Who Was David Hume? A Rationalist, of course!

One must grant a belated happy birthday to David Hume (May 07, 1711), one of history’s most insightful thinkers and a favoured philosopher of mine despite the conservatism that is often associated with him.

Gottlieb, in a timely review of a new intellectual biography of Hume, observes, “in 2009, he won first place in a large international poll of professors and graduate students who were asked to name the dead thinker with whom they most identified.”

Gottlieb attributes this to Hume’s naturalism;

Still, it is probably the rise of so-called “naturalism” in philosophy that best explains Hume’s newfound appeal. Naturalism has several components, all of which were prominent in his work

Gottlieb further elaborates,

He treated religion as a natural phenomenon, to be explained in psychological and historical terms—which tended to annoy the pious—and he argued that the study of the mind and of morals should be pursued by the same empirical methods that were starting to cast new light on the rest of nature. Philosophy, for Hume, was thus not fundamentally different from science. This outlook is much more common in our time than it was in his

One of the components of naturalism is empiricism. The reason for this is that the naturalism that became dominant in contemporary philosophy has its origins in, and is an outgrowth of, logical positivism. Hume’s sceptical arguments, most famously his “is-ought” distinction, have thereby been used to support empiricist theses.

For this reason, Hume is most often put in the company of the classical, British, empiricists.

Consider the is-ought distinction in Hume’s own words,

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.

“Nor is perceived by reason” are critical words here. Let us assume that there are no dedicated faculties of the mind, such as an ethical faculty or language faculty, based on autonomous principles of innate knowledge.

Jerrold Katz observed that, “sophisticated empiricists recognize an autonomous rational faculty as essential for knowledge.” Such an autonomous faculty is an “inferential engine” that furnishes knowledge based on principles of induction and association. The blank slate is not totally blank.

Empiricism is the view that this general faculty of reason provides us with knowledge as we interact with the external world, or which is able to engage in deduction analytically. Hume’s is-ought distinction then becomes a sceptical argument, for if ought statements are not products of reason, that is the inferential engine, then they cannot constitute a type of knowledge.

But there is another view possible here, a view that paints the picture of Hume not as an empiricist but rather as a rationalist. Plainly we make ought statements all the time, and we do draw conclusions with reference to a system of moral rules.

The is-ought distinction can be read as an argument from the poverty of the stimulus for an autonomous faculty of moral cognition based on innate knowledge of moral rules or principles. It is the use of this knowledge that provides us with the ought.

No amount of inference based on induction and association as we interact with the world can furnish us with the ought or moral rules. As Hume stated, “the rules of morality are not the product of our reason.” They are the product not of our “reason” but of an autonomous faculty of “moral reason.”

Hume, of course, himself held that because reason does not furnish us with moral principles they arise from moral sentiments, the passions as it were. These, clearly, are innate and handed down to us by nature. Hume’s position, hence, is a type of nativism. But we can update this conclusion in light of advances in the study of the mind and cognition that have occurred since the days of Hume.

By moral sentiments we should mean a system of moral rules that are innate, autonomous, and constitute a system of knowledge based on a natural genetic endowment. This is a type of rationalism, not scepticism or empiricism.

This conclusion can generalise to other famous arguments of Hume that are viewed in a sceptical vein.

To return to Gottlieb’s question; who was David Hume?

David Hume was a rationalist.