Thursday, September 25, 2008

In praise of David Hume

Towards the end of The Social Contract, after discussing the continuity between Rousseau and the The Terror, David Hume appears and we leap 250 years into an essentially modern perspective.

It’s not the first time in years of listening to In Our Time that Hume comes in to deliver the final word. So why is it that we hear of Descartes, Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Sartre, Popper, Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard and other, lesser, philosophers and not of Hume? Is it that Hume takes all the fun out of philosophy by drilling directly to the 21st century? (More like, from what I can tell of Melvynn Bragg, that he’s looking for a team who can do justice to the Great One.)

Who the heck ways this guy, anyway (emphases mine):

David Hume (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

The most important philosopher ever to write in English, David Hume (1711-1776) — the last of the great triumvirate of “British empiricists” — was also well-known in his own time as an historian and essayist. A master stylist in any genre, Hume's major philosophical works — A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-1740), the Enquiries concerning Human Understanding (1748) and concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), as well as the posthumously published Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1779) — remain widely and deeply influential. Although many of Hume's contemporaries denounced his writings as works of scepticism and atheism, his influence is evident in the moral philosophy and economic writings of his close friend Adam Smith. Hume also awakened Immanuel Kant from his “dogmatic slumbers” and “caused the scales to fall” from Jeremy Bentham's eyes. Charles Darwin counted Hume as a central influence, as did “Darwin's bulldog,” Thomas Henry Huxley. The diverse directions in which these writers took what they gleaned from reading Hume reflect not only the richness of their sources but also the wide range of his empiricism. Today, philosophers recognize Hume as a precursor of contemporary cognitive science, as well as one of the most thoroughgoing exponents of philosophical naturalism….

…Born in Edinburgh, Hume spent his childhood at Ninewells, the family's modest estate on the Whitadder River in the border lowlands near Berwick. His father died just after David's second birthday, “leaving me, with an elder brother and a sister under the care of our Mother, a woman of singular Merit, who, though young and handsome, devoted herself to the rearing and educating of her Children.” (All quotations in this section are from Hume's autobiographical essay, “My Own life”, reprinted in HL.)

From what I can gather he was probably also the first modern psychologist and the first cultural anthropologist.

Of course he’s not a perfect modernist. His opinions on IQ and race are pretty much in line with his times (and today’s Bell Curve gang). So he’s only 200 years ahead of his time.

Incidentally, the 2008-2009 IOT season has begun. Podcasts are only available for a week, so I suggest subscribing to the IOT feed in addition to iTunes subscription (though now that I have an iPhone with Remote 1.1 I do leave iTunes running all the time).

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