[Paleopsych] Sunday Herald: The Greatest Thinker in the World ... Ever

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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 
of competition.]

    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
    personality cult.

    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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