludes that “where reason is lively, and mixes with some propensity, it ought to be assented to.” This method of using his own epistemic sensibility as the arbiter of epistemic norms is, in fact, very much like his method in morals, which also involves no a priori normative principles and depends instead on the judicious and reflective use of one’s own sensibility — although, as he notes, things go rather more smoothly in the moral case than in the epistemic one.
FSPB: One of the issues on which Hume certainly does appear to be skeptical is the topic of miracles. There is a great deal of debate, however, about Hume’s position. What, exactly, is Hume’s argument concerning miracles, and is it successful?
DG: Chapter 7 of my book, Cognition and Commitment in Hume’s Philosophy, gives a 29-step outline of the argument in Hume’s own words, so I won’t try to repeat it all here. But his first main conclusion is (A) that testimony cannot establish the occurrence of a miracle unless the falsehood of the testimony would be even more miraculous than the occurrence of the miracle for which the testimony is offered. That’s not to say that testimony could never establish a miracle, just that the standard is extremely high. The argument has three main parts: (i) because belief should be apportioned in accordance with conformity to past experience, “proof” (that is, wide and exceptionless experience of a regularity) trumps mere “probability” (in which the experience is more varied); (ii) since all belief should be allocated in accordance with conformity to past experience, pieces of testimony, in particular, should gain our acceptance only insofar as we have experience of the reliability of that particular kind of testimony; and (iii) to regard any occurrence as a “miracle” is, by the very meaning of the term, to acknowledge that there is a “proof” against it, so that only if the testimony itself amounted to a conflicting “proof” could there be any chance of the testimony properly prevailing. Hume then goes on to argue, on further grounds, (B) that no testimony for a miracle ever offered has yet met that very high standard and (C) that, given what we already know about human psychology and religion, no testimony could possibly establish a miracle in such a way as to make it a just foundation for a system of religion. Although one could try to evade Hume’s arguments by proposing other understandings of what “miracles” are or other principles of evidence concerning laws of nature, I think the argument is quite successful against his actual opponents. As he says, it is “an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently, will be useful as long as the world endures.”
FSPB: Let’s stay on the theme of Hume’s views of religion for a moment. There is a growing amount of work among contemporary philosophers, scientists, and anthropologists concerning naturalistic explanations of religious belief—the very kind of project in which Hume seems to be engaged in The Natural History of Religion. Why has so little been written about Hume’s Natural History, as compared to his other works, and do you think that trend is likely to change?
DG: I think it is very likely to change. In fact, we are already beginning to see increased interest in it. In an earlier era, people said, “Poor old Hume—he’s trying to be a philosopher, but he keeps sliding off-topic into mere psychology.” Now we see that Hume was way ahead of his critics in realizing that genuine psychological sophistication is absolutely essential to good philosophy. That applies at least as much in the philosophy of religion as it does in other areas.
FSPB: There is so much more one could ask you about Hume’s ethics, his moral psychology, as well as his views on aesthetic judgments and on political theory. Out of respect for your time, though, let’s save those for another time and close with a couple of reading materials questions.
DG: And out of respect for your readers’ time—even though the connections between Hume’s theoretical philosophy and his practical philosophy are fascinating and important.
FSPB: What, in your opinion, is some of the more intriguing, recent work on Hume?
DG: Well, that’s a question that could get me in a lot of trouble! But emphasizing that you asked only for some of the more intriguing recent work, I would certainly mention, in epistemology, David Owen’s Hume’s Reason and Louis Loeb’s Stability and Justification in Hume’s Treatise. Both have gotten a great of deal of much-deserved discussion in recent years. Ted Morris, Peter Millican, and Wayne Waxman all have very different and provocative takes on Hume’s epistemology and metaphysics. Paul Russell has a very nice new book coming out about the irreligious character of the Treatise, and, on a more limited topic, Bob Fogelin has a great little book on Hume on miracles. Of course, the controversy about whether Hume was a causal realist is still ongoing; there are a lot of key contributors there. Geoffrey Sayre-McCord and Simon Blackburn have developed Hume’s moral philosophy in important directions, and there are important books on Hume’s moral philosophy nearing completion by Kate Abramson, Jackie Taylor, and Rachel Cohon. Something that unites almost all of that disparate work, in one way or another, is an interest in Hume’s naturalism, in various related senses of that term. You can tell, even just from the titles of conferences and APA symposia, that “Hume’s naturalism” is a hot topic, and properly so. One hundred years ago, Norman Kemp Smith said that understanding Hume’s naturalism is essential to seeing what his contributions to philosophy are, and he was right.
FSPB: If students are interested in doing research on Hume, or in the history of early modern philosophy more generally, where would you suggest they begin?
DG: There is no substitute for engaging repeatedly with the primary texts. The Clarendon Edition of the Works of David Hume, now appearing in multiple volumes, will be the new standard, and Hackett has a very useful new single-volume edition of all of Hume’s moral writings. Barry Stroud’s Hume is a classic, as is Kemp Smith’s The Philosophy of David Hume. But would it be incredibly crass to suggest, by way of introductory guides, my forthcoming Hume and, more generally, the Routledge Philosophers? For a broader range of expert commentators on specific topics, I also recommend the Cambridge Companions and Blackwell Companions.
FSPB: Thanks, Don. We appreciate you taking the time to speak with us.
Don Garrett is Professor of Philosophy at New York University. He is the author of Hume, Cognition and Commitment in Hume’s Philosophy, the Cambridge Companion to Spinoza, and numerous articles on topics in early modern philosophy.