“The Science of Man” – Blackburn on Hume and his Critics

Mentioned I was catching up on Hume, reading Simon Blackburn’s contribution to the “How to Read” series. Hume is one of those philosophers – “the greatest British philosopher” – that I’ve absorbed from secondary sources over the last fifteen years, but never bothered to read and research directly until now. In fact similarly, until three encounters in person in the past two years, I had peviously allowed myself to be only vaguely aware of Blackburn. Said I needed to put that right, but it’s taken a while to find the space.

Been reading his “Truth, a Guide for the Perplexed” and finding it excellent and readable in style, even if I have previously absorbed much of the content of the various classic rehearsed arguments on what makes something true – the kinds of truth worth having. A good read and a good resource – organised, as advertised, as a guide. Maybe more later.

How to Read Hume” I’m finding plenty of Humean content new to me, yet again already finding it reinforcing my own philosophical understanding generally. Striking is the Human Nature / Human Understanding angle. Everything from Hume is indeed Natural and Human. Hume the Humanist philosopher.

“Hume’s philosophy was anthropocentric through and through.”

Blackburn’s opening chapter is entitled Science of Man. Plenty of scientists and humanists, particularly those of the more dogmatic scientistic, “new atheist” persuasion are likely to resist that take, but as Blackburn points out, if you’re not prepared to get to grips with Hume’s rhetoric in context, then you’re not going to understand the subtley of his arguments.

“[T]he science of man is the only solid foundation for the other sciences, so the only solid foundation we can give to this science must be laid on experience and observation.”

So we’re off, unpicking what exactly we might intend by science, experience and observation. And already I’m a fan of Hume’s “Mitigated Scepticism” – only the other night I was having to qualify to a sceptic audience what I meant by my being properly sceptical.

“[E]xcept in trivial matters,
the light of reason proves to be … unreliable.

Reason even undermines itself …
so it is fortunate that nature bypasses it.”

So we must add Reason to Nature, Science, Experience and Observation as terms we are going to need to unpick before we can agree meaningful definitions. If you’re already sure you know that Science is Nature and Reason and that the only Experience and Observation that matters is the kind of objective evidence that science admits, then Blackburn might have trouble selling Hume to you. It will certainly take some effort for you to buy it. And that’s the point.

When you add misunderstanding his critics and misunderstanding that they misunderstood him, why would you bother?

Perhaps because a lot more people are gonna get killed if we don’t take the trouble to understand.

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