David Hume: the philosopher with the strongest arguments
No philosopher is quite right about anything. Even though we can say that someone’s ideas turned out to be popular or supported by science, or that they were taken up by later philosophers, that doesn’t actually mean they were right about what they said. . In fact, it is difficult to see what “right” would mean in philosophy (especially because “What does“ right ”mean?” Is in itself a philosophical question). For every argument a philosopher can make, there is bound to be a dissenting voice.
And so, perhaps the best way to approach the question of the “strongest philosopher” is to consider instead: who was less wrong? It’s different, of course, from the one who had the most affecting. Because, as we saw with Marx, being right or wrong (or at least incorrect) does not necessarily diminish your impact.
So, to determine which philosopher had the strongest arguments, a good way might be to see which arguments have not yet been beaten – that is, the philosopher who left us with insurmountable problems, who made observations difficult to deny, and which provided the landscape in which so much modern philosophy works. If those are the criteria, then one answer is obvious: David Hume.
A humorous and awesome man
David Hume is widely regarded as one of the nicest men in 18th century Britain. Like Benjamin Franklin, he was considered kind, witty and generous and was known in France as “the good David” or “Saint David” in his native Scotland. He was a close friend of James Boswell and Adam Smith and even welcomed Jean-Jacques Rousseau after his escape from France. (Rousseau eventually went mad with paranoia and accused Hume of leading an international conspiracy to defame him.)
Hume made his money from his colossal History of England (which runs at over 3,000 pages, even with today’s printers). Even though he was refused a teaching post for his irreligiosity and was ostracized from the church, he had the means and the money to lead a comfortable life. Nor did his friends particularly care about the scandal he was courting, for Hume regularly entertained the scholars and intellectuals of his day. Although he died one of the most painful deaths possible (from bowel cancer), he even treated it with effervescence and stoicism, writing that dying at 65 wasn’t so serious because it “cuts only a few years of infirmities”.
But, more than anything, Hume was a fantastic philosopher.
The great infidel
Hume’s critique of traditional arguments for God in his Dialogues on natural religion are widely regarded as the ones to beat. Although Hume has been publicly known to be anti-religion most of his life (he has been nicknamed “The Great Infidel” by Boswell), he has hidden this behind mysticism and dialogues with third parties. His great attack on religion in the Dialogues was even delayed in publication until her death (at the suggestion of her friend, Adam Smith).
But their content is quite devastating. The likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris owe much of their “new atheism” to Hume, sometimes raising his arguments almost blow for blow. While it’s too far to say that cosmological and teleological arguments for God are dead in the water, Hume definitely offered a tall order.
The sun will come out tomorrow!
Second, Hume’s “induction problem” is still one of the brightest and most intractable problems in the philosophy of science. It asks how we can guarantee that the future will look like the past, or in other words, it asks if a quantity of past observations can Absolutely prove what will happen in the future. Just because the sun has risen every day in human history doesn’t mean it has to happen tomorrow. There is no way of knowing what might happen in the future.
The problem is still with us, and it seems to point to a limitation of inductive reasoning – that is, collecting data to draw generalized conclusions – in that it will never lead, no matter how hard and hard. the volume of data, certainty. One of the best ways to approach Hume’s problem is to adopt a theory of “forgery” (by Karl Popper, in particular), in which nothing can ever be. proven, in and of itself, but rather not shown to be wrong… yet. But the problem of induction remains.
You can’t tell me what to do
Finally, Hume has written extensively on ethics, and he denounced one of the greatest logical errors of which philosophers are often guilty: the “naturalistic fallacy”, sometimes called the “must-do” problem. This states that we can never come up with a moral imperative, such as “You should do X”, based on a fact about the world, such as “X produces pleasure. There is always a gap between the fact (the “is”) and the moral command (the “should”), which asks: “Why Does producing pleasure mean it’s fair? Another example: there is nothing inherent in the phrase “This bomb will kill a child”, which also means: “You should not drop the bomb”. The two are not, at least philosophically, related.
Hume was almost excommunicated for his ethical (as well as religious) writings, as he ended up being somewhat of an “emotiveist”. This means that he believed that good and evil, good and evil, vice and virtue, were not things that were innate, given by God, but were simply expressions of feelings. Saying “This is wrong” is really just a statement about your value judgments. Hume was one of the first to publicly state that he believed that ethics, and actions more generally, had very little to do with logic or reason alone. Hume insisted that we consider the enormous importance of emotion or passion in driving and motivating action – a daring stance at the heart of the Reasonable Enlightenment.
These “metaethical” positions are extremely popular today, not least because Hume introduced them with a common sense psychology that was well ahead of his time.
A nice genius
It’s philosophy, after all, and I’d be pilloried if I were to suggest that Hume is the last word on anything. But his ideas require a bit of bite. He threw out at least three of the biggest questions in philosophy today – for science, ethics, and religion – and so many newspaper articles have gone on to try to unravel him.
But, from a personal point of view, what impresses me the most is the clarity and simplicity of Hume’s writing. He did not need to invent words (as the Germans often did), he did not have recourse to esoteric and inaccessible terminology (as post-modernists like Kristeva or Deleuze are often guilty of), and he did not have recourse to God. or revelation or mystery to make its case.
Hume lets his arguments speak for themselves, and we still hear them loud and clear today.
Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy at Oxford. He runs a popular Instagram account called Mini Philosophy (@philosophieminis). His first book is Mini Philosophy: A Little Book of Big Ideas.