The Skeptic's Skeptic
By Matt McKeown
In Hume, the Enlightenment produced a surprising enigma.
Born in the early years of the century and dying a little over a month after the American Declaration of Independence was published, Hume saw most of the eighteenth century, and in some ways he embodied it. This period is often called the age of reason, and it is no coincidence that founding father Thomas Paine wrote a pamphlet of that name in 1794, advocating rationalistic Deism and attacking Christianity, the Bible, and organized religion in general. Beginning in the previous century, the Enlightenment was a philosophical and cultural movement which accented the importance of reason and investigation and saw the early phase of modern science, continuing the intellectual themes of the Renaissance; but in the seventeenth century, Christianity had reigned supreme, not only in European culture generally but in the academy. In the eighteenth—partly in the aftermath of the destructive wars between Protestant and Catholic powers that ravaged the seventeenth—the academy began to admit heresy, skepticism, and even hostility to religion.
Hume, curiously enough, was not himself a rationalist. Though his interests were largely philosophical, he took an empiricist approach (like many British scientists and philosophers, so much so that European philosophy at this period is sometimes divided into the two branches “British” and “Continental”). He was suspicious of any and all knowledge that claimed to be a priori, no matter how logically watertight its claims appeared to be.
This skeptical rigor took him to some surprising places. For instance, most of us who have gotten past the “peek-a-boo” stage of development hold the opinion that objects behave in generally predictable ways even when we cannot see them. This power to reason about things based on prior observation and to predict the future based on the past is what we call induction. Hume threw cold water on the very idea of induction: no actual proof, he argued, can be offered that things really do behave in predictable ways at all, or that they will continue to do so. The fact that something has happened fifty times before in no way guarantees that it will happen a fifty-first; it is only a kind of intellectual habit on our part to assume that we live in an orderly universe.
However, it is not clear that Hume considered such “intellectual habits” worthy of scorn—only that he considered them beneath proof, and therefore beneath belief. For besides all the other ways in which he ran against the grain of both his own society and all previous history, he stood one of the most basic moral assumptions of western philosophy till then on its head: where the ancients and medievals had agreed in considering it the head’s job to rule the heart and stomach, Hume wrote in A Treatise of Human Nature that “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.”
It should be noted that, while radical, this was not as ethically anarchic as it may sound at first, for Hume also innovated in considering morals to be an essentially sentimental thing, rather than the proper province of reason. This was in part derived from his articulation of the famous “is-ought problem,” i.e. the fact that things are a certain way does not allow us to deduce that they should be any particular way; indeed, we can only recognize injustice by seeing a difference between how things are and a non-present ideal.
All of this, clearly, set him up for a confrontation with the contemporary Christian establishment; but curiously enough, while Hume certainly excited hostility from the religious, his own views on the subject of religion are not entirely clear. We may presume, based on his philosophy—especially his essay On Miracles, which (to oversimplify) is against them—that he was not privately religious, and he had a reputation as an atheist which he seems never to have sought to dispel. He certainly wrote, justly enough perhaps, that “Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous.” Yet in Of Superstition and Enthusiasm, he seems to treat the conventional Protestantism of eighteenth-century Britain as true, or at least as normal. This may have been a purely tactical choice, of course, to appeal to a broader audience than would otherwise be sympathetic to his writing, but then one might expect such a cynical ploy in the rest of his work as well. Given his conservative temperament and his avowed preference for letting emotion lead the way in moral questions, it may be that he was an agnostic or an atheist himself, but prepared to treat a conventional, rationally purified religion as a kind of acceptable indulgence, reserving his impatience for those ideas and practices he considered dangerous or at any rate tasteless.
But whatever else we may say of him or his positions, the man certainly had a sense of humor. One of his favorite stories to tell was of an Edinburgh fishwife, whom he referred to as the best theologian he had ever met: Hume had fallen into a bog, and when she recognized who he was, she refused to help him until he said that he was a Christian and recited the Lord’s Prayer.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you liked this post, take a look at some of our other content here at the Journal, like this discussion of the role of poetry in education or this profile of Blaise Pascal. And don’t miss out on our weekly podcast, Anchored, hosted by our founder, Jeremy Tate.