Hume’s Scepticism Revisited

Zuzana Parusniková. Philosophy. Volume 89, Issue 4. October 2014.

Early Modern Context

One can never stress enough the extent of the philosophical change that occurred in the 17thcentury. The whole metaphysical philosophical framework that had formed the intellectual and spiritual climate in the European culture from the ancient Greece was replaced by the modern model based on man and his own thinking capacities. The essence of the new era was in plain terms declared by Descartes; as he states in his Discourse; ‘My plan has never gone further (sic!) than an attempt to reform my own thoughts and rebuild them on ground that is altogether my own.’ Descartes made a revolutionary breakthrough and speeded up the process of the disintegration of the Aristotelian-scholastic scheme, in which man was a part of a higher order that transcended him and in which he was anchored (such as the cosmic order, Logos, the order of the Aristotelian God/Nús noéseós, or the order of God’s creation in Christianity).

Everything that had been taken for granted was disintegrating under the pressure of the confident Self, enforcing its rights to be the ultimate authority and judge as to what can be known and how we should proceed in acquiring knowledge, and becoming the starting point and the primary focus of philosophical investigations. In the previous metaphysical scheme, the existence of reality, as well as the correspondence between knowledge and its objects, was in principle guaranteed, both being of the same ‘stuff.’ Man was at home in the world and his cognition, although a privilege, was not ‘altogether his own’ but was a part of other movements and processes in nature and in the celestial spheres. The order of being corresponded to the order of thinking and thus there was an unproblematic ‘match’ between the two, given we use our senses and reason appropriately; things naturally revealed themselves to our cognition. The ontological grounding united the universe, Nature and Man into a structure that also incorporated spiritual and moral aspects, was driven by a higher purpose and gave man guidance in thought and life.

As the metaphysical framework—which had constituted the whole preceding philosophical worldview—became shattered, Man and his autonomous cognitive abilities came into prominence and the new philosophical paradigm based on the self, on autonomous subjectivity, began shaping the philosophical discourse of the early modern age. This new age is, for example, described in quite poetic terms by Hegel who views Descartes as the founder of the kind of philosophy ‘which knows that it comes forth from reason as independent … Here, we may say, we are at home, and like the mariner after a long voyage in a tempestuous sea, we may now hail the sight of land.’ The old home in being was replaced by a new home in the thinking self; and, as remarked by Husserl, it was Descartes who made the great reversal leading to transcendental subjectivity, to the kind of subjectivity laying up and actively constituting the world.

Of course, Descartes represented the rationalistic model in which it is the light or reason, endowed with innate ideas, that determines what can be known with certainty and what qualifies as scientific knowledge. But on the deeper level, shared by most early modern philosophers and initiating the future trend of philosophy, Descartes’ Ego cogito opened the space in which the focus moves towards ‘my mental power of judgment … my intellect alone.’ Subsequently, the question of how to establish what is the object of my ideas, as well as the Humean question of what could the source of my perceptions, leads ultimately to the mind itself; the objects of my thoughts may be just dreams, or suppositions, but the only valid claim within the modern discourse can be made about the contents of my mind, placing the mind in the centre of philosophy.

The empiricist approach in its various forms also belonged to this scheme; for Hume, too, (again with Husserl), “world” has a validity which has springs up within subjectivity. The mind is aware of perceptions and should, according to Hume, infer ideas from them following strict empiricist rules, summarized in the copy principle and guaranteeing the rationality of knowledge. But, most importantly, it is the stream of my perceptions that is the source of knowledge and, subsequently, my inclinations that make them up into what we call objects or matters of fact; the fact that this process ultimately violates the empiricist rules will be addressed later. Starting with the assumption that ‘nothing is ever present to the mind but perceptions’ we end up in the conclusion that ‘we never really advance a step beyond ourselves.’ It is the mind that constitutes the objects of our experience. And, as is well known, Hume even denies the conception of mind as substance and, in Treatise only, defines it as an unstable bundle of impressions, ‘a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance.’

To sum up, from Descartes on, knowledge started with the cognizing subject who is aware of his own mind contents, be it ideas or perceptions, and projects them outwards by giving them the status of objects. The objectifying manner of our thought is given in our constitution; for Descartes, ‘there can be no ideas that are not as it were ideas of realities,’ and analogically for Hume, ‘whatever we conceive, we conceive as existent.’ In this sense, we could view Descartes as the pioneer of the trend that continued via the empiricists and was completed in Kant’s Copernican turn: as Copernicus denied that celestial bodies revolve around the stationary Earth, but declared that the Earth itself moves, Kant replaced the assumption that ‘all our cognition must conform to objects’ by the opposite, namely that ‘objects must conform to our cognition.’ The objectivity is thus ‘ours,’ it has the status of the phenomena of the mind. Philosophy moves away from ontology to epistemology, from reflection upon being to the analysis of the mind itself (mental geography) and, ultimately, from wisdom to scientific knowledge (from filosophia to gnoseologia).

The liberation of man from all metaphysical and ontological bondage gave him the highest authority but, at the same time, led to the imprisonment of the subject in itself. The world was lost and man was alone. From now on, the bare existence of something external to my mind becomes, a highly problematic issue, rising the infamous question ‘how to bridge the gap.’ The cardinal question for the new philosophy is this: ‘Have we the right to pass from the idea of the thing to the thing itself? … Does the clearness and the distinctness of an idea guarantee, eo ipso, its objective validity? … After all, the clearness of an idea is one thing—and the real existence of the object of it quite another.’ Only once this problem is resolved can one proceed from certainty to truth.

Descartes, in the radical parts of his Meditations, confesses that there is no solution to this problem. If we follow our reason (and not blind impulses), we come to the conclusion that ‘although [ideas] do not depend on my will, it does not necessarily follow that they proceed from external objects … perhaps there exists in me some other faculty, as yet imperfectly known to me, that generates such ideas … without the help of any external objects.’ In a similar fashion, Hume asks: ‘By what argument can be proved, that the perceptions of mind must be caused by external objects, entirely different from them, though resembling them (if that be possible) and could not arise either from the energy of mind itself, or from the suggestion of some invisible and unknown spirit, or from some other cause still unknown to us? In Hume’s empiricist perspective, only our experience could provide the answer; however, as Hume continues, ‘experience must be silent,’ and so must we. The issue is closed.

By theoretical means, by argument, this task proved insurmountable, were we to maintain the subjectivity principle. ‘General objectivism which had been dominant for millennia … was shaken to the foundations’ and ‘empiricist scepticism brings to light what was already present in the Cartesian fundamental investigation, … namely, that all knowledge of the world, the pre-scientific as well as the scientific, is an enormous enigma,’ is how Husserl describes the new situation. Yet, if philosophy wants to provide the epistemological foundation of objective science and advance towards mathesis universalis—as most early modern philosophers, often scientists themselves, did want—it has the task ahead to reestablish the world and our access to it.

But how? We can see various strategies among philosophers of this period, often including moves back to metaphysics. Descartes himself, half way through the Third Meditation, made this move, somewhat devaluing his previous radicalism of the autonomous self. He turned to God as the guarantee of the real existence of the world and of the possibility of true knowledge. He used several proofs of God’s existence, starting from our idea of the infinite, which cannot be merely subjective. Generally, he appealed to God who could not be so malevolent as to give us the desire for knowledge while not providing the world to be cognized, and the ‘right thought’ that can capture it rationally, in its idealized mathematical form. Thus, Descartes’ God is more a divine mathematician than the traditional spiritual and moral substance, the saviour of souls; for Descartes, to sin is to err.

Some philosophers accepted the metaphysical solution and no longer questioned the ontological status of the world. The main concern of their investigations was, however, far from the old scholastic repertoire as they focused mainly on scientific methods and scientific knowledge, based in reason as an instrument of mathematics; Spinoza, for instance, elaborates cognitive methods more geometrico within the pantheist framework—here, mathematical reason gives us access to the cosmic and moral order. Leibniz assumes that mathematics makes the universe intelligible and links together the laws of nature and the laws of reason. But even this metaphysical line of thought builds on Descartes’ new paradigm, in which the aim of philosophy is to enhance science, and epistemology builds on the basic assumption that nature in its abstracted form has a mathematical structure, and can be thus mastered through knowledge.

In Britain, however, the metaphysical and rationalist solution did not catch on, and as a result, the phenomenalist theme regained its force. Philosophers like Locke, Berkeley and Hume tried to deal with the pressing problem of the existence of something external to perceptions; but how can we restore objectivity within the framework which starts with objects as they appear in my mind? Locke still naïvely presumed that primary qualities come from external things as imprints in our passive and empty mind. Berkeley already understood the phenomenalist implications of this position, in which esse est percipi, and denied the possibility of reaching anywhere beyond the mind; for the proof of the existence of any corporeal or material substance, it would be ‘necessary that you conceive them existing unconceived or unthought of, which is a manifest repugnancy. When we do our utmost to conceive the existence of external bodies, we are all the while only contemplating our own ideas.’ Berkeley turns to God as the source of our ideas who guarantees its consistent and uniform working and creates an extraordinary combination of phenomenalism and religious metaphysics.

Hume’s place within early modern philosophy is unique. He was the only philosopher who took up the challenge of the radical Cartesian turn to the subject with full awareness and without any recourse to metaphysics. Hume consistently stands on the phenomenalist ground, on which we cannot justify by argument anything beyond our perceptions. Against Descartes, who turned to the authority of God, Hume did not consider any higher authority than man, and he expunged all metaphysics from his system most decisively—and any issues concerning ontology had to go with it. Metaphysical (ontological) inquiry would lead us into darkness, to abstruse and abstract speculations and, ultimately, to despair.

Hume warns us against the dangers of metaphysics and compares it to robbers who ‘lie in wait to break in upon every unguarded avenue of the mind’ and even the ‘stoutest antagonist, if he remit his watch a moment, is oppressed.’ The catholic remedy that he proposes in the area of epistemology involves a complete change of focus; the abstruse philosophy and the metaphysical jargon are replaced by ‘accurate and just reasoning’ that investigates ‘the nature of human understanding’ and proves to be ‘by no means fitted for such remote and abstruse subjects.’ This echoes Descartes’ initial determination to break away completely from the old philosophy; as he says: ‘we are now freed from the oath which bounds us to our master and are old enough to be no longer subject to the rod. So if we seriously wish to propose rules for ourselves which will help us scale the heights of human knowledge … we should take care not to waste our time … by occupying ourselves only with difficult matters.’

Both Descartes and Hume have no truck with the old knowledge taught in the schools and urge us to abandon it altogether. Reforming would be an endless task, since it stands on bad foundations. Descartes uses a metaphor of architecture and says that ‘the ancient cities … are as a rule badly laid out … streets are twisted and irregular … as compared with those towns of regular pattern that are laid out by a designer on an open plain.’ But ‘when the foundation is undermined, the superstructure will collapse of itself.’ In a similar fashion, Hume’s aim is to ‘propose a compleat new system of the sciences, built on a foundation almost entirely new and the only one upon which they can stand on with any security.’

In short, Hume was the only one among the early modern philosophers who had the courage to hold the position of the autonomous mind to the end. As a result, ontological topics dissolve into epistemological topics in the broadest sense, including the rules of conduct of the mind, as well as the observation of how our mind works naturally. In this perspective, it seems extravagant to search for some remainders of ontology in Hume’s system, as the so-called ‘New Hume’ interpretation does. However diverse, this interpretation shares the key claim that Hume can be considered an ‘ontological realist.’ But ontology became beyond the reach of early modern philosophy, especially in the consistent form of the philosophy of subjectivity that Hume represents; he not only made the topic redundant but did all he could to get rid of it in epistemological enquiry. It is, for Hume, a dead end, an irrelevant issue that is not worth spending time on.

Hume insists over and over again that we must refrain from inquiries that go beyond the narrow compass of our understanding. The loss of ontology is nothing to regret since a whole new and fascinating terrain opens up for epistemology, namely the study of the operations of the mind and its constructive role. After Hume recommends rejecting ‘the most uncertain and disagreeable parts of learning’ (i.e. abstruse philosophy), he defines the task of true philosophy as the study ‘of the operations of the mind … delineation of the distinct parts and powers of the mind … mental geography … the powers and faculties of human nature.’ All these citations are from just one page of Hume’s Enquiry.

Why bother to squeeze out hints of ontological realism, even if there were strong signs of it (and there are not)? Would any scholar call Kant a realist, despite the fact that Kant begins his first Critique with a clear ‘realist’ statement: ‘There can be no doubt that all our cognition begins with experience. For what else might rouse our cognitive power to its operation if objects stirring our senses did not do so?’ Hume does not even go that far, and considers that the ‘stirring’ may be due to some power inside me, yet unknown to me. Yet, realism does not epitomize Kant’s contribution to philosophy—his achievement lies elsewhere, in transcendental philosophy that deals ‘not so much with objects as rather with our way of cognizing objects in general.’ On this point, Kant was inspired by Hume’s claim, namely that ‘the mind has a great propensity to spread itself on external objects’ and that our projection involves substantiation. Ultimately, it is us who implant causation into the world (for us).

Kant, unlike Hume, explains this mental propensity in his conception of a priori logical functions, developed in detail in the complex architectonics of categories. Hume observes only that it is a psychological fact we must take for granted. Still, this was the spark that Hume struck and from which Kant lit the light, after being woken by Hume from his dogmatic (metaphysical) slumber. Are out there any external existences or any causation independent on our mind? Hume, in a more radical way than Kant, can only say: maybe yes and maybe no (we can suppose or believe anything), but since this question is outside the proper province of reason let us leave it. Again, from this broader context, the claim of the ‘New Humeans’ that there has to some more affirmative way to argue for the mind-independent existence (mostly causation) in Hume, does not seem to me a persuasive way to interpret Hume.

Detailed criticisms of the claims made by the proponents of the ‘New Hume’ have been advanced by Peter Millican, together with others, such as Kenneth Winkler and Simon Blackburn. Millican especially warns against the widespread style of argumentation, in which debaters from opposing camps ‘throw quotes’ at each other, taking them out of the context of the argument in question or of the particular phase of Hume’s philosophical development. Millican, by contrast provides an exhaustive account, based on the ‘systematic analysis and tracking of Hume’s reasoning as it develops in the texts …closely tethered to the structure and logical argument ordering of the key texts,’ and using this strategy he rejects the ‘New Humeans’ arguments one by one.

My aim here is to add further critical perspective by turning attention to the early modern paradigm-change, in which philosophy cut itself off the dominant metaphysical tradition and found its proper province in studying the thinking/perceiving mind. Hopefully, this perspective can contribute to the detailed textual criticisms and show that the realist reading of Hume is counterproductive. The hunt for realism rips from Hume’s philosophy its unique qualities: the most radical elimination of metaphysics, the most consistent phenomenalism and the most modern position among the thinkers of his period.

Besides, the charge of anti-realism that is raised against the ‘Old Humean’ interpretation seems unfair from the very start. Galen Strawson, for instance, blames the ‘standard’ interpretation for transferring the epistemological scepticism of Hume into the area of ontology. In Strawson words, the epistemological claim ‘“All we can ever know of causation is regular succession” is catastrophically (sic) extended to the ontological claim “All that causation actually is, in the objects, is regular succession”‘. He finds this move ‘fantastically implausible.’ But is the standard interpretation guilty of this? Examples are rarely given. Consider one of them, given by Strawson, that refers to O’Hear: ‘there is not any more to causality than “regularity of succession” … there is nothing in the cause … that means effect has to follow.’

I cannot see any catastrophic (or indeed any) transfer to ontology here. If we understand that the limits of what ‘is’ is delineated by what we ‘know’ or ‘mean,’ there is no ontological claim in this statement. As I remarked earlier, ontology dissolves into epistemology that looks at how our mind makes/knows and understands the world; therefore, what we know ’makes’ what there is (for us), though we dignify it with the title of realities. If we read this or similar citations in this perspective, they merely say that there is no more to causality, judged according to the copy principle that we are obliged to follow, than regular succession. If we follow instincts we freely make positive—but naïve—realist claims (based on belief); in either way they are not ontological statements.

In other words, from the standpoint of the early modern phenomenalism in its empiricist version, there is no ‘other side’ to our perceptions. Any other far side is out of reach and of no interest for Hume. Therefore, I distance myself from any realist attempts that ascribe to Hume the position that ‘we understand our enquiries to be aimed at what lies on the far side of the line’ or even that ‘we do have to be able to think the other side of the line.’ The other side of the line is ‘mysterious and straightjacketing’ and philosophical understanding ‘must sail on in complete indifference to any facts transcending our ideas,’ as Blackburn puts it. And, as we know, the strict copy principle does not allow much.

Hume clearly sees that in common life we ‘cannot possibly subsist without continually employing this species of argument’ (concerning fact and existence). Instead of turning to metaphysics he finds the way out of the phenomenalist trap elsewhere—in human nature. Our nature has animal, cognitive, emotional and social aspects which all men share and without which they could not subsist. We happily live in the world of real existences, and despite the rule that nothing transcending the copy principle can even be thought, we do form thoughts of such existences. These may be called improper, inaccurate, ‘bare,’ rationally unjustified ‘ideas’ But such ideas have nothing to do with the far side of the line, since there is no line in our naturally felt and cognized and lived in world.

This natural framework of life and thought also determines the fact that we use the realist vocabulary, which may, sometimes, slip into philosophical vocabulary. Hume can speak about ideas of trees representing real trees, about causes, about power, or necessity, since he cannot abandon his belief that it is really so; likewise, he cannot abandon the natural language (and instead speak each time of a constantly perceived conjunction of impressions, creating, with the help of associations and habit, the fiction of existence); could we not view also Hume’s alleged realism in this light? Berkeley could provide some inspiration for this purpose:

In the ordinary affairs of life, any phrases may be retained, so long as they excite in us proper sentiments, or dispositions to act in such a manner as is necessary for our well-being, how false soever they may be if taken in a strict and speculative sense. Nay, this is unavoidable, since, propriety being regulated by custom; language is suited to the received opinions, which are not always the truest. Hence it is impossible, even in the most rigid, philosophic reasonings, so far to alter the bent and genius of the tongue we speak, as never to give a handle for cavillers to pretend difficulties and inconsistencies. But, a fair and ingenuous reader will collect the sense from the scope and tenor and connexion of a discourse, making allowances for those inaccurate modes of speech which use has made inevitable.

The Pre-modern Context

To define the modern traits in Hume’s epistemology, as analyzed in the first section, the keywords Cartesian, phenomenalist and pessimistic (sceptical) come to mind, summed up under the heading focus on the mind. In contrast to that, the least modern characteristics would include the terms Pyrrhonian, earthly and optimistic, tied together by the focus on life. Strangely, it may seem, I tie Pyrrhonism to both optimism and to life rid of philosophical theorizing. Pyrrhonism undoubtedly had an immense impact on early modern epistemological scepticism, as I will explain later. But the peculiar thing about Hume is the way he made use of other sceptical themes and incorporated them into his philosophy. For instance, Hume (literally) carelessly accepts the human predicament, in which reason is the weak link—that goes totally against the spirit of modernity. Also, the goal of philosophy is to help people to achieve his version of the Pyrrhonian ataraxia, while philosophy of that time had altogether different priorities; knowledge, science, truth, progress. And is Hume not treating philosophy more like an agreeable, conversational activity, stripping it of its typically modern, epistemologically foundational, serious tasks?

Ancient Pyrrhonism underwent a great revival in Europe in the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries. This revival was boosted by the Latin translations of Sextus Empiricus, and brought to more general attention by Michel Montaigne, especially in his essay Apology for Raymond Sebond (1580). The details of the essay cannot be discussed here; suffice to say that scepticism found a fertile ground at the time when the authority of the scholastic conception of the world was beginning to loosen its grip. Since it was first used to target the rational components of the scholastic arguments for God’s existence, it speeded up the process of disintegration of scholasticism and its authority over man’s thought and life. The sceptical approach took as its primary goal the crushing of existing dogmas, without establishing new ones. All that the ancient sceptics wanted to do was to reveal the internal contradictions in all rational argumentation; to show that we end up in an abyss where ‘nothing holds,’ all judgment must be suspended, and we rest satisfied with appearances.

In Montaigne’s words, ‘[the sceptics] use their reason for inquiry and debate but never make choices or decisions. If you can picture an endless confession of ignorance, or a power of judgment that never, never inclines to one side or the other, then you can conceive what Pyrrhonism is.’ Scepticism was a double-edged weapon, undermining the ability to think and argue in a clear, consistent way but also paving the way for the early modern conception of the authority of man and his thought. These two trends did not necessarily oppose each other at the time of the birth of the new discourse—despite showing that our judgments fall into the abyss of contradictions, it was the human mind alone, subordinate to no other master than itself, that performed these destructive acts. Scepticism then remained as a task to be tackled for the philosophers of the future, who had already begun to build on the new foundations. Hume read Montaigne, and was also strongly influenced by Pierre Bayle, the author of the famous Historical and Critical Dictionary (1697-1702) and the advocate of the most destructive scepticism; he packed the complete Dictionary into his luggage when he went to study to La Flèche.

We owe a lot to Richard Popkin for linking ancient scepticism to the rise of early modern philosophy. He initiated wide-ranging research into the revival of Pyrrhonism, and in his excellent philosophical and historical scholarship proposed the idea that Pyrrhonism had a constitutive role in this process. Other philosophers joined in a lively debate that resulted in a fascinating picture of the philosophical developments in this era including, as is relevant for our case, Hume; I shall build on this foundation, adding some further observations that go beyond range of topics discussed by Popkin. These observations concern mainly the discord between Hume’s Pyrrhonism and the early modern epistemological discourse—and, linked to that, the lack of interest in natural science on Hume’s part—and also the loss of the unique status of philosophy, implied by his emphasis on common life.

According to Popkin, Hume corrected and improved Pyrrho. In a nutshell, Hume discovered an inconsistency in the sceptical claim that we must both stick to appearances and simultaneously suspend belief in them. Sextus says about Pyrrhonists: ‘They say what is apparent to themselves and report their own feelings without holding opinions, affirming nothing about external objects.’ To avoid dogmatism, they are only ‘describing and reporting how they feel,’ but try to refrain from any spontaneous affirmation. The ancient Pyrrhonian asks us to exorcise any flavour of reality from all naturally emerging convictions and to practice maximum detachment from life, corresponding to the high value of bios theoretikos in ancient culture. Diogenes Laertios emphasizes (and Bayle repeats) Pyrrho’s struggles against excitement, using several examples from Pyrrho’s own life; e.g. ‘when a cur rushed at him and terrified him, he answered his critic that it was not easy entirely to strip oneself of humanity’; or, ‘when septic salves and surgical and caustic remedies were applied to a wound he had sustained, he did not so much as frown.’

Hume noticed that this attitude is psychologically intolerable and, instead of bringing us tranquility, would lead to the state of agony; Pyrrho can claim that we cannot assert that honey is sweet but only that it sweetens in a perceptual way, but we cannot get rid of the overwhelming belief that it is really sweet. Pyrrho, unlike Hume, did not acknowledge that despite having no basis for our opinions we still have strong opinions owing to our psychological and biological constitution. This is, what in Popkin’s view Hume means by the Pyrrhonian excessive scepticism—its annexation of belief; and apart from the agony of mind, it would also practically destroy life: ‘all discourse, all action would immediately cease; and men remain in a total lethargy, till the necessities of nature, unsatisfied, put an end to their miserable existence.’

Hume corrects this mistake. As Popkin argues, he encourages the sceptic to apply radical doubts in reflection, and to assent to natural beliefs as any other man at other times. The trick to get away from the psychological torture, inherent in the ancient Pyrrhonism, is to separate the two areas and to grant each of them its own full right. Hume has often been accused of creating a clash, a dichotomy between reason and nature; after all, sceptical conclusions and beliefs ‘tell’ us contradictory things. Yet, according to Popkin’s original interpretation of Hume, this is not the case because we do not inhabit them simultaneously. In this move, Hume distances himself from the old Pyrrhonists (‘those sceptics’) and calls them a ‘fantastic sect’ who cannot see that ‘neither I, nor any other person was ever sincerely andconstantly [emphasis mine] of that [totally sceptical] opinion’;45and similarly claims: ‘a Pyrrhonian cannot expect, that his philosophy will have any constant influence on the mind.’ The separation of these two areas is the core of Hume’s concept of mitigation; mitigated scepticism thus does not involve any kind of taming or subduing of scepticism, it does not blunt its sceptical edge. Thus, the true Humean sceptic ‘will doubt when he must and believe when he must’—and this is all that mitigated scepticism amounts to.’

Hume argues that we either carry on with our sceptical reflections, in darkness and dreary solitude, or we carry on with life, in sunshine and company, fully absorbed in one or the other. Reason and instincts are two different worlds that play by different rules, and since each displays itself in different circumstances they do not compete or overlap. Instead of a dichotomy we face a duality of our constitution; a mitigated sceptic can easily switch from one world to the other. This is the picture of ‘a perfect Pyrrhonist in his two moods … in one mood, the difficulties overcome him, in another, necessities do.’48Hume’s correction of Pyrrho entails that we do not try to stay detached—repeating to ourselves that everything is only an appearance—when convictions, feelings and beliefs overwhelm us with much stronger force; we simply yield to their force that is irresistible anyway. Pyrrho’s demands cause a malady that is incurable within his philosophical framework. Hume brings a new cure, carelessness and inattention, reflecting the fact that we ignore (‘bracket’) beliefs while doubting and vice versa. If we accept this whimsical condition, reduce the vanity of reason and limit our inquiries accordingly, we can achieve satisfaction and happiness.

Hume’s Pyrrhonian legacy can inspire us to draw various interesting consequences. On the most general but also most fundamental level, Hume’s cure must have sounded extremely provocative within the dominant epistemological discourse for several reasons. It challenged the whole logocentric drive that established an alliance between philosophy, subject, reason, knowledge and science (and which, in many ways, continues up to now); in this grand meta-narrative, reason is not just central but also centres—it structures the world in such a way that it emerges as an ordered, unified whole, transparent to science. Early modern philosophy to a large extent built on this ideal, as described in the previous section. Hume challenged this ideal by both, appealing to us to accept the weakness of reason as a predicament we have to live with, and offering us a solution that consisted in ‘relaxing this (sceptical) bent of mind, or by some avocation.’ Carefree acceptance, taking one’s mind off the sceptical pessimism, being merry with friends or walking along the river—how utterly incompatible with the modern spirit!

Hume abandoned this project and observed that men ‘must act and reason and believe; though they are not able, by their most diligent enquiry, to satisfy themselves concerning the foundation of these operations.’50Hume accepted, truly ‘philosophically,’ with sceptical calmness, the essential ‘untidiness’ of the world, in which there are two irreconcilable powers and man is placed in both of them, though in turns. And although they pull him in different directions, Hume enabled them co-exist alongside each other, not providing any higher unifying perspective. This is very far from the ‘law and order’ of the modern discourse, in which the world is neatly cut into geometrical shapes, like a French garden. For Hume, sceptical arguments show the rational illegitimacy of our reasoning but, metaphorically, these verdicts do not leave the courtroom. On the other hand, Nature has nothing to do with rational reflection yet it has its own wisdom. Her wisdom enables our survival but stays in the realm of dark animal instincts. What may sound as a dead end, a resignation or a philosophical failure is, for Hume, an optimistic message that frees us from the obligation of grounding the common ways of life.

This set-up affects the status of natural science, one of the most pressing issues in Hume’s view. There is no way around the fact that science does not have any rational warranty, as Hume put it bluntly: ‘all inferences from experience … are effects of custom, not of reasoning.’ Recently, we have seen interesting arguments claiming that the lack of such a tight proof justification does not endanger the status of science. The two major factors determining our reasoning—custom and belief—being the constant of our thought and action, ‘provide a sufficient basis not only for everyday reasoning, but also for empirical [inductive] science,’ argues Millican; belief justifies itself. Blackburn, too, endorses the view that natural instinct (‘corrected and methodized’) suffices for the scientific enterprise; after all, what else do we need when we do science? We better stop speculating about causation, or induction, ‘as such’ and settle for a nexus of two particular events at a particular time. If we do so, there will be ‘no contradiction in supposing that the powers and forces with which events are endowed at one time cease at another.’

These arguments were specifically advanced in the context of the ‘New Hume’ debate. However, they bring up a more general question: can they remove the overly sceptical label from Hume’s epistemology in this way? Or even, could Hume himself accept such a redefinition of the rationality of science? Here, I dare to disagree. Historically, Hume wrote in the time when epistemology was supposed to provide rational grounding of knowledge and he understood this task—to that extent he was integrated in the early modern philosophy. He probably assumed at first that his science of man could serve as the ‘only solid foundation for other sciences’; he saw the need to define the norms of rational thought, which ‘must be laid on experience and observation’; and he prescribed a strict copy principle as a norm of proper reasoning. Did Hume not hope that such accurate and just reasoning, when applied to the scrutiny of the operations of the mind, will yield more than just sceptical findings with regard to its rational status?

Rational grounding was taken seriously; as an exemplary case, Kant demanded ‘a pilot, who, provided with some complete sea-charts, and compass can safely navigate the ship.’ Kant argues that Hume, due to his reduction the mind to operations of association, failed to fulfil this task, and Hume recognized his defeat on this field—but this exactly is the moment when the Pyrrhonian, pre-modern side of Hume’s position comes to play. Once he saw that this project is a failure he accepted the result with remarkable ease. He simply let the problem be and turned to more appropriate and more enjoyable topics, namely to common life—to the area of moral, social and political cohabitation of people—that has not the same hard-core scientific status as is demanded in natural science. The nonchalance with which Hume passed the prominent epistemological concerns of the day, the fact that he shrugged them off with a mere pronouncement: ‘if we believe, that fire warms, or water refreshes, it is only because it costs us too much pains to think otherwise,’ is astonishing for a modern philosopher, but unsurprising for a true (Pyrrhonian) sceptic. Hume did not set out to provide some lower order theoretical justification of the rationality of science (as, in my understanding, Millican and Blackburn propose) but waved it off altogether. Pyrrhonism as an attitude places Hume in a solitary place within the modern philosophical mainstream.

In conclusion, I shall look at the Pyrrhonian theme in one more area. I believe that Pyrrhonism affects what Hume understands to be the role of true philosophy. No doubt true philosophy finds a great variety of areas in which it can be actively involved. There are two negative functions: the rejection of metaphysics and the reduction of the ambitions of reason. Then, a broad area of human nature is open for philosophy to investigate. Accordingly, Hume himself develops inquiries concerning firstly the mind; here, he conducts his ‘anatomical’ and ‘geographical’ observations. Then, he turns to various areas of common life as morals, politics, history, economics or religion, and pursues them in a systematic or in a lighter ‘essayist’ style. This range of Hume’s interest is in itself remarkable. But here I shall leave aside the variety of topics Hume considers, and look directly at the nature of philosophical activity and at its overall goal.

The Pyrrhonian legacy is particularly visible in Hume’s belief that philosophy must help us to achieve happiness. Perhaps we could say that Hume improved Pyrrhonism (or so he thought) in this matter as well, and somewhat changed the original ideal of ataraxia. The original connotations were tied to the quietude of mind, to detachment from life, to indifference to excitement. Hume changed this ideal by placing it in the bustle of life. While the Pyrrhonists put an emphasis on the contemplative character of tranquility, Hume added a more frivolous flavour to it and emphasized the elements of pleasure and joy.

This maxim holds for the philosophical activity itself. Hume’s statements, in which he emphasizes that philosophy should be agreeable, would take too much space to list here. The liberation of philosophy from obscurity and speculations is even hailed by Hume as a ‘delightful and rejoicing’ experience. He draws a sharp line between the deplorable condition caused by both the metaphysical and the sceptical reflections on one side, and the happy state belonging to true philosophy on the other, frequently using the powerful metaphors of darkness and light. Hume is filled with optimism and with the purpose of giving philosophy a new direction, a direction that can appreciate the richness of life and be part of it; true philosophy is not conducted in seclusion, like Descartes did, but in company and society of men; as a part of earthly pleasures like dining and wining, or more serious matters of business and commerce.

This picture of true philosophy is somewhat disturbed by the fact that we cannot avoid the sceptical task; again, the list of all the painful effects attached to it would be too long. Yet, Hume has to admit that it is due to scepticism that we stand above the animal beings. ‘It is almost impossible,’ he says, ‘for the mind of man to rest, like those of beasts, in the narrow circle of objects, which are the subjects of daily observation and action’; and ‘sceptical doubt arises naturally from a profound and intense reflection’ on subjects concerning our cognition. But he seems eager to get this task done as quickly as possible (once for all?) and to be able to move philosophy to where it belongs. True philosophy guides us to personal engagement (not free of hedonistic features) and comprises both theoretical observations and practical involvement in all areas of common world. This anti-elitist and anti-intellectual thrust of Hume’s philosophy is unparalleled among his contemporaries, and points out to its Pyrrhonian roots.

For Hume, philosophy certainly falls from the ‘throne’ it used to enjoy traditionally, either in the era of metaphysics or in the (early) modern epistemological discourse. So it seems that Hume comes with a refreshing picture. He shows that true philosophy must have understanding of and feeling for human needs and feelings, aspirations and weaknesses; its tone is civil, close to ordinary people and their concerns, keeping down to earth—in contrast to the subtle philosophy, aspiring to heights where ‘the air is too fine breathe in, where it is above the winds and clouds of the atmosphere.’ But there is one tricky question left—what is then philosophy about? It does not have any unique domain, any specific method and does not deliver any higher wisdom. It just carries out a cautious observation of human mind and life and its only normative function is negative, narrowing the domain of appropriate philosophical investigations.

As Hume repeats many times, ‘all the philosophy, therefore, in the world … will never be able to carry us beyond the usual course of experience, or give us measures of conduct and behaviour different from those which are furnished by reflections on common life.’ In one way, we could argue that such reflections become linked to specific social and political sciences, or to psychology, in the case of studying the mind. But do such reflections, whatever subject they look at, have something valuable to contribute? Do they bring more than a survey of events and customs, given that they are only allowed to observe and document? Should we not consider that true philosophy not only dissolves in the range of sciences of common life, but even there has nothing too interesting to say?

Although Hume by his own work proves it is not the case, he paradoxically provokes such questions. He says that that ‘the true philosophy approaches nearer to the sentiments of the vulgar, than to those of a mistaken knowledge.’ On this account it seems that true philosophy adopts the natural belief of the vulgar, but only after it becomes aware of the findings of the sceptical argument; false philosophy is here defined as radical scepticism abstracting from the effects of custom. Elsewhere, Hume contrasts vulgar philosophy with that of the ‘founders of systems’ and, too, recommends to them ‘a share of this gross earthly mixture, as an ingredient, which they commonly stand much in need of.’

Even stronger degradation of philosophy appears in the Essays (‘The Sceptic’); Hume first considers what philosophers might offer—maybe some particular views that would have otherwise escaped us, some guidance helping us to refine our temper, to be more modest and tolerant. At last, there is hope for philosophy to be granted a broad ‘humanizing’ function. But in no time, Hume adds: ‘if these views be natural and obvious, they could have occurred of themselves without the assistance of philosophy; if they be not natural, they never can have any influence on the affections.’ But in such an extreme perspective, is philosophy more that an informed, not too scholarly and always entertaining conversation? I would like to end with this question and with the hope that it will stimulate readers to raise many more.