Day 676, Hume – An enquiry concerning human understanding

Day 676-1

Section 1: The different species of philosophy

Moral philosophy, or the science of human nature, can be treated in two different ways,
each of which has its own special merit and may contribute to the entertainment,
instruction, and reformation of mankind [‘moral philosophy’ here covers every study
involving human nature, including history, politics, etc.].
One of the two treatments
considers man chiefly as born for action, and as guided in his conduct by taste and
sentiment [= ‘feeling or opinion’], pursuing one object and avoiding another according to
the value they seem to have and according to the light in which they are presented. As
virtue is agreed to be the most valuable thing one could pursue, philosophers of this kind
paint virtue in the most charming colours, getting help from poetry and eloquence and
treating their subject in a popular and undemanding manner that is best fitted to please the reader’s imagination and arouse his affections. They select the most striking observations and examples from common life; they set up proper contrasts between opposite characteristics ·such as virtue and vice, generosity and meanness·; and, attracting us into the paths of virtue by visions of glory and happiness, they direct our steps in these paths by the soundest rules and the most illustrious examples. They make us
feel the difference between vice and virtue; they excite and regulate our beliefs and feelings; and they think they have fully reached their goal if they manage to bend our hearts to the love of honesty and true honour. Philosophers who do moral philosophy in the second way focus on man as a reasonable rather than as an active being, and try to shape his thinking more than to improve his behaviour. They regard human nature as a subject of theoretical enquiry, and they examine it intently, trying to find the principles that regulate our understanding, stir up our sentiments, and make us approve or blame any particular object, event, or behaviour. They think it somewhat disgraceful that philosophy has not yet established an agreed account of the foundation of morals, reasoning, and artistic criticism; and that it goes on talking about truth and falsehood, vice and virtue, beauty and ugliness, without being able to fix the source of these distinctions. While they attempt this hard task, no difficulties deter them; moving from particular instances to general principles, they then push their enquiries still further, to get to principles that are even more general, and they don’t stop, satisfied, until they arrive at the basic principles that set the limits to human curiosity in every branch of knowledge. Though their speculations seem abstract, and even unintelligible to ordinary readers, they aim at getting the approval of the learned and the wise; and think themselves well enough compensated for their lifetime’s work if they can bring out into the open some hidden truths that may be good for later generations to know.
The general run of people will certainly always prefer the relaxed and obvious kind of philosophy to the accurate and abstruse kind; and many will recommend the former as being not only the more agreeable of the two kinds but also the more useful. It enters more into common life; moulds the heart and affections; and because it involves principles on which people
act, it reforms their conduct and brings them nearer to the model of perfection that it describes. The abstruse philosophy, on the other hand, is based on a mental attitude that cannot enter into ·every-day· business and action; so it vanishes when the philosopher comes out of the shadows into daylight, and its principles cannot easily influence our behaviour. The feelings of our heart, the agitation of our passions, the intensity of our affections, scatter all its conclusions and reduce the profound philosopher to a mere peasant. The easy philosophy – let us face the fact – has achieved more lasting fame than the other, and rightly so. Abstract reasoners have sometimes enjoyed a momentary reputation, because they caught the fancy of their contemporaries or because the latter were ignorant of what they were doing; but they haven’t been able to support their renown with more equitable posterity [the last seven words are Hume’s]. It is easy for a profound ·abstract· philosopher to make a mistake in his intricate reasonings; and one mistake is bound to lead to another, while the philosopher drives his argument forward and is not deterred from accepting any conclusion by its unusual appearance or its inconsistency with popular opinion. Not so with a philosopher who aims only to represent the common sense of mankind in more beautiful and more attractive colours: if by accident he falls into error, he goes no further. Rather than pushing on, he renews his appeal to common sense and to the
natural sentiments of the mind, gets back onto the right path, and secures himself from any dangerous illusions. The fame of Cicero flourishes at present; but that of Aristotle is
utterly decayed. La Bruyère is read in many lands and still maintains his reputation: but the glory of Malebranche is confined to his own nation, and to his own time. And Addison, perhaps, will be read with pleasure when Locke has been entirely forgotten.
To be a
mere philosopher is usually not thought well of in the world, because such a
person is thought
to contribute nothing either to the advantage or to the pleasure of
to live remote from communication with mankind, and to be wrapped up in
principles and notions that they can’t possibly understand. On the other hand, the
is still more despised; and at a time and place where learning flourishes,
nothing is regarded as a surer sign of an ill-bred cast of mind than having no taste at all for learning. The best kind of character is supposed to lie between those extremes: retaining an equal ability and taste for books, company, and business; preserving in conversation that discernment and delicacy that arise from literary pursuits, and in business preserving the honesty and accuracy that are the natural result of a sound philosophy. In order to spread and develop such an accomplished kind of character, nothing can be more useful than writings in the easy style and manner, which stay close to life, require no deep thought or solitary pondering to be understood, and send the reader back among mankind full of noble sentiments and wise precepts, applicable to every demand of human life. By means of such writings, virtue becomes amiable, the pursuit of knowledge agreeable, company instructive, and solitude entertaining.
Man is
reasonable being, and as such he gets appropriate food and nourishment
from the pursuit of knowledge; but so narrow are the limits of human understanding that we can’t hope for any great amount of knowledge or for much security in respect of what we do know. As well as being reasonable, man is
a sociable being; but he can’t always enjoy – indeed can’t always want – agreeable and amusing company. Man is also  an active being; and from that disposition of his as well as from the various necessities of human life, he must submit to being busy at something; but the mind requires some relaxation, and can’t always devote itself to careful work. It seems, then, that nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable for the human race, and has secretly warned us not to tilt too far in any of these directions so as to incapacitate ourselves for other occupations and entertainments. Indulge your passion for knowledge, says nature, but seek knowledge of things that are human and directly relevant to action and society. As for abstruse thought and profound researches, ·nature also says·, I prohibit them, and if you engage in them I will severely punish you by the brooding melancholy they bring, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you, and by the cold reception your announced discoveries will meet with when you publish them. Be a philosopher, ·nature continues·, but amidst all your philosophy be still a man. If people in general were contented to prefer the easy philosophy to the abstract and profound one, without throwing blame or contempt on the latter, it might be appropriate to go along with this general opinion, and to allow every man to enjoy without opposition his own taste and sentiment. But the friends of the easy philosophy often carry the matter further, even to point of absolutely rejecting all profound reasonings, or what is commonly called metaphysics; ·and this rejection should not be allowed to pass unchallenged·. So I
shall now proceed to consider what can reasonably be pleaded on behalf of the abstract
kind of philosophy. Let us first observe that the accurate and abstract kind of philosophy has one considerable advantage that comes from its being of service to the other kind. Without help from abstract philosophy, the easy and human kind can never be exact enough in its sentiments, rules, or reasonings. All literature is nothing but pictures of human life in various attitudes and situations, and these inspire us with different sentiments of praise or blame, admiration or ridicule, according to the qualities of the object they set before us. An artist must be better qualified to succeed in presenting such pictures if, in addition to delicate taste and sensitive uptake, he has an accurate knowledge of the internal structure and operations of the understanding, the workings of the passions, and the various kinds of sentiment that discriminate vice and virtue. However difficult this search into men’s interiors may appear to be, it is to some extent
needed by anyone wanting to describe successfully the obvious and outward aspects of life and manners. The anatomist presents to the eye the most hideous and disagreeable objects; but his science is useful to the painter in presenting even a Venus or a Helen. While the painter employs all the richest colours of his art, and gives his figures the most graceful and engaging airs, he still has to attend to the inward structure of the human body, the position of the muscles, the structure of the bones, and the function and shape of every bodily part or organ. Accuracy always helps beauty, and solid reasoning always helps delicate sentiment. It would be pointless to praise one by depreciating the other.
Besides, it is notable that in every art or profession, even those of the most practical
sort, a spirit of accuracy (however acquired) makes for greater perfection and renders the activity more serviceable to the interests of society. And even if philosophers keep
themselves far from the world of business and affairs, the spirit of philosophy, if carefully cultivated by a number of people, must gradually permeate the whole society and bring philosophical standards of correctness to every art and calling. The politician will acquire greater foresight and subtlety in apportioning and balancing power; the lawyer more method and finer principles in his reasonings; and the general more regularity in his discipline, and more caution in his plans and operations. The stability of modern governments above the ancient has improved along with improvements in the accuracy of modern philosophy, and will probably continue to do so.
Even if these studies brought no advantage beyond gratifying innocent curiosity, even that ought not to be despised, for it is one way of getting safe and harmless pleasures – few of which have been bestowed on human race. The sweetest and most inoffensive path of life leads through the avenues of knowledge and learning; and anyone who can either remove any obstacles along the path or open up new views ought to that extent to be regarded as a benefactor to mankind. And though these ·accurate and abstract· researches may appear difficult and fatiguing, some minds are like some bodies in this: being endowed with vigorous and flourishing health, they need severe exercise, and get pleasure from activities that most people would find burdensome and laborious. Obscurity, indeed,
is painful to the mind as well as to the eye; but to bring light from obscurity is bound to be delightful and rejoicing, however hard the labour. But this obscurity in the profound and abstract kind of philosophy is objected to, not only as painful and tiring, but also as the inevitable source of uncertainty and error. Here in deed lies the fairest and most plausible objection to a large part of metaphysics, that it isn’t properly a science [= not a theoretically disciplined pursuit of knowledge], but arises either from
the fruitless efforts of human vanity, trying to penetrate into subjects that are utterly inaccessible to the understanding, or from the craft of popular superstitions which, being unable to defend themselves by fair arguments, raise these entangling ·metaphysical· brambles to cover and protect their weakness. ·Each of these is sometimes true; and the misuse of metaphysics by the friends of popular superstition is vexatious·. Chased from the
open country, these robbers run into the forest and lie in wait to break in upon every
unguarded avenue of the mind and overwhelm it with religious fears and prejudices. They can oppress the strongest and most determined opponent if he lets up his guard for a moment. And many of their opponents, through cowardice and folly, open the gates to the enemies – ·the purveyors of superstition· – and willingly and reverently submit to them as their legal sovereigns. But is this a good enough reason for philosophers to hold back from such researches, to retreat and leave superstition in possession of the field? Isn’t it proper to draw the opposite conclusion, and see the necessity of carrying the war into the most secret recesses of the enemy? It is no use hoping that frequent disappointment will eventually lead men to abandon such airy pursuits ·as the superstitious ones·, and discover the proper province of human reason. For one thing, many people find it too obviously to their advantage to be perpetually recalling such topics; and furthermore the motive of blind despair should never operate in the pursuit of knowledge, for however unsuccessful former attempts may have proved there is always room to hope that the hard work, good luck, or improved intelligence of succeeding generations will reach discoveries that were unknown in former ages. Each adventurous thinker will still leap at the elusive prize, and find himself stimulated rather than discouraged by the failures of his predecessors; while he hopes that the glory of succeeding in such a hard adventure is reserved for him alone. ·So the friends of superstition and bad philosophy will never just
give up·. The only way to free learning from ·entanglement in· these abstruse questions is to enquire seriously into the nature of human understanding, and through an exact analysis of its powers and capacity show that it is utterly unfitted for such remote and abstruse subjects. We must submit to this hard work in order to live at ease ever after; and we must cultivate true metaphysics carefully, in order to destroy metaphysics of the false and adulterated kind. Laziness protects some people from this deceitful philosophy, but others are carried into it
by curiosity; and despair, which at some moments prevails, may give place later to
optimistic hopes and expectations. Accurate and valid reasoning is the only universal
remedy, fitted for all people of all kinds – ·lazy and curious, despairing and hopeful· – and
it alone can undercut that abstruse philosophy and metaphysical jargon that gets mixed up with popular superstition, presenting the latter in a manner that casual reasoners can’t understand, and giving it the air of real knowledge and wisdom. So an accurate scrutiny of the powers and faculties of human nature helps us to reject, after careful enquiry, the most uncertain and disagreeable part of learning; and it also
brings many positive advantages. It is a remarkable fact about the operations of the mind that, although they are most intimately present to us, whenever we try to reflect
on them they seem to be wrapped in darkness, and the eye ·of the mind· cannot easily detect the lines and boundaries that distinguish them from one another. The objects ·of this scrutiny – that is, the operations of the mind· – are so rarefied that they keep changing; so they have to be grasped in an instant, which requires great sharpness of mind, derived from nature and improved by habitual use. So it comes about that in the pursuit of knowledge a considerable part of the task is simply to know the different operations of the mind, to separate them from each other, to classify them properly, and to correct all the seeming disorder in which they lie when we reflect on them. This task of ordering and distinguishing has no merit when it is performed on external bodies, the objects of our senses; but when it is directed towards the operations of the mind it is valuable in
proportion to how hard it is to do. Even if we get no further than this mental geography,
this marking out of the distinct parts and powers of the mind, it is at least a satisfaction to go that far; and the more obvious these results may appear (and they are by no means
obvious), the more disgraceful it must be for those who lay claim to learning and
philosophy to be ignorant of them. Nor can there remain any suspicion that this branch of knowledge – ·the pursuit of accurate and abstract philosophy· – is uncertain and illusory; unless we adopt a scepticism that is entirely subversive of
all theoretical enquiry, and even of all action. It can’t be doubted Ÿthat the mind is endowed with various powers and faculties, that these are distinct from each other, Ÿthat what is really distinct to the immediate perception may be distinguished by reflection; and consequently that in all propositions on this subject there are true ones and false ones, and sorting them out lies within the reach of human understanding. There are many obvious distinctions of this kind, such as those between the will and understanding, the imagination and the passions, which every human creature can grasp; and the finer and more philosophical distinctions are no less real and certain, though they are harder to grasp. Some successes in these enquiries, especially some recent ones, can give us a better idea of the certainty and solidity of this branch of learning. Will we think it worth the effort of an astronomer to give us a true system of the planets, and to determine the position and order of those remote bodies, while we turn our noses up at those who with so much success determine the parts of the mind – a topic which for us comes very close to home? But may we not hope that philosophy, if carried out with care and encouraged by the attention of the public, may carry its researches still further? Might it not ·get beyond the task of distinguishing and sorting out the operations of the mind, and· discover, at least in some degree, the secret springs and drivers by which the human mind is actuated in its operations? Astronomers were for a long time contented with proving, from the phenomena, the true motions, order, and size of the heavenly bodies; until at last a scientist, ·Isaac Newton·, came along and also determined the laws and forces by which the revolutions of the planets are governed and directed. Similar things have been done with regard to other parts of nature. And there is no reason to despair of equal success in our enquiries into the powers and organisation of the mind, if we carry them out as ably and alertly ·as those other scientists did their work·. It is probable that one operation and principle of the mind depends on another; which may in turn be brought under a still more general and universal one; and it will be difficult for us to determine exactly how far these researches can be carried – difficult before we have carefully tried, and difficult even after. This much is certain: attempts of this kind are made every day even by those who philosophize the most carelessly; and the greatest need is to embark on the project with thorough care and attention. That is needed so that if the task does lie within reach of human understanding, it can eventually end in success; and if it doesn’t, it can be rejected with some confidence and security. But this last conclusion is not desirable, and shouldn’t be arrived at rashly, for it detracts from the beauty and value of this sort of philosophy. Moralists have always been accustomed, when they considered the vast number and variety of actions that arouse our approval or dislike, to search for some common principle on which this variety of sentiments might depend. And though their passion for a single general principle has sometimes carried them too far, it must be granted that they are excusable in expecting to find some general principles under which all the vices and virtues can rightly be brought. Similar attempts have been made by literary critics, logicians, and even students of politics; and their attempts have met with some success, though perhaps longer time, greater accuracy, and more intensive study may bring these studies still nearer to perfection. To throw up at once all claims to this kind of knowledge can fairly be thought to be more rash, precipitate, and dogmatic than even the boldest and most affirmative philosophy that has ever attempted to impose its crude dictates and principles on mankind. If these reasonings concerning human nature seem abstract and hard to understand, what of it? This isn’t evidence of their falsehood. On the contrary, it seems impossible that what has hitherto escaped so many wise and profound philosophers can be very obvious and easy ·to discover·. And whatever efforts these researches may cost us, we can think
ourselves sufficiently rewarded not only in profit but also in pleasure, if by that means we can add at all to our stock of knowledge in subjects of such enormous importance.
Still, the abstract nature of these speculations is a drawback rather than an advantage;
but perhaps this difficulty can be overcome by care and skill and the avoiding of all
unnecessary detail; so I shall in the following enquiry try to throw some light on subjects
from which
wise people have been deterred by uncertainty, and ignorant people have
been deterred by obscurity. How good it would be to be able to unite the boundaries of
the different kinds of philosophy, by reconciling profound enquiry with clearness, and
truth with novelty! And still better if by reasoning in this easy manner I can undermine the foundations of an abstruse philosophy that seems  always to have served only as a shelter to superstition, and a cover to absurdity and error!

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