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§2. Three Further Psychological Principles

§2. Three Further Psychological Principles

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more delicate revolutions, as dependent on principles too fine and minute for her comprehension.

Observe that he is not presenting an account of rational deliberation understood as normative. Rather, he is saying how, psychologically, we do deliberate.

. In support of this understanding of Hume’s aims, consider three psychological principles he introduces in sections – and . He discusses others

as well but these three suffice for our purposes.

(a) The principle of the predominant passion (introduced in section )

says that any emotion that accompanies a stronger passion may easily be

converted into the stronger one. Hume writes (T:): “The predominant

passion swallows up the inferior, and converts it into itself. The spirits,

when once excited, easily receive a change in their direction; and ’tis natural

to imagine this change will come from the prevailing affection. The connexion is in many respects closer betwixt any two passions, than betwixt any

passion and indifference.” Note that this principle is contrary to what we

might call a parallelogram law of psychic forces: such a law would hold

that the passions influence the decision reached according to their direction

(object) and strength. Instead, Hume seems to think that at times the

weaker passions are excitable and unstable in the presence of dominant

passions, in which case their energy may be transferred to the dominant

passions, which then largely determine the action taken.

(b) The principle of custom is described in section . Hume believes

that custom and repetition are important in increasing or diminishing our

passions, and in converting pleasure into pain and pain into pleasure. Custom does so by its two original effects on us: first, it gives a facility in

performing any action, or in forming a conception of an object; second,

this facility, once acquired, causes an inclination to the performance, or to

the conception. This inclination is, Hume says, an “infallible source of pleasure,” provided the facility is “moderate,” by which he means that the effort

required is not too great. He writes (T:): “The pleasure of facility does

not so much consist in any ferment of the spirits, as in their orderly motion;

which will sometimes be so powerful as even to convert pain into pleasure,

and give us a relish in time for what at first was most harsh and disagreeable.” Hume notes that the two aspects of custom (facility and inclination)

[  ]

      

tend to increase the active habits and decrease the passive. Together with

the principle of the predominant passion, this means that over time the

active habits tend to absorb energy from the passive, so up to a point the

active habits are controlling (T:).

(c) Finally, there is the principle of the greater influence of more particular and determinate ideas on the imagination (section ). Hume’s thought

is that pleasures with which we are acquainted, and of which we have

detailed and specific ideas, have more influence on us than those we conceive of under the general notion of pleasure or advantage. In fact, the

more general and universal our ideas, the less their influence on the imagination and so on the passions (T:f.).

He illustrates this principle by the story of Aristides the Just. The date

is the winter of  .., when Athens and Sparta were still allies after defeating the Persians under Xerxes (in 480 ..), though now uneasy and

suspicious of each other. Themistocles (an admiral of the fleet) told the

Athenian assembly that he had a secret naval plan. This was to set fire to

a Peloponnesian fleet then wintering in the Bay of Pagasai; but since the

plan’s success depended on secrecy, he could not make it public: the assembly should trust him. Rather than grant this, he was told to clear his plan

with Aristides (also a leading military commander), in whose judgment the

assembly had confidence. As Hume tells the story, Aristides consulted with

Themistocles, returned to the assembly, and said that nothing could be

more advantageous than the plan but at the same time nothing could be

more unjust. The plan was unanimously rejected.1

Unlike the historian he cites, Hume sees nothing extraordinary in this

rejection: he denies that it shows a great sense of justice in the Athenians.

For had they been told the plan in detail, and had they held vividly before

their minds the nearly certain destruction of the Peloponnesian fleet, they

would have approved of it. As it was, they knew of its merits only under

the general idea of advantage, and so the temptation was less violent. Hume

says that otherwise (T:) “ ’tis difficult to conceive, that a whole people,

unjust and violent as men commonly are, should so unanimously have

adhered to justice, and rejected any considerable advantage.” On this princi1. The story is told in many places. One is A. R. Burn, Pelican History of Greece (Harmondsworth:

Penguin Books, ), p. .

[  ]

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ple depends the power of rhetoric and persuasion to stir the passions by

describing their objects “in their strongest and most lively colors” (T:).

It shows the significance of the specific point of view from which things

are seen, enabling strict reasoning and imaginative rehearsal to affect the

passions during deliberation.

§. Deliberation as Transforming the System of Passions

. Hume mentions several other principles in these sections, but the three

principles surveyed, especially when we see them as working in concert,

suffice for discussing our question: How far can deliberation transform the

passions? The following points seem clear from the foregoing three principles.

(a) Deliberation can alter the degree to which certain passions that we

have now are active now and so the weight—the degree of influence—

with which they affect the decision reached. Deliberation can be carried

out so as to reduce or even to eliminate the present influence of some

passions and increase the influence of others. The example of Aristides the

Just makes this point.

(b) While Hume does not explicitly mention it, deliberation could lead

us to realize that we have now certain passions of which we have been

largely unaware (we cannot say they are repressed or unconscious [in

Freud’s sense]), not merely passions we have forgotten about or paid little

attention to. We become aware of them by finding it attractive to imagine

ourselves doing this or that. So as before, while throughout deliberation

the final passions are viewed as fixed, deliberation can affect their felt vivacity and force, and so their influence on our decision and subsequent conduct.

In these two ways at least, deliberation may largely control which passions direct and influence our conduct. Hume does not deny this. Recall his

saying that, in general (T:f.), “the violent passions have a more powerful

influence on the will; tho’ ’tis often found that the calm ones, when corroborated by reflection and seconded by resolution, are able to control them

in their most furious moments.” I think that he means by resolution a virtue

built up by custom and habit. On his view, it is clearly incorrect to regard

[  ]

      

the passions as already given together with their relative intensity and influence and as merely being directed by deliberation.

. We must now ask: Since deliberation is an activity, how is it moved

and regulated by one or more passions? After all, it cannot simply happen

without some passion moving it. Hume may answer by saying (as in the

passage cited above) that the calm passions, corroborated by reflection and

seconded by resolution, can control the violent passions in their most furious moments. Recall that possessing such control over the passions is what

Hume means by strength of mind, since this, he says, implies “the prevalence of the calm passions above the violent” (T:). Putting these remarks

together (T:f. and ), we might say the following:

(a) In persons of strength of mind, the calm passions have a central

place in the total configuration of their passions and have taken control of

the powers of rational thought, i.e., strict reason and imagination. Thus the

calm passions can normally guide deliberation in the ways already described.

(b) Hume thinks also that custom, habit, and imagination, supported

by the total configuration of the passions, play an important role in strength

of mind. As we have seen, custom bestows a facility in performing an action, or in conceiving an object, and thereby generates an inclination to

act accordingly. These two effects allow us to explain strength of mind as


Deliberation, like any other activity, is something we must learn to do.

It involves forming certain conceptions, going through various steps; it also

involves the imaginative rehearsal of the consequences of adopting various

alternatives, and so on. As we gain practice, we do it more easily, and the

benefits of deliberating, as judged by our success in fulfilling our calm passions and more basic interests, are greater. Thus facility in deliberation is

rewarded, and this in turn gives rise to a stronger inclination, a stronger

tendency to engage in deliberation because we enjoy the moderate (not

too hard or too easy) exercise of our facility. (It may be odd to speak of

enjoying deliberation, so let’s say instead that we overcome an aversion to

it, to the mental exercises it requires.) Further, we learn when deliberation

is called for, and we come to appreciate its advantages.

. So far, I have assumed that passions come into and go out of existence

only from the effects of actions undertaken as a result of deliberation

[  ]

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§2. Three Further Psychological Principles

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