Notes on SECTION I: Of the different species of philosophy.
Note 1: Moral philosophy, or the science of
human nature, may be treated after two different manners; each of
which has its peculiar merit, and may contribute to the entertainment,
instruction, and reformation of mankind.
Let us start with noting - as
Hume says himself, but as may be less clear in the present day and age
- that Hume meant 'science' by his term 'philosophy',
indeed just as Newton did, and that one of the things Hume makes clear
by this first sentence is that this text, like its predecessor the 'Treatise
of Human Nature' concerns human nature.
Next, for later use and reference, it
makes sense to note immediately at the beginning that Hume presupposes
- it would seem - that there is such a thing as human nature,
that you and I, and every human child, man or woman, have in common,
in some sense, and indeed use or presuppose as the basis for our mutual
And finally, as regards the present
quotation, it should be clear that 'moral
philosophy', especially if this is taken to include religion
and politics, is not merely a source of 'entertainment,
instruction, and reformation of mankind'
but also the basis of much misery, persecution, murder or human
stultification in the name of philosophy, religion, ideology or
Note 2: The one considers man chiefly
as born for action; and as influenced in his measures by taste and
sentiment; pursuing one object, and avoiding another, according to the
value which these objects seem to possess, and according to the light
in which they present themselves.
In fact, Hume introduces a contrast
and opposition between two modes of moral philosophy that I like to
draw in somewhat other terms, and in not quite the same way, namely as
The price human beings have to pay
for having a larger intelligence than other animals and thereby being less prey to the
dictates of instinct, is that they have to
articulate and invent themselves at least some of the principles on the basis of which they want
to live, socialize, and cooperate, and that tell them what human
beings and the world are, and how the world could be made and human
beings should behave.
In general, such principles are
philosophical in a broad sense, and contain both a metaphysics,
that asserts what reality is supposed to be like, and an ethics,
that asserts what ends human beings should adopt and how they should
behave to each other.
And in general, the statements of
such metaphysical and ethical principles tends to be abstruse,
abstract, difficult to follow, and to be much concerned with defending the
philosophical positions taken against other positions, or with attacking these.
Hence the usual course is that, for
such philosophies or religions that find any manner of popularity, in
fact two systems are developed: First, the original one, usually
atttributed to some original thinker or religious prophet, that
contains the philosophical teachings as they were originally made
public, and second, derived ones, that contain versions or
interpretations of the
original system for popular consumption.
It makes a lot of sense to refer to
the latter by the term 'ideology', which accordingly is and
will be used in these notes in the sense of 'version of a philosophy
or religion as prepared for ordinary men and women'.
And it should be clear that the vast
majority of what is known as philosophy or religion among human beings
is ideological in the present sense: It does not consist of the
original ideas of the founders of doctrines, but rather of later
expositions, clarifications, restatements, simplifications,
cathechisms, summaries, reworkings or interpretations, usually
prepared for wider consumption and with some practical intent, namely
as propaganda for a certain point of view, party, religion, or as a
philosophical conviction, and it is not meant to be studied and
discussed objectively in a scholarly way, but is meant to carry
emotional and intellectual conviction and to motivate public action or
The distinction Hume had in mind that
he draws in this and the following sections is similar and overlaps
with my distinction but does not completely coincide with it.
Note 3: As virtue, of all objects, is
allowed to be the most valuable, this species of philosophers paint
her in the most amiable colours; borrowing all helps from poetry and
eloquence, and treating their subject in an easy and obvious manner,
and such as is best fitted to please the imagination, and engage the
This conforms to the usage I proposed in the previous note. To
reiterate: Most philosophy - and this includes the basic notions of
politics and religion -
that the vast majority of human beings come into contact with is in
the nature of ideological propaganda, that was intended to carry
conviction and to motivate men, but that does itself not belong to
Note 4: The other
species of philosophers consider man in the light of a reasonable
rather than an active being, and endeavour to form his understanding
more than cultivate his manners. They regard human nature as a subject
of speculation; and with a narrow scrutiny examine it, in order to
find those principles, which regulate our understanding, excite our
sentiments, and make us approve or blame any particular object,
action, or behaviour.
This likewise conforms to the usage I proposed in Note 3, and it may
be well to add here the basic distinction between - let us say - the
intellectual and the ideological modes of doing philosophy:
In the former case, whatever the
beliefs and intentions of the writers, the predominant concern is with
the truth or falsity, or if this is inachievable, the plausibility of
and support and evidence for the philosophies discussed, in the light
of all possible intellectual objections and all available evidence.
In the latter case, the predominant
concern is to present a philosophy or religion as if it is true or
tenable, and to derive intellectual and moral lessons from it, that
may motivate men's actions and help their reasoning.
Now one of Hume's own convictions was
in fact that both of these approaches are mistaken - the
former, because there is no provable truth or falsity in most matters
of philosophy, and the latter, because it follows that the lessons
derived from - dogmatic, non-sceptical - philosophy of any kind must be mistaken even if they are
Note 5: They think
it a reproach to all literature, that philosophy should not yet have
fixed, beyond controversy, the foundation of morals, reasoning, and
criticism; and should for ever talk of truth and falsehood, vice and
virtue, beauty and deformity, without being able to determine the
source of these distinctions.
As I explained in my previous note,
in fact Hume believed that the sceptics were right about "the
source of these distinctions" concerning "the
foundation of morals, reasoning, and criticism": Either there
is no such rational foundation, or else it is beyond the capacity of
Note 6: It is
certain that the easy and obvious philosophy will always, with the
generality of mankind, have the preference above the accurate and
abstruse; and by many will be recommended, not only as more agreeable,
but more useful than the other. It enters more into common life;
moulds the heart and affections; and, by touching those principles
which actuate men, reforms their conduct, and brings them nearer to
that model of perfection which it describes. On the contrary, the
abstruse philosophy, being founded on a turn of mind, which cannot
enter into business and action, vanishes when the philosopher leaves
the shade, and comes into open day; nor can its principles easily
retain any influence over our conduct and behaviour. The feelings of
our heart, the agitation of our passions, the vehemence of our
affections, dissipate all its conclusions, and reduce the profound
philosopher to a mere plebeian.
The reasons for this - from my own
point of view - have been given in Notes 2,
3 and 4.
However, it should be noted that a
considerable part - indeed, the majority - of the so called 'abstruse
philosophy', whatever the pretences or genuine beliefs of the
intellectuals and academics who tend to be concerned with them, also
are ideologically motivated rather than a mere consequence of
In brief, human beings are almost
always concerned with philosophy and ideology because they have some
interest in it, and base some hopes on it, and rarely because they are
motivated by the beauty of it, as men may study mathematics, or
practice music. And by far the greatest part of the human interest in
philosophy, politics and religion is in the nature of wishful
thinking: Men in search of arguments, terms and slogans that support
their interests, as they conceive of them, and that satisfy their
for conclusions that satisfy their prejudices,
concerns and interests, rather than in conclusions that they can defend
intellectually against the most able and best informed opposition, and
that are only supported
by incontroversial facts and logical argumentation.
Note 7: This also must be confessed, that the most durable, as well as
justest fame, has been acquired by the easy philosophy, and that
abstract reasoners seem hitherto to have enjoyed only a momentary
reputation, from the caprice or ignorance of their own age, but have
not been able to support their renown with more equitable posterity.
As I used words above this is not so.
Briefly, and with reference to two examples: Few have read Aquinas or
Marx, but many hundreds of millions have read - indeed: have been
forced to read in childhood or puberty - popular expositions of parts
of the philosophical systems of these men.
Even so, it tends to be the
founders of doctrines that become and remain (in)famous, and not
the later popularizers of these doctrines, although they may be, in
their own times, well known, and may make more money
and draw more local and temporal fame from their popularizations then did the originators in their own times from their own ideas.
Note 8: It is easy for a profound philosopher to commit a mistake in his
subtile reasonings; and one mistake is the necessary parent of
another, while he pushes on his consequences, and is not deterred from
embracing any conclusion, by its unusual appearance, or its
contradiction to popular opinion. But a philosopher, who purposes only
to represent the common sense of mankind in more beautiful and more
engaging colours, if by accident he falls into error, goes no farther;
but renewing his appeal to common sense, and the natural sentiments of
the mind, returns into the right path, and secures himself from any
That it is easy to commit mistakes in
philosophical arguments is or should be obvious, and that the more
common run of mankind is more interested in conclusions that please
them; that seem to serve their own interests; and that articulate or
support their own prejudices likewise is or should likewise be
Even so, evident mistakes in
reasonings have rarely or never been an important barrier to
philosophical importance, for this tends to be based on originality,
style or pretensions of human or intellectual importance much rather
than on logically provable truth or widely admitted objective fact.
Also, some philosophies and religious ideas are important simply
because they have many - would-be or real - followers.
The fame of Cicero flourishes at present; but
that of Aristotle is utterly decayed. La Bruyere passes the seas, and
still maintains his reputation: But the glory of Malebranche is
confined to his own nation, and to his own age. And Addison, perhaps,
will be read with pleasure, when Locke shall be entirely forgotten.
present' may be taken to be the England of 1750 or thereabouts,
when educated men still read and wrote Latin as a matter of course. At
present, in 2005, few read Cicero, fewer La Bruyère, and I, who
studied philosophy, have never met a man who had seriously read
Malebranche, while Addison is only read, if at all, by those who want
to take a university degree in English literature.
But Locke is still rather famous, at
least among those who attended a university, even if he is hardly
read, and paperback editions of his Essay are easily available.
The mere philosopher is a character, which is
commonly but little acceptable in the world, as being supposed to
contribute nothing either to the advantage or pleasure of society;
while he lives remote from communication with mankind, and is wrapped
up in principles and notions equally remote from their comprehension.
This may be so, and is in line with
what I said in Note 7. Indeed, it is an interesting fact about the
founders of philosophies and religions that they tend to be much more
famous and influential long after they are dead than while they were
alive, when they often were persecuted and considered more or less
mad. Also, and as I indicated in Note 6 and earlier, what these
founders tend to be famous for among their would-be followers is
rarely their original work, but is usually a more modern
restatement of it by some more recent follower.
The most perfect character is supposed to lie
between those extremes; retaining an equal ability and taste for
books, company, and business; preserving in conversation that
discernment and delicacy which arise from polite letters; and in
business, that probity and accuracy which are the natural result of a
Actually, that the 'most perfect character is
supposed to lie between those extremes' is Aristotle's doctrine
of the mean. It may be adequate in many applications, but seems to be
mostly not so in philosophy and religion, where most desire to believe
and indulge their wishes (whatever their own beliefs and pretenses),
and like to consume as philosophy or religion what they believe
already, and dislike a serious rational study of their own beliefs.
Man is a reasonable being; and as
such, receives from science his proper food and nourishment: But so
narrow are the bounds of human understanding, that little satisfaction
can be hoped for in this particular, either from the extent of
security or his acquisitions.
That 'Man is a
reasonable being' is, in the case of most men at least, more of
a desire than a fact: Men are capable of reasoning, but such reasoning
as they are capable of and practice tends to serve their own interests, prejudices
And indeed, part of Hume's sceptical
conclusions about human beings is that 'so
narrow are the bounds of human understanding' that a true
philosophy, other than the sceptical philosophy that there is no true
philosophy, is a chimera.
Man is a sociable, no less than a
reasonable being: But neither can he always enjoy company agreeable
and amusing, or preserve the proper relish for them.
In fact, often the demands of society
and the demands of reason are difficult or impossible to combine
consistently, because much of society is based on wishful thinking, on
pretense, on illusion, on lies, on deception, or on prejudice - all of
which may be defended as true, noble, evident and desirable by most
ordinary men and most leaders of society, and may be maintained by an
inquisition or a secret police, as all of it may be promulgated by
priests or by schools and universities as if it is good and true.
And apart from inquisition, secret
police, force, propaganda, and education based on prejudice, it is a
fact that human society and the talents of the vast majority of human
beings are not based on provable truth or reason, but on local
prejudice, on proven practices, on transmitted traditions, and on feelings,
on wishful thinking, and on what seems fair and credible to the majority
of men, who tend to follow local authorities in most respects, and
tend to believe what these tell them without subjecting these beliefs
to a critical and rational test.
Abstruse thought and profound researches I
prohibit, and will severely punish, by the pensive melancholy which
they introduce, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you,
and by the cold reception which your pretended discoveries shall meet
with, when communicated. Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your
philosophy, be still a man.
Here Nature is supposedly speaking,
in Hume's rendition. No doubt, Hume spoke from experience. It
may be objected to the famous line 'Be a
philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man'
that no man can fail to be a philosopher, for reasons outlined in
Note 1, and more seriously, that, even so, most
men would be wise if they would mostly abstain from philosophy, both because
it tends to be either fruitless or dangerous and because their talents
or character are not fit for it.
And since the rise of real science,
which may be dated from Galileo, anybody doing philosophy should have
a real understanding of some real science at university level.
All polite letters are nothing but pictures of
human life in various attitudes and situations; and inspire us with
different sentiments, of praise or blame, admiration or ridicule,
according to the qualities of the object, which they set before us. An
artist must be better qualified to succeed in this undertaking, who,
besides a delicate taste and a quick apprehension, possesses an
accurate knowledge of the internal fabric, the operations of the
understanding, the workings of the passions, and the various species
of sentiment which discriminate vice and virtue. How painful soever
this inward search or enquiry may appear, it becomes, in some measure,
requisite to those, who would describe with success the obvious and
outward appearances of life and manners.
This may be so, but there are at
least two intermediate - or more general -positions, one sceptical and
The sceptical position is that, in
spite of some 25 centuries of documented human searching concerned
with 'the operations of the understanding, the
workings of the passions, and the various species of sentiment'
there is singularly little knowledge about these matters on which all
thinking men agree. This may suggest, and at least does support, the
notion that if there is such knowledge about human understanding,
human passion, and human philosophy, that men, as they are and have
been so far on average, are not fit for it.
The realistic position starts from
the same premise that there is little proved and provable knowledge
about the workings of the human mind and the nature of reality, and
insists that there is much to be found that future science may find,
but that is not available here and now, and that, although human
beings are capable of finding the truth about many things, this tends
to require many generations of dedicated research and discussion of
the most intelligent individuals.
Besides, we may observe, in every art
or profession, even those which most concern life or action, that a
spirit of accuracy, however acquired, carries all of them nearer their
perfection, and renders them more subservient to the interests of
society. And though a philosopher may live remote from business, the
genius of philosophy, if carefully cultivated by several, must
gradually diffuse itself throughout the whole society, and bestow a
similar correctness on every art and calling. The politician will
acquire greater foresight and subtility, in the subdividing and
balancing of power; the lawyer more method and finer principles in his
reasonings; and the general more regularity in his discipline, and
more caution in his plans and operations. The stability of modern
governments above the ancient, and the accuracy of modern philosophy,
have improved, and probably will still improve, by similar gradations.
So far, this has not been so. Indeed,
quite the contrary may be observed, when one considers e.g. the
histories of Marxism - socialism, communism - and fascism and national
socialism over the last two centuries, or the French Revolution in
Hume's own 18th Century.
The general lesson is that man is, by
and large, in the mass and in majority, and with very few exceptions,
not a rational but a rationalizing animal, an ideological ape rather
than a reasoning angel, and a willfully torturing and persecuting
animal rather than a peaceful or saintly godlike being.
And one summary of the awful force,
influence and implications of philosophies in their ideological or
religious everyday form is the following table compiled by Mr. Randolph J. Rummel,
who has taken the trouble of finding out how many
civilian persons have been murdered in the 20th Century apart from the
many soldiers that were killed on battle-fields.
He wrote a book about it called Death by
Government, in which one can find, among other things, the
following table - that lists only
civilian deaths and no military deaths in wartime - and
which, upon the whole, is a remarkable illustration of the human
efficacy and consequences of human philosophy:
|Josip Broz Tito
For most of these murders - over 200
million of them - were justfied in terms of some philosophy, and committed
in the name of philosophy, morals, and humanity.
Note 17: Were there
no advantage to be reaped from these studies, beyond the gratification
of an innocent curiosity, yet ought not even this to be despised; as
being one accession to those few safe and harmless pleasures, which
are bestowed on human race.
As my previous note should make
clear, philosophy not only may be 'the
gratification of an innocent curiosity' or a source of the 'few
safe and harmless pleasures, which are bestowed on human race'
but also is and has been the foundation of all societies, the
justification of its moral practices whatever these were, and all too
often the intellectual foundation of mass murder. As Voltaire
remarked: 'If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities.'
But this obscurity in the profound
and abstract philosophy, is objected to, not only as painful and
fatiguing, but as the inevitable source of uncertainty and error. Here
indeed lies the justest and most plausible objection against a
considerable part of metaphysics, that they are not properly a
science; but arise either from the fruitless efforts of human vanity,
which would penetrate into subjects utterly inaccessible to the
understanding, or from the craft of popular superstitions, which,
being unable to defend themselves on fair ground, raise these
intangling brambles to cover and protect their weakness.
Here Hume undoubtedly indicates a
considerable part of his own motivation to write and publish about
philosophy. And he is right that 'a considerable
part of metaphysics (..) are not properly a science' and also
right that part of 'craft of popular
superstitions' is to 'raise these
intangling brambles to cover and protect their weakness'.
Even so, each of these - let us say,
with considerable justification - intellectual perversions is not
based on metaphysics nor on superstition, but is due to the average
human inclinations for wishful thinking and violence: To believe that
whatever one desires to be true is true, and to uphold those beliefs
with violence against those who are not of one's own faith or
ideological conviction. Or so was at least often the case in human
"History is little else but the
register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind" (Gibbon)
In brief: Not only are human beings
rationalizing ideological apes: They are also totalitarian,
murderous animals - or at least, such evidence as
there is strongly supports this contention, bitter as it is, and
counter to much of teachings of philosophy, ethics or religion as it
is also. (Compare
Twain's "The War Prayer".)
the open country, these robbers fly into the forest, and lie in wait
to break in upon every unguarded avenue of the mind, and overwhelm it
with religious fears and prejudices. The stoutest antagonist, if he
remit his watch a moment, is oppressed. And many, through cowardice
and folly, open the gates to the enemies, and willingly receive them
with reverence and submission, as their legal sovereigns.
This states more of Hume's motives to
write philosophy and take a sceptical position. I agree, but it makes
sense to repeat here what I said before: 'religious'
and ideological 'fears and prejudices'
are not the only and perhaps not the main source of the philosophical
and moral confusions of mankind, which are due, rather, to (1) the combination of sufficient
intelligence to need some philosophy, ideology or religion to
coordinate a human society by providing it with a common view of the
with shared ends and values; (2) insufficient intelligence of the
majority to think clearly
about abstruse philosophical subjects; and (3) an apparently native
human inclination for totalitarian feelings and ideas, of the kind 'Our Group and Our
Leaders are Best, and whoever disagrees is evil or at least not
properly human'. It is these three points that seem to be at the foundation of much philosophical,
religious and ideological 'folly'.
In vain do we hope, that men, from frequent
disappointment, will at last abandon such airy sciences, and discover
the proper province of human reason. For, besides, that many persons
find too sensible an interest in perpetually recalling such topics;
besides this, I say, the motive of blind despair can never reasonably
have place in the sciences; since, however unsuccessful former
attempts may have proved, there is still room to hope, that the
industry, good fortune, or improved sagacity of succeeding generations
may reach discoveries unknown to former ages. Each adventurous genius
will still leap at the arduous prize, and find himself stimulated,
rather that discouraged, by the failures of his predecessors; while he
hopes that the glory of achieving so hard an adventure is reserved for
This also was part of Hume's
motivation, and it is in line with the realist position I indicated in
Even so, the problem for rational and
reasonable philosophy, apart from the fact that the intellectual and
moral talents with which most men are born are not by far as great as
the talents of the great philosophers or prophets they follow, is that
part of the task of philosophy and religion is to articulate the
intellectual and moral foundations of human society: What is the
reality a human society exists in, and what are the ends and values a
human society should try to realize, and that these
attempted intellectual and moral foundations for human society criss-cross, as it were, with an also inborn
pronounced totalitarian tendency in the vast majority of human beings,
that tends to show itself in the prejudices that Our Group and Our
Leader are and know best, and that everybody who does not belong to
Our Group is not properly human, and has less or no human rights.
Note 21: The only method of freeing learning, at once, from these
abstruse questions, is to enquire seriously into the nature of human
understanding, and show, from an exact analysis of its powers and
capacity, that it is by no means fitted for such remote and abstruse
subjects. We must submit to this fatigue, in order to live at ease
ever after: And must cultivate true metaphysics with some care, in
order to destroy the false and adulterate. Indolence, which, to some
persons, affords a safeguard against this deceitful philosophy, is,
with others, overbalanced by curiosity; and despair, which, at some
moments, prevails, may give place afterwards to sanguine hopes and
And here Hume states his own
sceptical solution in principle: 'human
understanding' (..) 'is by no means
fitted for such remote and abstruse subjects' such as
dogmatical philosophy or religion.
There are, at least, two problems
with this proposed solution.
First, it does not seem to be true,
at least in the sense that some philosophical approaches, including
modern science, that started with the speculations of Democritus and
Leucipus some 500 years B.C., are much more sensible or much less
mistaken than other aproaches.
Hence, even if the sceptics are
mostly right in believing few human beings are fit for philosophy,
they forget all human society requires it, and tend to obscure the
fact that even if there are no true philosophies, there certainly are
both false philosophies and more and less nonsensical, useful or
Second, and apart from the truth of a
sceptical position: The human animal needs some form of philosophy,
some view of the world, some ends, and some values, to take the place that
instinct plays in other animals, and human society, likewise, is only
possible if many men come to agree, however fallaciously, on what the
world is like, and what human beings should and should not do in it.
Note 22: Accurate and just reasoning is the only catholic remedy,
fitted for all persons and all dispositions; and is alone able to
subvert that abstruse philosophy and metaphysical jargon, which, being
mixed up with popular superstition, renders it in a manner
impenetrable to careless reasoners, and gives it the air of science
Actually, this sounds plausible but
is false. A 'remedy' that works at least
as well, and often better than 'accurate and
just reasoning', which is beyond the capacities of most men
anyway, is ridicule: Satire, humour and literature tend to be far
better popularizers and criticisms of philosophy and religion, and also far better
inflators of philosophical and religious presumptions and pretences,
than is 'accurate and
just reasoning', since for every one that is capable of correct
reasoning there are thousands who are capable of laughter.
It is remarkable concerning the operations of
the mind, that, though most intimately present to us, yet, whenever
they become the object of reflexion, they seem involved in obscurity;
nor can the eye readily find those lines and boundaries, which
discriminate and distinguish them.
Some 250 years after Hume wrote these
lines, the situation is not much better, in spite of great advances in
mathematics, computing, physiology and biochemistry.
It still is not known, in the same
sense as, say, elementary physics is known, what are the foundations
of the human mind; what generates the qualia of experience; what are
the foundations of the self; whether humans have a free will; where is
the soul, if it exists; what is consciousness, and indeed why we have
it; and how people reason, feel and choose.
Nor can there remain any suspicion,
that this science is uncertain and chimerical; unless we should
entertain such a scepticism as is entirely subversive of all
speculation, and even action. It cannot be doubted, that the mind is
endowed with several powers and faculties, that these powers are
distinct from each other, that what is really distinct to the
immediate perception may be distinguished by reflexion; and
consequently, that there is a truth and falsehood in all propositions
on this subject, and a truth and falsehood, which lie not beyond the
compass of human understanding.
Even so, and even while very much has
been found in connection with the workings of the human brain that was
wholly unknown to Hume and his contemporaries, the piecing together of
what is known into a viable and sensible explanation of human
experience that includes consciousness, free will, the qualia of
experience, and the actual processes by which men reason and feel, so
far has not succeeded, except very partially and incompletely.
There also is another problem here,
that was not as clear to Hume as one would desire, namely that there
seems to be a vast difference between (1) what is given in human
consciousness, which is 'the mind' that Hume
was concerned with, and which he believed he could clarify and at least
in part explain on the basis of a careful analysis of his experiences, and
(2) whatever produces
human consciousness without being given in it, which is, in terms of
science and not religion, best conceived as the human brain.
There are many obvious distinctions of
this kind, such as those between the will and understanding, the
imagination and passions, which fall within the comprehension of every
human creature; and the finer and more philosophical distinctions are
no less real and certain, though more difficult to be comprehended.
Some instances, especially late ones, of success in these enquiries,
may give us a juster notion of the certainty and solidity of this
branch of learning.
Hume believed himself to have made a
number of these distinctions that his predecessors missed, and he
certainly is right in assuming that such distinctions as he draws are
sensible, and may be made verbally with more or less precision and
But as I indicated in my previous
note, the scientific explanation of the human mind is not
predominantly to be found in the analysis of its conscious
experiences, but in the hitherto not existing explanation of how and
why the brain produces the experiences we have.
And shall we esteem it worthy the labour of a
philosopher to give us a true system of the planets, and adjust the
position and order of those remote bodies; while we affect to overlook
those, who, with so much success, delineate the parts of the mind, in
which we are so intimately concerned?
Hume refers here to Newton, who had
died not long before Hume wrote this, and who had achieved what seemed
then 'a true system of the planets' and
what seems now an almost true approximation of that system.
And it should be mentioned also that
what Newton reasoned about so succesfully were, in fact, the simplest
properties and relations of the simplest natural things, whereas the human brain is by far
the most complicated natural organ known to man.
Note 27: But may we not hope, that philosophy, if cultivated with care,
and encouraged by the attention of the public, may carry its
researches still farther, and discover, at least in some degree, the
secret springs and principles, by which the human mind is actuated in
Of course, we may hope so - but so
far there has been not much success in explaining human experience in
general and in principle, especially not if we demand that such an
explanation be given in terms of the actual processes that go on in a
living human brain while it is thinking and feeling.
However, as I indicated in
and 21, part of the problems of philosophy is that philosophy in its
everyday garb of ideology and superstition is at the foundation of any
and every human society, and indeed it is not impossible that 'true
philosophy', if it exists, is placed much like pure mathematics is in
the minds of most men: It may be true, but it also is incomprehensible
and seems irrelevant for everyday practices and the superstitions and
prejudices that are at the foundation of these practices.
And nothing can be more requisite than to enter
upon the enterprize with thorough care and attention; that, if it lie
within the compass of human understanding, it may at last be happily
achieved; if not, it may, however, be rejected with some confidence
and security. This last conclusion, surely, is not desirable; nor
ought it to be embraced too rashly. For how much must we diminish from
the beauty and value of this species of philosophy, upon such a
In fact, Hume's position is
sceptical, and to the effect that there are many riddles that human
capacities are not fit to unriddle.
My problem, apart from the fact that
I don't believe much of Hume's scepticism, for reasons I will make
clear in further notes to the rest of the text, is that a sceptical
solution to these difficulties does not work in practice either - and
human beings need some philosophy or ideology to coordinate their
beliefs and actions, and keep their societies together, even if the
philosophies and ideologies they use for these ends are, from the
point of view of the few truly gifted, obviously false and pernicious.
Note 29: we have, in the
following enquiry, attempted to throw some light upon subjects, from
which uncertainty has hitherto deterred the wise, and obscurity the
ignorant. Happy, if we can unite the boundaries of the different
species of philosophy, by reconciling profound enquiry with clearness,
and truth with novelty! And still more happy, if, reasoning in this
easy manner, we can undermine the foundations of an abstruse
philosophy, which seems to have hitherto served only as a shelter to
superstition, and a cover to absurdity and error!