Friday, June 2, 2017

An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume

Assume nothing
David Hume
Published in 1748, David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding was intended to be a more accessible distillation of his earlier work A Treatise of Human Nature. Given that this is a philosophical treatise written in the mid-18th century, just how accessible could it be? The answer is surprisingly so, at least for its first half. Hume explains his theory of epistemology clearly and logically in straightforward language free of undefined philosophical jargon. Each chapter builds upon the one before, so over the course of the book the concepts discussed become more complex and the line of reasoning more serpentine.

In his philosophy of human thought, Hume argues in favor of empiricism and skepticism. He asserts that we can only learn from experience. All ideas are formed from the building blocks of sensory information. Although by witnessing phenomena around us we make judgments about cause-and-effect relationships, these are merely assumptions. Because the forces by which one event directly influences another are unseen, we can never truly be 100% certain of the connection between adjacent events. Nevertheless, we can through custom or habit judge the probability of cause-and-effect relationships based on the number and frequency of like occurrences we have experienced in the past. Though he asserts that some knowledge of reality will never be attainable by mankind, Hume goes on to clarify that an excessive skepticism which overemphasizes the unreliability of ideas formed through custom only leads to a pointless end. Though mankind may ultimately be ignorant of how the world truly works, we nevertheless must rely on knowledge gained through custom in order to get through life. The important thing is to use our reason wisely and only trust in reasoning based on empirical data.

This is no doubt an important work in the history of philosophy, but is it essential reading for a 21st-century audience? I tend to be of a skeptical bent myself and agree with almost everything Hume is saying here, but in a way that makes the book less of a must-read in my eyes. Many of the points Hume makes fall under the heading of common sense, and even in this purportedly abbreviated work he has a tendency to beat those points like so many dead horses. Given that nothing can be taken for granted in philosophy, at some point someone had to address these points in a thoroughly detailed manner, and Hume certainly does that in this book. For that, we owe him a debt of gratitude. In his day, Hume’s empirical skepticism no doubt broke new ground and was considered highly heretical, but most rationalists today would probably take many of his assertions for granted. Unless you’re a philosopher looking for quotes to support your own thesis, I’m not sure this is a necessary read. The general philosophically minded reader could circumvent Hume’s verbosity and likely glean the book’s main arguments just as well by perusing a reasonably detailed summary online.

One group of readers who might find pleasure in reading the Enquiry are atheists and freethinkers. In the book’s latter chapters, such as “Of miracles” and “Of a particular providence and of a future state,” Hume shoots down a lot of faulty reasoning made in the name of God, and not without a touch of humor. Those skeptics seeking ammunition for similar arguments will find a kindred spirit in Hume.
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