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§7. On Studying Historical Texts
which we now ask our questions. And this self-clariﬁcation helps us to decide which questions we really want to resolve, which ones we can reasonably expect to settle, and much else.
. It is hard to talk sensibly about these matters when talking so generally, and without illustrating one’s points with detailed examples. Therefore
I shall not do so. As we proceed, we shall look in some detail at how a
writer’s background scheme of thought and basic aim affect not only the
way questions get posed but also the reasons people have for being concerned with the questions in the ﬁrst place. I have already suggested that
Hume’s, Leibniz’s, and Kant’s reasons for being concerned with moral philosophy are quite different from ours. But showing this convincingly is a
matter of going into the details, and this must wait.
A ﬁnal caveat: I shall try to suggest a general interpretation for each of
the writers we look at. While I do the best I can at this, I don’t think for
a moment that my interpretations are plainly correct; other interpretations
are surely possible, and some are almost certainly better. It’s just that I
don’t know what they are. Part of the wonderful character of the works
we study is the depth and variety of ways they can speak to us. I don’t
want to do anything to interfere with their doing that. So if I present an
interpretation, it is not only to try to illuminate the writer’s background
scheme of thought but also to encourage you to work out a better interpretation, one that is sensitive to more features of the text than mine, and
makes better sense of the whole.
Morality Psychologized and the Passions
§. Background: Skepticism and the Fideism of Nature
. I shall not say much about Hume’s life. His dates are –, the last
coinciding with the Declaration of Independence and the publication of
Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. He was born of a lowland gentry Scottish
family in Berwickshire, just across the Scottish border from the east coast
of England. By any standard he was precocious. After being tutored at
home, he entered the University of Edinburgh at age twelve and left when
he was fourteen or ﬁfteen without taking a degree, as was then quite customary. That completed his formal education. His family wanted him to
enter the law, but at eighteen in he dropped all pretense of doing that
and began to work on what became the Treatise of Human Nature.
Hume says that the work was projected before he left the university at
ﬁfteen in , it was planned before he was twenty-one in , and it was
composed before he was twenty-ﬁve in . These dates are probably not
entirely accurate but are extraordinary nonetheless. The Treatise was ﬁnally
written, after a year at Reims in France in , at La Fle`che in Anjou in
–, with further revisions made for the next year or so after Hume’s
return to England by late . These astounding facts leave one speechless.
(Volumes I and II appeared in , Volume III in .)
. As with other leading writers in philosophy, Hume has not been easy
to interpret, and at different times he has been read very differently. In the
later part of the nineteenth century, Green and Bradley (among the English
Idealists) led the way (following Hume’s eighteenth-century Scottish critics
Reid and Beattie) in understanding him as a radical skeptic and saw his
views as the reductio ad absurdum of empiricism. In this century the logical
positivists of the Vienna Circle (including Schlick and Carnap) saw Hume
as their great predecessor, while Kemp Smith, in his very important study
The Philosophy of David Hume (), which has made a lasting contribution
to the reading of Hume, gave pride of place to Hume’s psychological naturalism and de-emphasized his skepticism.
More recently several writers, among them Burnyeat and Fogelin, have
tried to right the balance and to present an interpretation that emphasizes
both the skepticism and the naturalism, and indeed sees them as complementary and working together. Since both skepticism and naturalism are
prominent in Hume’s text, an interpretation that succeeds in making them
work in tandem is to be preferred, other things being equal. Today I begin
with a brief sketch of this interpretation.1 The view that results I shall sometimes refer to as Hume’s ﬁdeism of nature, for reasons that will become
clear as we proceed.
. Let’s begin by distinguishing several kinds of skepticism as follows.
In each case, the meaning and point are given in part by the contrast:2
(a) theoretical in contrast with normative skepticism
(b) epistemological in contrast with conceptual skepticism
To explain: theoretical skepticism calls into question on various grounds
the soundness or basis of some scheme of beliefs or system of thought.
Radical skepticism holds that the beliefs in question have no reasoned support; they are completely ungrounded. Moderate skepticism holds them
to be less well grounded than is usually thought. By contrast, normative
skepticism (established perhaps on the basis of theoretical skepticism, but
possibly on other grounds) enjoins us to suspend belief altogether, or more
moderately, to give less credence to them than is usually done. A person
who follows a form of normative skepticism is a practicing skeptic.
Epistemological skepticism accepts a scheme of beliefs as meaningful
and intelligible but questions the grounds and reasons for them. Conceptual
1. See Robert J. Fogelin, Hume’s Skepticism in the Treatise of Human Nature (London: Routledge
and Kegan Paul, ).
2. Ibid., pp. –.