Saturday, May 07, 2011

David Hume's 300th Birthday

Morgan Meis 27 April) in The Smart Set (from Drexel University) a short, but formidable essay on David Hume (HERE):
David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

“David Hume turns 300 on May 7. It is fitting, I suppose, that a man so resolutely mortal should be enjoying such immortality. Most of Hume's contemporaries are long forgotten. Hume, somehow, endures. His old pal Adam Smith (author of The Wealth of Nations), relates that in Hume's dying days he told his friends, "I have done every thing of consequence which I ever meant to do, and I could at no time expect to leave my relations and friends in a better situation than that in which I am likely to leave them: I therefore have all reason to die contented." ...

… For all the light we shine upon ourselves and our surroundings, we remain deeply and fundamentally in the dark. Hume makes this point eloquently in one of his least read works. It is called Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and was only published after Hume's death. The purpose of the dialogue is to express opinions that are inherently uncertain and yet relentlessly interesting. "Opposite sentiments," writes Hume, "even without any decision, afford an agreeable amusement; and if the subject be curious and interesting, the book carries us, in a manner, into company; and unites the two greatest and purest pleasures of human life, study and society."

Hume always found himself astraddle those two great pleasures, study and society. When he spent too much time studying, the mechanisms of human reason would take flight, leading him into seemingly logical conclusions that defied his actual experience of the world. Thinking hard in his study, Hume would reach the conclusion, for instance, that there is no such thing as causality. Then he would step outside and go about the business of daily life in the full assurance that cause and effect operates just as we've always experienced it. Everyday experience would do its work, grounding him again in reality. That contrast between reason and experience never failed to amuse, trouble, and delight Hume.

Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is a discussion between an all-around skeptic, Philo; a religious dogmatist and believer in abstract reason named Demea; and a moderate empiricist, Cleanthes. The three characters debate the existence of God and other light topics. Scholars have long debated the question as to which of the interlocutors represents Hume's true position. The answer is that none of them do, and all of them do. Hume was fully reconciled to being bifurcated, trifurcated even, if we can put it that way. He tried to love the war that was always raging inside. In this, he was an honest philosopher, and an honest man.

[In the interest of protecting the author’s copyright – it’s well worth reading, especially on Hume’s Dialogue on Natural Religion - please follow this Link HERE:

[For a risible attempt at ‘criticism’ of David Hume by a ‘John Knox’, see this other piece from today’s Caledonian Mercury (HERE)]



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