Meeting 42

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DATE: Tuesday, October 19

TIME: 1 PM Princeton time (ET) / 8 PM Bucharest time (UTC+2)

PANEL: Skepticism and the Passions in Hume’s Philosophy

SPEAKERS: Charles Goldhaber (University of Pittsburgh), Manuel Vasquez Villavicencio (University of Toronto), Anik Waldow (University of Sydney) & Margaret Watkins (Seattle Pacific University)


Spirits and Skepticism in Hume’s Treatments of the Passions 

Margaret Watkins 

In the Treatise, Hume avoids physiological explanations of our perceptions and experiences. But why?  Does physiology simply not fall within the scope of his investigation? Or is he skeptical about the  validity of “natural philosophy” in general? He seems to express such skepticism in “Of the Rise and  Progress of the Arts and Sciences,” and some Treatise passages suggest that attempting to “penetrate  into the nature of bodies” will add little to our understanding of human nature, even as it generates  the possibility of embarrassing mistakes.

Yet we do find a few forays into explicit physiology in the Treatise, as well as language that seems  dependent on contemporary anatomical theories. I will argue that Hume sometimes uses this language literally, and that interpreting him in this way can help us understand aspects of his theory of the  passions. In particular, we tend to read past his references to “animal spirits”—those refined liquids  thought to play a role in voluntary motion, sensation, and passions. If we notice these references at  all, we tend to assume that they are metaphorical, standing in for phenomenological concepts that  might be described in other ways. But sometimes the re-description is not easy at all, which suggests  that Hume is using current theories of anatomy as plausible explanations. A survey of Treatise 2’s  references to animal spirits in comparison with related treatments in the Dissertation on the Passions suggests that Hume recognized that he had been relying heavily on physiology in parts of the Treatise and wished to avoid appealing to this increasingly controversial hypothesis within physical anatomy.  The changes leave him without much explanation for how calm passions motivate or how we can  develop “strength of mind.” But he can still support a deterministic story of the operation of the  passions based on observed correlations, which is what he needs for grounding a theory of moral  judgment where our actions reliably follow those passions that themselves reliably spring from our  character. Hume’s later text supplies this grounding with more skeptical care.  

Hume’s sceptical methodology and the moderation of the passions 

Manuel Vásquez Villavicencio 

David Hume opens A Treatise of Human Nature with a quite surprising affirmation: the philosophy and  the sciences of his time, despite the achievements of the Scientific Revolution, are still in a state of  alarming imperfection. According to him, even “those systems, which have obtained the greatest credit,  and have carried their pretensions highest to accurate and profound reasoning” had only a “weak  foundation” and were the victims of innumerable contradictions (T intro 1). To remedy this situation,  I contend, Hume adopts a new approach to philosophical methodology as the foundation of his  science of human nature. This new approach to philosophical methodology materializes in a sceptical  methodology that Hume presents in the introduction to the Treatise. In this paper, I offer a reconstruction of this methodology to claim that along with considerations about the nature of the  appropriate research objects and explicative strategies for his science of man, Hume includes the  moderation of the passions playing a role in the motivation of philosophical research, especially  curiosity. I claim that this is the case because, although being the essential motor of our epistemic  pursuits, curiosity can become the source of important misconceptions and unpleasant emotional  states such as those which, based on the psychological theories of his time, Hume calls “melancholy”  and “despair.” Hume’s sceptical methodology thus understood is a response to the fact that, according  to him, the philosophers who preceded him did not sufficiently recognize the fundamental role of  human nature in all our epistemic pursuits. For him, I argue, one should give a privileged position to  the study of human nature while recognizing that human nature comprises deeply interwoven  intellectual, emotional, and social aspects.

How not to be an uncouth Monster? Hume and Buffier on Epistemic Role of the Sentiment of Humanity 

Anik Waldow 

Although Buffier is not normally considered an influence on Hume, new evidence suggests that Hume  possessed a copy of Buffier’s Grammaire françoise and had access to his Éléments de metaphysique during  his time in La Flèche. In the Éléments, as well as his influential Traité des premières verités, Buffier uses the  concept of the monster to specify the features of human reason and the need to accept the guidance  of the sentiment humain in the formation of epistemically significant judgements. In this paper I compare  Hume’s famous uncouth monster passage to Claude Buffier’s reflections on monsters as creatures  who lack thoughts and sentiments that other humans can share. The aim of this comparison is to  understand better the account of epistemic judgement Hume continued to rely on even after the sceptical despair of Book I. I argue that this account essentially revolves around the belief that we  have to acknowledge the other as a cognitive equal if we want to enter into an epistemic relationship  with the world. In forming this relationship, the sentiment of humanity and the ability to share  opinions and feelings across different individuals plays the crucial role of enabling the mind to self identify as reasonable and engage in a process of reflective correction. This type of correction is not  dissimilar to the correction that forms part of Hume’s general point of view. It involves the mind’s  readiness to take up different perspectives and to negotiate conflicting evidence by following the  guiding influence of a sentiment common to all. While this interpretation does not provide a solution  to the sceptical challenge, it details the features of a process through which commendable epistemic  judgements can be formed. 

Abstract of “Hume’s Real Riches” 

Charles Goldhaber 

While describing his “fortunes” and “disappointments” in “My Own Life,” Hume draws  attention to a feature of his character which he values above any degree of fame or material wealth.  This is his “naturally…cheerful and sanguine temper” (MOL 6, Mil xxxiv). An “open, social, and  cheerful humour” (MOL 21, Mil xl), Hume explains, buoyed him against reproach and obscurity,  encouraging continued study. He thus views it as “a turn of mind which it is more happy to possess,  than to be born to an estate of ten thousand a year” (MOL 9, Mil xxxvi). Hume’s appraisal here agrees  with the Sceptic’s in his four essays on human happiness: “A propensity to hope and joy is real riches:  One to fear and sorrow, real poverty” (Sc 22, Mil 167). 

Such remarks, I argue, suggest that Hume had a substantive conception of the good life,  consistent with his moral theory: A cheerful disposition is agreeable and useful to oneself and others,  and enables one’s other talents to be so as well. The remarks also raise important questions about the  point of philosophy. I argue that Hume viewed his philosophy as playing a moderate role in the inculcation of a cheerful disposition. Contra interpreters such as James Harris, Hume does not agree  with his Sceptic’s denial that it is “in a man’s power…to correct his temper” (Sc 28, Mil 169).  Philosophy can to a degree “regulate our sentiments” by “plac[ing] opposite characters in proper  contrast” (EHU 1.1, SBN 6), as Hume’s four essays on happiness do. And, in an ironic twist,  philosophy can correct our tempers by revealing its own limitations. This humiliation through  skeptical philosophy can “abate [the] pride” of those “inclined, from their natural temper, to  haughtiness and obstinacy,” encouraging an open and social “modesty” (EHU 12.24, SBN 162).


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