David Hume: Common-sense moralist, sceptical metaphysician

David Hume: Common-sense moralist, sceptical metaphysician

Book Reviews elites of the later part of the seventeenth century, how can one account for the indisputable waning of the witchcraze? Something fundame...

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Book Reviews elites of the later part of the seventeenth century, how can one account for the indisputable waning of the witchcraze? Something fundamental can be seen eventually - to have shifted. Webster does not dispute this. The shift was no abrupt transition to what we claim as a modern scientific attitude. Webster has shown this beyond doubt. But the disentangling of ‘magical’ and ‘modern’ thinking has still to be accounted for. Linda Kirk University of Sheffield

David Hume: Common-sense Moralist, Sceptical Metaphysician, David Fate Norton (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), xii + 329 pp., $33.00. Explorations of Hume’s philosophy continue to pour from the presses and this one, several years in gestation, directs the weight of its argument against a Kemp Smith orthodoxy currently undergoing re-examination in several quarters. David Fate Norton begins his study by reminding us that Hume was once - mistakenly supposed to be a thoroughgoing negative sceptic denying the existence of substances, causes and values which are self-evident to the plain man. In place of this, writers adhering to Kemp Smith’s interpretation have erected and defended what Norton perceives as an opposite error: that the role Hume ascribes to sentiment and belief makes him no kind of a sceptic. Norton contends that while Hume meant every word of his epistemological scepticism and could envisage no metaphysics which would successfully withstand the attacks of rigorous thought, he was nonetheless persuaded that a morality based on sentiment could justify its claims to refer to and sustain objective standards of right and wrong. In short, Hume was sceptical about knowledge but common-sensical about morality. Only those who reject on principle such a move away from the ‘seamless robe’ account of Hume’s thought can fail to find Norton’s argument thorough, detailed and persuasive. Chapters 3 and 5, and those parts of Chapters 1 and 6 which focus on Hume’s works, move painstakingly through the evidence, demonstrating a detailed command not only of what Hume wrote but of much recent debate upon it: this makes it all the more regrettable that timing prevented Norton’s taking account of recent books by Jonathan Harrison, John Bricke, J. L. Mackie, David Miller and John Wright. This book, however, is not only about Hume. Hutcheson has a chapter to himself, Chapter 4 is devoted to Turnbull and Kames, while Cudworth and Shaftesbury dominate Chapter 1, and Chapter 6 on ‘Traditional Scepticisms’ deals at some length with Descartes, Sextus Empiricus’ account of Pyrrhonism and with the gentler Academic Scepticism which Norton sees as the most precise prefiguring of Hume’s position which philosophical literature can offer. It is not entirely clear that all this material belongs in this book; Norton speaks of the need to establish Hume’s ‘moral heritage’ and specifically sets himself the task of showing that while Hume took much of value from Hutcheson’s moral sense theory, neither the theory nor the debt was quite what Kemp Smith supposed. But not all the expositions of other thinkers’ contributions are as useful as context, challenge, model or response in explaining Hume more convincingly. Part of the difficulty lies in trying to make brisk sense of writers like Cudworth or Turnbull: they saw no harm in believing what they believed for more than one reason. Man’s capacity to experience his world was one building-block in their structure of argument; God’s goodness was another. Since their final positions were, they thought,


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consistent with everything they had asserted to be true of sense experience, intuitive moral sensibility, a reasoned discovery of a First Cause and a scriptural revelation of that Cause’s concern for human kind, quizzing such writers about their primary convictions, establishing for them a lean stripped-down version of their theories by discarding material inconsistent by the standards of modern philosophers is both to enlarge and to belittle what they actually wrote. It is helpful, though not entirely novel, to work out why Hume left without formal reply the Scottish common-sense writers’ claims to have answered and demolished the Treatise. Less is achieved by examining Kames at length enough to unbalance this book but still without space to do him justice in his own right. Norton explains correctly (p. 174) that the obvious inference from publication dates should not rule Kames out of consideration as part of Hume’s philosophical context, but why should half-a-dozen major names offer the most illuminating setting for Hume’s intentions? Hume acknowledged few debts and engaged in very little controversy. There would have been at least as much to be said for composing a tapestry of contemporary preoccupations from evidence plucked from dozens of writers or, conversely, reading the Treatise and Enquiries as most important for making ‘new discoveries in philosophy’ (which was Hume’s own claim). It would seem that Norton has set himself a number of tasks and resolved to feed all his findings into this one book. The generous footnoting, on the page where it should be, illustrates this: some notes are mere references, some acknowledge agreements or disputes with others in the field but some get out of hand and become young essays. On pp. 111 and 112 and pp. 114-7 a sub-argument about virtue and Hume’s ontology of morals threatens to overwhelm what is formally presented as the text; on the last two of these pages there are over eighty lines of notes and only just over seven of text. This material either is or is not necessary to the argument and should have been woven in or discarded accordingly. One separate, and minor, cavil: Norton ingeniously attempts to defuse Hume’s arresting assertion that ‘reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions’. Hume’s knowledge of classical slavery meant, suggests Norton, that he would have had in mind educated Greek tutors, not mere chattels, but ‘clever, instructing’ slaves (p. 128) This will not wash. In ‘Of the Populousness of Ancient Nations’ Hume writes at length of the ‘forced labour’, ‘chains’, ‘low debasement’ and ‘torture’ which customarily characterised the lot of a slave in classical Rome; he is in no doubt that the only humane response to such ‘unbounded dominion’ is disgust. What David Fate Norton has given us on Hume is valuable. His examination of the central problem he has set himself is careful, if rather slow-moving, and it will be impossible to restate the view he has undertaken to demolish without major works of reconstruction. Linda Kirk University of Sheffield

NOTES 1. Works, Vol. iii, eds. Green and Grose (London,


After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Alasdair MacIntyre


(Notre Dame, Indiana:

of Notre Dame Press, 1981).

Let us join Professor MacIntyre in assuming that some social catastrophe wiped out