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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XIV. Philosophers

§ 9. His sceptical solution

Hume’s purpose was constructive; but the issue, as he faces it, is sceptical. And he is a genuine sceptic; for, even as to his scepticism, he is not dogmatic. Why should he assent to his own reasoning? he asks; and he answers, “I can give no reason why I should assent to it, and feel nothing but a strong propensity to consider objects strongly in that view.” The propensity, however, is strong only when the “bent of mind” is in a certain direction; a dinner, a game of backgammon, makes such speculations appear ridiculous; and “nature” suffices to “obliterate all these chimeras.” A year later, Hume referred again to this sceptical impasse, in an appendix to the third volume of his Treatise; and there, with remarkable insight, he diagnosed the causes of his own failure. The passage deserves quotation, seeing that it has been often overlooked, and is, nevertheless, one of the most significant utterances in the history of philosophy.

  • In short there are two principles, which I cannot render consistent; not is it in my power to renounce either of them, viz. that all our distinct perceptions are distinct existences, and that the mind never perceives any real connexion among distinct existences. Did our perceptions either inhere in something simple and individual, or did the mind perceive some real connexion among them, there would be no difficulty in the case. For my part, I must plead the privilege of a sceptic, and confess that this difficulty is too hard for my understanding. I pretend not, however, to pronounce it absolutely insuperable. Others, perhaps, or myself, upon more mature reflexions, may discover some hypothesis that will reconcile those contradictions.
  • Hume seems himself to have made no further attempt to solve the problem. His followers have been content to build their systems on his foundation, with minor improvements of their own, but without overcoming or facing the fundamental difficulty which he saw and expressed.

    The logical result of his analysis is far from leading to that “complete system of the sciences” which he had anticipated from his “new medium”; it leads, not to reconstruction, but to a sceptical disintegration of knowledge; and he was clearsighted enough to see this result. Thenceforward, scepticism became the characteristic attitude of his mind and of his writings. But his later works exhibit a less thorough scepticism than that to which his thinking led. Even his Enquiry concerning Human Understanding shows a weakening of the sceptical attitude, in the direction of a “mitigated scepticism” which resembles modern positivism and admits knowledge of phenomena and of mathematical relations.

    When he came to deal with concrete problems, his principles were often applied in an emasculated form. But the “new medium” is not altogether discarded: appeal is constantly made to the mental factor—impression and idea. This is characteristic of Hume’s doctrine of morality. “Here is a matter of fact; but ’t is the object of feeling not of reason. It lies in yourself not in the object.” And from this results his famous definition of virtue: “every quality of the mind is denominated virtuous which gives pleasure by the mere survey; as every quality which produces pain is called vicious.” The “sentiments of approbation or blame” which thus arise depend, in all cases, on sympathy; sympathy with the pleasures and pains of others is, thus, postulated by Hume as an ultimate fact; the reasonings of Butler and Hutcheson prevented him from seeking to account for it as a refined form of selfishness, as Hobbes had done; and yet, upon his own premises, it remains inexplicable. In his Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, his differences from Hobbes, and even from Locke, are still more clearly shown than in the Treatise; he defends the reality of disinterested benevolence; and the sentiment of moral approbation is described as “humanity,” or “a feeling for the happiness of mankind,” which, it is said, “nature has made universal in the species.” This sentiment, again, is always directed towards qualities which tend to the pleasure, immediate or remote, of the person observed or of others. Thus, Hume occupies a place in the utilitarian succession; but he did not formulate a quantitative utilitarianism, as Hutcheson had already done. He drew an important distinction, however, between natural virtues, such as benevolence, which are immediately approved and which have a direct tendency to produce pleasure, and artificial virtues, of which justice is the type, where both the approval and the tendency to pleasure are mediated by the social system which the virtue in question supports.