[Paleopsych] Sunday Herald: The Greatest Thinker in the World ... Ever
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Wed Jul 13 22:09:58 UTC 2005
The Greatest Thinker in the World ... Ever
Sunday Herald - 26 June 2005
[I might actually go along with this, though Dave Aristotle may have him a lot
Although he lacked the soundbites of Marx and the attitude of Sartre,
David Hume should be recognised as the finest philosopher of all time
By Julian Baggini
PEOPLE of Scotland, it is more than your patriotic duty to help crown
your 18th century countryman, David Hume, as the greatest philosopher
of all time. For once, naked nationalism and good rational sense both
lead us to same conclusion: among all great thinkers, Hume reigns
supreme. And, lest misplaced patriotisim is suspected, I say this as
someone who is no more Scottish than the Duke of Edinburgh.
Radio 4's In Our Time programme is currently conducting a poll to
determine the world's greatest philosopher, and although its
presenter, Melvyn Bragg, has let it slip that Marx is the early
leader, inside sources tell me Hume is hot on his heels. So there is
still time to win the day for Scotland's finest mind.
That Hume is even a contender is testimony to the strength of his
philosophy and the intelligence of the voters, since he lacks all the
necessary requisites of a popular hero. Marx has the advantage of some
seriously memorable soundbites: "Religion is the opiate of the
masses"; "From each according to his abilities, to each according to
his needs", and "Either this man is dead or my watch has
stopped."(Admittedly, that last one is by Groucho, not Karl.) Hume's
most famous quotes, in contrast, are completely baffling to the
uninitiated. There is wisdom in his saying: "Tis not contrary to
reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching
of my finger." But you'd be forgiven for not spotting it.
Jean-Paul Sartre reaps the benefits of his cool image. Whether
historically accurate or not, there is a definite romance to the Left
Bank cafés, the Gauloise cigarettes, the black polonecks and all that
intense talk of despair and freedom. Hume, on the other hand, played
billiards in drawing rooms and loved his mum.
The mystique of Kierkegaard and Camus is heightened by their young and
tragic deaths. Hume passed away aged 65 of intestinal cancer, cheerful
and in good humour. That's really no way to start a posthumous
Indeed, the average person in the street knows little more about the
man - except, perhaps, that "David Hume could out-consume Schopenhauer
and Hegel", as the Monty Python song insisted.
And yet Hume has endured, hailed by many as the greatest British
philosopher. Can we go further and say he is the greatest philosopher,
full stop? I think we can, not least because Hume's whole approach to
philosophy is needed even more now than it was in his time.
Hume was born in Edinburgh in 1711, in the infancy of both the
Enlightenment and the union of Scotland and England into Great
Britain. Scottish philosophy was being transformed by the success of
science, which was based not on abstract theory, but empirical
observation of how the world actually works. Suddenly, the theoretical
speculations of Continental thinkers such as Descartes and Spinoza
seemed hopelessly detached from the real world they sought to explain.
Philosophy had to be made natural, its reasoning rooted in experience.
Hume was just one of many who helped take philosophy along this new
path. However, it was also a deeply uncertain one in which the threat
of scepticism was ever present. Gone were the dreams of Plato and
Descartes of a philosophy beyond doubt. In its place came the need to
learn how to live with doubt without being consumed by it. Hume's
unique genius was to show how this could be done.
Hume practised what he preached. Although when in the midst of his
philosophical deliberations he was often perturbed by their sceptical
implications, these worries soon dissolved when he rejoined human
company and had a game of billiards. This may seem shallow, but it is
in fact a mature recognition that those who claim to be nihilists are
just posturing: nobody really believes in nothing.
The lessons he taught are desperately relevant today, when certainty
is only found in religious fundamentalism, yet uncertainty risks a
descent into postmodern relativism and intellectual anarchy. In this
climate, how do we resolve ethical disputes such as those that rage
over stem-cell research, euthanasia and civil liberties versus civic
security? How can we trust science when it gets so many things wrong?
How do we resolve the great ideological clashes of East and West when
there are no unquestionable fundamentals upon which to build
agreement? What we need is a Humean approach to provide the
intellectual ballast necessary to stay afloat in a sea of uncertainty.
Consider the question of ethical values. Hume agreed with moral
sceptics on several key points. He did not believe it was possible to
establish absolute moral values . Religion could certainly not provide
these, for there is simply no way we can trust the authority of
religious texts or leaders. Nothing can be true or false because a
religion says it is, but only because we have good reasons to believe
it is true or false.
In a world in which there are so many different religions and
denominations, all claiming different things, Hume's scepticism seems
wiser than ever. If we are to accept the guidance of one religion over
an other, we need reasons. "Trust me, I'm a cleric" is not a good one,
not least because for every bishop saying that homosexuality is
perfectly acceptable, there is another claiming that sodomites will
burn in hell for their sins.
Nor can moral values be established by pure reason. Hume referred to
the kinds of truths which could be proven by rationality alone as
"matters concerning the relation of ideas", once again demonstrating
his uncanny knack of failing to coin a catchy phrase. One example is
mathematics. It is because of what the numbers and symbols mean that
two plus two must equal four. Similarly, you don't need to conduct a
survey of bachelors to know that they are all unmarried men.
Hume thought it obvious that moral matters do not fall into this
category. You cannot know that Asbos are an unacceptable limit on
civil liberties just by attending to what those words mean. Nor can
you resolve a dispute between those who think a war is justified and
those who do not, simply by determining the meanings of the terms
"justified" and "war". Moral debate is not like mathematics, and so
disagreements cannot be resolved by pure theory.
So neither religion nor reason can establish moral certainties. Does
that mean we are then condemned to a kind of moral free-for-all, in
which what is right for you may not be right for me, and nobody is
entitled to criticise anyone else's ethics? Some find this view
surprisingly attractive, since it is supremely tolerant. But when push
comes to shove we know that absolute toleration is abhorrent. The
killings in Darfur are not alright for the Sudanese victims. Anti-war
protesters do not think the invasion of Iraq was right for Bush and
Blair and wrong for them - they think the war was just wrong.
Fortunately, Hume's view does not lead us to moral anarchy. Besides
religion and pure reason, there is another route to knowledge.
Questions concerning matters of fact are settled by looking at how the
world actually works. So, if you want to know at what temperature
water boils, you have to conduct experiments to find out. Sitting in
your armchair contemplating the meaning of "water" and "boil" will not
Crucially, however, matters of fact are never proven beyond all
possible doubt. You have to accept that science is less than certain,
but that, nonetheless, it is more reliable than, say, superstition.
Whereas previous philosophers demanded certainty, Hume tried to grade
degrees of uncertainty.
Clearly, however, moral principles are much less certain than the laws
of physics. Right and wrong cannot be observed and measured like
energy or mass. Rather, the facts of morality are to be observed in
human feeling and compassion. When we say that torture is wrong, for
example, we are not identifying a feature of torture itself, but
expressing something of our reaction to it. What is more, these
feelings are somehow natural for human beings. Empathy is a human
universal, and this is what enables people to agree about what is good
and bad. Feelings may be affected by upbringing, society and
reasoning, but are not simply products of any one of these. Hence the
curious phrase: "Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction
of the whole world to the scratching of my finger." In other words, it
is not rational argument that makes us recoil from the idea of
destroying the whole world, but human fellow feeling.
Hume's strategy for resolving today's moral dilemmas would be to start
by showing how we cannot accept any absolute principles dictated by
religious leaders. Then he would show how any moral principles held to
be self-evident or proven are no such thing. Purged of all bogus
absolutes, we would then begin the process of identifying the common
humane impulses that morally motivate us and using our reason to
negotiate our way through the contradictions and complexities that
emerge. This is pretty much how modern ethics committees proceed. They
cannot make their starting points absolutes, since not everyone will
agree with them. Rather, they need to build from what unites us.
Hume's genius was his ability to combine a ruthless intellect that
revealed the limitations of our understanding with the wisdom to see
we can move forward with the meagre intellectual resources available
to us. That's why Hume is above fashion and doesn't need a dramatic
life, a romantic death or clever slogans in order to endure. A vote
for Hume is a vote for the only philosopher who is able to defeat the
scepticism of our time without dogmatism.
Vote for the greatest philosopher at
bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/inourtime Julian Baggini's latest book, The
Pig That Wants To Be Eaten And 99 Other Thought Experiments, is
published next month by Granta. He appears at the Edinburgh
International Book Festival on August 23
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