Science of Man

Class notes for 4 January

Main points

The Treatise of Human Nature is an attempt to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects, (where “moral subjects” means, roughly, human, as opposed to natural, subjects and not just morality).

Don’t take my word for it: that’s the subtitle of the book.

The aim is to explain as much as possible, to “arrive at those few simple principles, on which all the rest depend” (Abstract, par. 1). The “principles” (roughly, ‘causes’) will not themselves be explained in the same way as everything else is. But the fact that we can use them to explain observed phenomena will give us good reason to believe that they exist.

Big P philosophy

I said that I thought Hume had a big P philosophy, meaning that he had a view about our place in the universe that he wanted to articulate.

It is this. We are not radically distinct from other animals and there is no guarantee that we are capable of understanding the world.

The competing big P philosophy is that we are radically distinct from other animals and that we are capable of understanding the world. We are made in the image of God. God understands the world in a deep and profound way: he understands how things fit together and how they have to be. We are finite beings, whose ability to reason is encumbered by our emotions, and so we cannot be God. But we alone in the natural world have the power of reason and that enables us to be like God. If we reason correctly, we will learn not only how things most fundamentally are but also how we should behave.

Hume, by contrast, takes one of the lessons of his more empirically based study of our thought to be that reason plays little role in our lives and, more importantly, that it could not play a greater role. Reason can’t tell us if a step forward would be supported by the floor or whether standing still would result in my being catapulted to the middle of the ocean. Nor can reason tell me what is worth doing or caring about. We are fundamentally feeling creatures rather than rational ones and there is no way for us to be rational creatures.

At least, that’s what I think. I want to try to flesh out that picture throughout the term (and, of course, see if I still believe it after studying the text more carefully with you). So I want to pay special attention to what Hume means by “reason.” Does he mean the same thing as his opponents and critics do?

Why did we start at the end?

In reading historical material, or, really, any long argumentative work, it’s a good idea to peek at the end to see what the author regards as the important points.

So, I assigned both the Introduction and the Abstract. The latter was published anonymously and meant to help push up sales. It didn’t work. But it does identify what Hume regarded as the central points.

A similar document is “A Letter from a Gentleman” (download, in pdf). It was also published anonymously for defensive reasons. In particular, it is a response to a bad review whose author, in Hume’s opinion, badly misunderstood the book. As with the Abstract, it helps us to identify what Hume thought his central points were.


Isaac Newton, founder of modern physics. OK, the name rings a bell but you don’t know exactly what he did and how his project is related to Hume’s. Fair enough. It isn’t crucial.

But if you’re curious, James Gleick recently published a marvelous, very short, very readable book about Newton that I highly recommend. Since I am profoundly ignorant of the natural sciences, I assure you, you can follow it too.

You might also try the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry for Newton. It’s brief if not completely user-friendly.

Finally, the New York Public Library has an exhibit on Newton that has been positively reviewed. Gleick is unhappy with it because it leaves out all the respects in which Newton was a weirdo. Then again, the guy who put on the exhibit, Mordechai Feingold, isn’t a big fan of Gleick’s book either. At this point, I say: Gleick gives you a quickie overview in a pleasant, journalistic style. If you want to be a scholar, don’t ask me for advice.