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§7. On Studying Historical Texts

§7. On Studying Historical Texts

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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.



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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

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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. –.



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