Donald C. Ainslie’s Hume’s True Scepticism presents the first book-length treatment of Book 1, Part 4 of the 1739 A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume (1711–1776). In doing so, the volume represents an important accomplishment, and one can reasonably expect it to become required reading for those wishing to come to terms with Hume’s skepticism. Treatise 1.4 marks perhaps the most literary account of skeptical crisis in the western philosophical corpus—and also one of its most difficult. It is perhaps for this reason that the crisis is not reprised in the Enquiries or other later texts. Unpacking the logic and upshot of the dense passages of T 1.4 remains one of the most controversial but also one of the most important tasks of Hume studies, as well as of the study of skepticism per se. Ainslie’s contribution to that work is considerable.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xiv + 286. isbn 978-0-19-959386-6.
Ainslie’s line of interpretation is in the first place biographical. In 1734, Hume wrote to an unnamed physician in London how he had suffered “the Disease of the Learned,” brought on by his immersion in philosophical work, and that he had sought therapy from his intellectual paralysis in “Business & Diversion” (Letter 1:14, #3, in Hume 1932). In Ainslie’s view, the exposition of Treatise 1.4 was “inspired by the personal experiences detailed in” that letter (5). “The climax” of T 1.4, in Ainslie’s medicalized reading, “amounts to a nervous breakdown” (218). Ainslie shows how “Medical theorists, from the Greeks onwards, linked scholarliness to melancholia” (12), and that “Hume would have known of a general link between melancholy, hypochondria, and the life of study from a variety of sources, both popular and more specialized” (13)—perhaps George Cheyne’s The English Malady (1733) or, in John Wright’s (1980) view, Mandeville’s 1730 Treatise on the Hypochonodriack and Hysterick Diseases (Mandeville 1976). Hume would have also known that exercise and sociable concourse were commonly prescribed remedies. The idea that skepticism marks a kind of self-induced madness has also been advanced recently by Lisa Levers (2015), which for her explains why Hume answers the skeptical moment not with argument but with therapy.
More philosophically, Ainslie distinguishes his own reading from four other general lines of interpretation that have characterized the Hume literature. (1) “Skeptical” readings, such as that of James Beattie and most of Hume’s earliest interpreters have in Ainslie’s nomenclature argued that the skeptical subversion of reason and the senses is correct and that therefore we ought not to invest what they show us with belief—even though we cannot do so. (2) “Naturalistic” readings such as those of Norman Kemp Smith (1905) and Don Garrett (1997) are, in contrast, anti-skeptical. In their view, Hume invests the way nature overwhelms skepticism’s negative conclusions with positive epistemic significance. Nature, properly mixed with reason, entitles reason and belief. (3) Dialectical readings such as those of Annette Baier (1991) and Donald W. Livingston (1984, 1989) read the skeptical crisis as a moment on the way to a better non-skeptical view. (4) Moral interpretations of Hume’s skepticism, such as those of Michael Ridge (2003) read Hume as advocating skepticism not because it is logically compelling but instead because it serves the moral projects of opposing religious and political pathologies.
Ainslie’s more “philosophical” interpretation of Hume’s true skepticism reads it as making positive discoveries about the epistemic and logical limits of philosophical inquiry that nevertheless endorse reason, science, and the vulgar beliefs of common life. Ainslie argues that Hume discovers that the traditional philosophical project of self-understanding through “reflection” is intrinsically problematic, that it cannot transcend common life and that attempts to surpass those limitations inevitably lead to incoherence, crisis, and “false philosophy.” It is a moral Ainslie emphasizes by placing François Lemoyne’s 1728 painting of “Narcissus” staring into his own reflection on the jacket of the book. Ainslie’s is, however, not an entirely new line of interpretation.
Barry Stroud preceded Ainslie in 1977, writing in a similar albeit narrower vein that for Hume, “Philosophical reflection on the nature of perception inevitably leads to scepticism” (115). Yves Michaud concurred in 1985 reporting that while he found at first blush that Hume’s “skepticism stemmed from the defects in the analysis of natural beliefs and from the deliberate attack against metaphysical systems,” he later came “to realise that it also is the result of this self-reference of philosophical research: we do not know how to assess our philosophical beliefs themselves” (36). Michaud followed this claim with another similar to Ainslie’s about Hume’s return to common life, maintaining that turning away from reflection “implies that we stop insisting on the radical unsteadiness of beliefs and that we do not scrutinize any longer the puzzling self-reference of philosophical statements. Actually, …the escape from pyrrhonism requires a relative blindness to the question of the nature of philosophical inquiry and, on the contrary, a renewed dogmaticism [sic] concerning the certainty of the science of human nature qua empirical science” (46). Martin Bell in 2002 also diagnosed “the reflective standpoint” itself as the cause of “sceptical doubts” (184), but he maintained that at least in “one species” of philosophy (i.e., the natural science of the “anatomist”) “natural belief can be harmonized with profound reflection” (185).
Ainslie’s exposition exceeds these precedents, however, not only in the detail and complexity of his textanalyse but also in the way he distinguishes Hume’s account of reflection from Locke’s. While others such as Malebranche hold that reflection can take a (a) detached, virtually transcendent position (b) in relation to the field of perception as a whole, Ainslie finds (§4.3) Hume arguing instead that reflection discovers that it can achieve no such position. Instead reflection must remain “immersed” (133, 253).
Ainslie finds in this remark from the “Introduction” to the Treatise a prefiguring summary of what he determines to be Hume’s limiting objective in T 1.4: “Moral philosophy has, indeed, this peculiar disadvantage, which is not found in natural, that in collecting its experiments, it cannot make them purposely, with premeditation, and after such a manner as to satisfy itself concerning every particular difficulty which may arise. When I am at a loss to know the effects of one body upon another in any situation, I need only put them in that situation, and observe what results from it. But should I endeavour to clear up after the same manner any doubt in moral philosophy, by placing myself in the same case with that which I consider, ’tis evident this reflection and premeditation would so disturb the operation of my natural principles, as must render it impossible to form any just conclusion from the phaenomenon” (Intro 10, in Hume 2007). Cicero had maintained along similar lines that “it is possible that [the organs of the body] are changed by the process of dissection and uncovering” (Academica [Acad.] 2.39.122, in Cicero 2006); and so it goes for Hume’s anatomy of the mind.
The proper lesson Hume draws from this insight, Ainslie concludes, is that we should both (a) retreat from philosophical self-reflection into a standard, dogmatic, empirical science and (b) abandon the philosophical attempt to justify or locate an ultimate ground for our epistemic claims about the world. The negative theses about reason and the senses are not the lessons of skepticism. Rather, escaping through the horns of the so-called “dangerous dilemma” (T 126.96.36.199), the true skeptical upshot is a gain in self-understanding that philosophical self-reflection is internally incoherent but that empirical science is epistemically sound (204), even though it must remain ultimately unjustified. We must suffer an “irremediable vulgarity” about perception (241; a position influenced by Livingston 1984), while also accepting that we cannot penetrate into nature “beyond human experience” (242; following Kenneth Winkler’s 1991 anti-New Humean position).
Ainslie argues that for Hume the vulgar are guilty of a “constitutive” but not an “epistemic” error with regard perceptual objects. Mistaking the image of a man on a television screen for the real man it depicts is a constitutive “illusion” but not an epistemic error, since one nevertheless, says Ainslie, does in that situation still know the real man (107–108). Of course, one can know the real man in such a situation—or not. Ainslie does not explain how we can decide whether or not the vulgar actually do know the real man. In the case of a television screen, one can go to the studio and check. One can compare the television-screen-man with the actual-man. With the screen of perception, however, as Hume acknowledges, one cannot (T 188.8.131.52). As Hume famously writes: “Let us fix our attention out of ourselves as much as possible: Let us chace our imagination to the heavens, or to the utmost limits of the universe; we never really advance a step beyond ourselves, nor can conceive any kind of existence, but those perceptions, which have appear’d in that narrow compass. This is the universe of the imagination, nor have we any idea but what is there produc’d” (T 184.108.40.206).
Indeed, Ainslie accepts that for Hume the vulgar fail to understand that perception is “mediated,” and he even allows a kind of “double existence” distinction between the content and the objects of perception (144). While representationalism is untenable, argues Ainslie, the Humean true skeptic does recognize that the world appears through “perceptual mediation” (60, 144). But why not read this acceptance of “perceptual mediation” (155) as consistent with Pyrrhonism’s limiting thought and action to “appearances” (phainomena; Outlines of Pyrrhonism [ph] 1.17, 21)?
The methodological limitation of Ainslie’s highly text-centered method leaves open questions such as how Hume’s position fits or does not fit into the skeptical traditions, both Pyrrhonian and Academical. Ainslie does offer readers a number of brief (four-page §1.2 and four-page §4.1) though well-informed accounts of the relationship between Hume’s true skepticism and the skeptical traditions. He agrees with Julia Annas (2000) that the “total” skepticism of Hume’s crisis is not consistent with proper Hellenistic Pyrrhonism. While he respects Donald Baxter’s (2008, 2018) Frede-informed reading of Hume’s accepting the compelled beliefs of common life as Pyrrhonian (cf. Frede 1979, 1987), he finds mistaken Baxter’s rendering of Hume’s doxastic practice in relation to philosophical dogma as a Pyrrhonian epochê. An epochê reading misses, according to Ainslie, Hume’s serious, dogmatic philosophical finding “that philosophy turns out to be impotent when it tries to give an ultimate justification for our reasoning because our reflections interfere with its operations” (26 n. 16).
The kind of conclusion Hume reaches, however, warrants additional scrutiny. For myself, I think Ainslie dismisses skeptical interpretations for the sake of their failure to integrate themselves with Hume’s positive philosophical inquiry too abruptly (§7.2). Popkin’s reading of Hume as a corrected Pyrrhonian, for example, is touched upon but immediately dropped, just in a footnote (227 n. 14). Could, moreover, Hume’s positively rooting reasoning in habit and association as well as morals and belief in feeling find a kind of congruence with the Pyrrhonian Fourfold observance of appearance in “common life” (ph 1.21, 23, 237)? Could Humean science, politics, morals, aesthetics, and religion be described as skeptical? Might even the doxastic posture Ainslie describes in Hume’s true skepticism find precedent in the more radical streams of Philonian Academicism described by, for example, Charles Brittain (see Brittain 2016 and his “Introduction” in Cicero 2006: xxvi–vii) and Baxter (2008: 9, 101 n. 9) (cf. Acad. 2.32.104–105)? A more thoroughgoing and deeper historical contextualization would, I think, reveal an even more radical and pervasive true Humean skepticism, one more tightly woven into the skeptical tradition and one that shows just how far true it is that the skeptical “Humean condition is,” to borrow Quine’s famous phrase, “the human condition” (1969: 72).
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