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§3. Deliberation as Transforming the System of Passions

§3. Deliberation as Transforming the System of Passions

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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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or from the effects of what happens to us. This means that deliberation

itself cannot now change the final passions that exist now (in the interval

between the beginning of deliberation and taking the action), although it

can, as we have seen, greatly modify their intensity and influence, and make

us fully aware of passions of which we were before largely unaware. What

it apparently cannot do by itself, leaving aside the changes resulting from

corrections of beliefs, is to eliminate passions altogether, or to generate new


However, once the calm passions have acquired control of the powers

of deliberation, they can shape our character so as to ensure strength of

mind. They can lead us to perform the actions required to eliminate passions likely to challenge their dominance and to cultivate supporting passions and habits. Often our tastes and preferences can by brute force—the

steady dominance of the calm passions—be changed in a short time. In

“The Skeptic” (Essays: –), where I think Hume speaks for himself, he


Habit is another powerful means of reforming the mind and implanting

in it good dispositions and inclinations. A man who continues in a

course of sobriety and temperance, will hate riot and disorder; if he

engage in business or study, indolence will seem a punishment to him;

if he constrain himself to practice beneficence and affability, he will

soon abhor instances of pride and violence. Where one is thoroughly

convinced that the virtuous course of life is preferable; if he have but

resolution enough, for some time, to impose a violence [my italics] on

himself; his reformation needs not be despaired of. The misfortune is,

that this conviction and this resolution can never have place, unless a

man be, beforehand, tolerably virtuous.

What does Hume mean here by imposing a violence on oneself ? Well,

when you are going on a three-month canoe trip in northern Quebec, say,

you can stop smoking by dwelling on the harms it causes you, and acting

from your aroused aversion to such harms, you throw away your cigarettes

as you depart.

To conclude: Hume allows that, in certain circumstances, strict reason

and the calm passions—which we mistake for the operations of reason—

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together with custom, habit, and imagination, can shape our character over

time, sometimes rather quickly. Yet this prompts a question: Why can’t it

happen that upon reading a play or a novel or the life of a historical figure,

or listening to a talk, we are introduced to an ideal, a certain way to lead

our life, and then and there, before we do anything (beyond the reading,

the learning, and the listening), we are, as it were, seized by that ideal,

which from then on deeply affects us?

Must the reading, the hearing, or the listening merely enliven certain

passions already existing in our configuration of passion? Can’t we deny

this? After all, Hume insists that in advance anything may affect anything

else; it’s up to experience to say. Sometimes such conversions certainly

seem to happen. Does Hume have a reply to this? Or must he simply

postulate such passions—as pure dispositions—shown in what we actually

do? Does his view then lose its special character? What is the criterion

for saying, when a passion arises in the imagined kind of case, that we

already had it? Do these questions have a clear answer? I shall come back

to this.

§. The General Appetite to Good

. I turn to our second question: whether Hume’s general account of the

passions really applies to the calm passions (the operations of which we

mistake for reason). I begin with examining how the general appetite to

good allows the bare knowledge of our future passions to move us now.

Recall the problem: only the passions that exist now are supposed to

move us now. So while we may know now about our future passions

(say, future passions for food and drink, which will arise when we need

nourishment in the future), and while we know the anguish it will cause

us if we do not make provision now for satisfying them, we don’t have

those passions now, so they can’t move us now. We do, however, make

such provisions. Hume accounts for this by invoking the general appetite

to good. I first discuss how this appetite works, and then ask whether Hume

views it as a passion or as a principle-dependent desire (a term I shall explain).

. Despite its obvious importance, Hume says little about the general

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appetite to good. He counts it as a calm secondary passion (recall that the

secondary passions are the passions arising from pleasure and pain). He says

(T:): “Reason . . . exerts itself without producing any sensible emotion

. . . Hence . . . every action of the mind, which operates with the same

calmness and tranquility, is confounded with reason by all those who judge

of things from the first view and appearance. . . . There are certain calm

desires and tendencies, which tho’ they be real passions, produce little emotion in the mind, and are known more by their effects than by their immediate feeling or sensation.” Note the calm passions produce little but still some

emotion and are known partly by immediate feeling, though more by their

effects. And further:

These [calm] desires are of two kinds: either certain instincts originally

implanted in our natures . . . benevolence . . . the love of life . . .

kindness to children; or the general appetite to good, and aversion to

evil, consider’d merely as such. (Ibid.)

The mind by an original instinct tends to unite itself with the good,

and avoid the evil, tho’ they may be conceiv’d merely in idea, and be

consider’d as to exist in any future period of time. (T:)

. . . good or evil, or in other words, pain and pleasure . . . (T:)

When good is certain or probable, it produces . When evil is in the

same situation there arises  and . (Ibid.)

. This is not much to go on, but the answer to the question how our

present passions prompt us to make provision for our future passions is clear

enough. Since we now know about our future passions and how to provide

for them, our present general appetite to good is sensitive now to the good

(the pleasure) of satisfying our future needs and to the evil (the pain) of

not doing so. It is sensitive because, as Hume says, it unites itself with good

and avoids evil “tho’ they be conceiv’d merely in idea and be consider’d as

to exist in any future period of time [my italics].”

The answer, then, rests on a basic principle of Hume’s moral psychology, the principle that an idea of a pleasure or pain can generate a present

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§3. Deliberation as Transforming the System of Passions

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