Maarten Maartensz

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These are my notes to Selby-Bigge's 1893-introduction to Hume's Enquiries.


Note 1: Hume’s philosophic writings are to be read with great caution. His pages, especially those of the Treatise, are so full of matter, he says so many different things in so many different ways and different connexions, and with so much indifference to what he has said before, that it is very hard to say positively that he taught, or did not teach, this or that particular doctrine. He applies the same principles to such a great variety of subjects that it is not surprising that many verbal, and some real inconsistencies can be found in his statements.

This is true especially in case of Hume's 'Treatise of Human Nature', that he later disowned, of which more below. In any case: Those who have read the Treatise with some attention and intelligence will have found many inconsistencies in it.


Note 2: He is ambitious rather than shy of saying the same thing in different ways, and at the same time he is often slovenly and indifferent about his words and formulae. This makes it easy to find all philosophies in Hume, or, by setting up one statement against another, none at all. Of Professor Green’s criticism of Hume it is impossible to speak, here in Oxford, without the greatest respect. Apart from its philosophic importance, it is always serious and legitimate; but it is also impossible not to feel that it would have been quite as important and a good deal shorter, if it had contained fewer of the verbal victories which are so easily won over Hume.

I believe it, but Greene has been dead a long time now, in 2005 as I write this, and is not considered as important as he was, in 1893, in Oxford. In any case, the possibility of criticizing many inconsistencies in the Treatise may well have been Hume's main reason to disown the book later.


Note 3: In the posthumous edition of his Collected Essays of 1777, the Advertisement, on which so much stress has been laid, first appeared. It is printed at the beginning of this reprint, and declares the author’s desire that ‘the following pieces may alone be regarded as containing his philosophical sentiments and principles.’

Here is a link to the Advertisement.


Note 4: This declaration has not only been taken seriously by some writers, but they have even complied with it and duly ignored the Treatise. By others it has been treated as an interesting indication of the character of a man who had long ago given up philosophy, who always had a passion for applause, and little respect or generosity for his own failures. By Mr. Grose the Advertisement is regarded as ‘the posthumous utterance of a splenetic invalid,’ and Mr. Green’s elaborate criticism is directed almost entirely against the Treatise.

There is what seems to be a good edition of the Treatise in Pelican  Classics. It is a considerably thicker book than both the Enquiries together.


Note 5: The Treatise, as was noticed at the time of its publication, is full of egoisms. Even in this severe work, together with a genuine ardour and enthusiasm, there is an occasional note of insincerity, arrogance or wantonness which strikes the serious student painfully. The following pages will perhaps show that Hume, in re-casting the Treatise into its new form, displayed the less admirable sides of his temper rather freely.

I take it these sentiments of Selby-Bigge are mostly Victorian. In any case, I have never been "painfully" struck by Hume's "insincerity, arrogance or wantonness".

And apart from what one thinks of Hume's personal character or style of writing, it should be noted that he was conscious of being an innovator in philosophy and a radical critic of both the religion and the philosophy of his own and preceding times.


Note 6: In the second place, it is undeniable that Hume’s own judgement on the style of his earlier work was quite correct. The Treatise was ill-proportioned, incoherent, ill-expressed. There are ambiguities and obscurities of expression in important passages which are most exasperating. Instead of the easy language, familiar and yet precise, of the Enquiries, we have an amount of verbal vagueness and slovenliness for which it is hard to excuse even ‘a solitary Scotchman.’ How far the difference between the two works is merely one of style is considered below, but whether it be due to matter or manner, it remains that the Enquiries are an easy book and the Treatise a very hard one. In the Treatise he revels in minutiae, in difficulties, in paradoxes: he heaps questions upon himself, and complicates argument by argument: he is pedantic and captious. In the Enquiry he ignores much with which he had formerly vexed his own and his readers’ souls, and like a man of the world takes the line of least resistance (except as touching the ‘zealots’). He gives us elegance, lucidity and proportion.

The careful reader should judge this for himself. I merely report that I read the Treatise when 21, and that I agree more with Selby-Bigge than I disagree: I did find many unclarities and inconsistencies.


Note 7: Causation. In the account of causation Hume passes over the very interesting and fundamental question raised in the Treatise of the position of cause in the fabric of our knowledge. On p. 78 of the Treatise (Bk. I, iii, § 3; cf. p. 157), he asks why a cause is always necessary, and concludes that there is no reason for the presumption that everything must have a cause.

This is interesting for many reasons, one of which is that in physics "the presumption that everything must have a cause" has been given up with the rise of quantum-mechanics. It is an interesting fact that Einstein disagreed.


Note 8: Thus the omission of the chapter on the rules by which to judge of cause and effect and the sacrifice of contiguity are both part of the same policy: succession cannot be got rid of altogether, and this, it is true, is a philosophical relation (Treatise, p. 14), but it is one which is a matter of perception rather than reasoning (Treatise, p. 73), and is not one which raises much discussion—we seldom have much difficulty in discovering whether A or B came first, and you cannot strictly say that B was more consequent on A than C was, or vice versa.

The interesting fact is that with Einstein's theory of relativity succession has become problematical.


Note 9: It will be noted that in the Enquiry, § 60, Hume interjects a curious little explanation of his first definition: ‘We may define a cause to be an object followed by another, and when all the objects similar to the first are followed by objects similar to the second, or, in other words, where if the first object had not been, the second never had existed.’ The words in italics can hardly be regarded as a paraphrase or equivalent of the main definition, and must be added to the rather large collection of unassimilated dicta which so much occupied Professor Green.

This indeed is curious, for the second definition, unlike the first, uses modal terms, and there surely is a considerable difference between "for all x if Ax then Bx" and "for all x, if Ax would not be true then Bx would not be true". (Consider: "If this is a cow, this produces milk" and "If this would not be a cow, this would not produce milk". The latter but not the former implies cows are the only animals that produce milk.)


Note 10: Miracles, providence, and a future state. §§ x and xi of the Enquiry, in which these subjects are treated, belong to Hume’s applied philosophy, and, important and interesting as they are in themselves, they do not add anything to his general speculative position. Their insertion in the Enquiry is due doubtless rather to other considerations than to a simple desire to illustrate or draw corollaries from the philosophical principles laid down in the original work.

This may be so, but surely it is interesting to see what manner of more practical and everyday applications of his general principles a philosopher supplies, and also these applications are interesting if disturbing to religious zealots.


Note 11: In the Enquiry Hume merely confines himself to asserting the opposition between the vulgar belief, based on instinct and natural propensity, in external objects on the one side, and the conclusions of philosophy, that we know nothing but perceptions in the mind, on the other side.

This was no doubt Hume's belief, but I don't think it is true, and will argue so when dealing with his text. Here I merely mention that there two questions of principle are involved:

A. Which of the two explanations, supposing neither can be refuted, is a better explanation, or has more support?
B. If "we know nothing but perceptions in the mind" then surely this involves the admission that both you and me have perceptions in the mind, and we differ. Now: What about your perceptions, from my point of view - noting that I do not have them, and grant them to you on a similar principle as I grant the existence of external reality?


Note 12: A considerable part of the discussion on the immateriality of the soul (Treatise, § v), may appear to us antiquated, just as it may fairly have appeared to Hume too dry for a popular work, and not absolutely necessary to his system. But it is not too much to say on the whole, that the omissions in § 12 of the Enquiry are alone amply sufficient to render it quite impossible to comply with Hume’s wish and treat the Enquiry as representing the whole of his philosophic system.

I agree, but provide once more a link to Hume's "Advertisement" with which the text of the Enquiries start. It seems fair to conclude that Hume did not know how to resolve many of the problems and difficulties he dealt with in the Treatise in a manner that was both intellectually and stylistically satisfying to him.


Note 13: The psychology of sympathy, which occupies so much space in Bk. II, and on which so much depends in Bk. III of the Treatise, is almost entirely ignored in the Enquiry. How it is possible to find room for sympathy in so atomistic or individualistic a psychology as Hume’s, is one of the most interesting questions which are raised by his system. How I can not only know but enter into the feelings of another person, when I can only know my own feelings, is indeed a problem worthy of grave consideration.

It is true that the notion of sympathy is important both for morals and for human understanding in general, and it is interesting to remark that Schopenhauer made sympathy the fundament of this ethics.

Selby-Bigge's question is a bit misleading, though: Even supposing that it were philosophically true we all live, think and feel solipstistically, then still it is a fact that children are not raised on that presumption, and few believe in solipsism.


Note 14: Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals. Hume has recorded his own opinion that the Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals was, of all his writings, ‘historical, philosophical, or literary, incomparably the best.’

This may well be so, but it should be noted that Hume's treatment here is not quite consistent with the more skeptical positions taken in the Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, notably about causation and the self.


Note 15: With these passages we may compare, observing the caution inculcated at the beginning of this Introduction, § 250 of the Enquiry, where speaking of self-love, he says, ‘The obvious appearance of things . . . must be admitted till some hypothesis be discovered which, by penetrating deeper into human nature, may prove the former affections to be nothing but modifications of the latter. All attempts of this kind have hitherto proved fruitless, and seem to have proceeded entirely from that love of simplicity which has been the source of so much false reasoning in philosophy.’ (Cf. § 9, ‘Philosophers have sometimes carried the matter too far by their passion for some one general principle.’)

This seems to me to be correct. See the previous note.