Hume's skepticism

Class notes for 3 February

Main points

In 1.3.7, Hume gets to the end, looks back, notes the skeptical results, and asks two questions:

  1. Why have any confidence in any of this, much less what’s coming up, if we believe contradictory things about the basics, like bodies?
  2. Given that no one can actually believe the sceptical conclusions, what’s the point of drawing them? Why would anyone read it and why bother writing it?

Hume’s remarks about skepticism are both a bit cryptic and scattered throughout the book. In addition to 1.3.7 (especially, see Introduction, par. 8-10; (not assigned);;; Abstract, par. 27.

We took on two questions of our own.

  1. What is moderate skepticism?
  2. What’s so great about it?

What is moderate skepticism?

I tried to tackle the first question by looking at the rejected alternatives: vulgar beliefs, false philosophy, fanatical skepticism (see the references to Phyrronianism and the Cynics in Abstract, par. 27 and

Very roughly, the moderate skeptic is unlike the vulgar in appreciating the problems that lead to the false philosophical or fanatical sceptical positions. Unlike those who accept false philosophy, the moderate sceptic does not believe false answers. And unlike the fanatical skeptic, the moderate skeptic does not insist on answers or having reasons for beliefs prior to having them.

It all flows so smoothly and seems so attractive that it is easy to forget that there are some hard questions here. It’s hard not to put Hume’s position as something like this: “it’s perfectly reasonable to believe in the uniformity of nature, causal necessity, external objects, and personal identity over time, even though we have no reason to do so.”

But it is far from obvious that he is entitled to say something like that, even though it sounds sensible. If we have no reason to believe those things, then why is it reasonable to believe them?

Perhaps our reasons are detached from the truth of what we believe: it’s useful to believe these things, for example, and that’s a reason to believe them even though we know that it can be useful to believe many false things.

In any event, there is a gap there that Hume didn’t really fill.

What’s so great about it?

Moderate skeptics know more than the vulgar and those caught up in false philosophy. But, unlike the fanatical skeptics, they don’t struggle with attempting to avoid having beliefs that go beyond the evidence or reasons. They admit that most of what they believe goes beyond what they can reliably know or even understand.

So what is there to be said for it? Hume’s answer has two parts.

First, he held that curiosity drives us to ask questions about our vulgar opinions: this is one of those drives that is an unexplained part of human nature (see 2.3.10).

Second, he believed that there are two alternative outlets for our curiousity. One involves superstition, the other philosophy. Philosophy is preferred because it is less dangerous.

I make bold to recommend philosophy, and shall not scruple to give it the preference to superstition of every kind or denomination. For as superstition arises naturally and easily from the popular opinions of mankind, it seizes more strongly on the mind, and is often able to disturb us in the conduct of our lives and actions. Philosophy, on the contrary, if just, can present us only with mild and moderate sentiments; and if false and extravagant, its opinions are merely the objects of a cold and general speculation, and seldom go so far as to interrupt the course of our natural propensities. … Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous. (

It’s a nice question exactly why this is so. Is his point that there is something about skepticism, realizing that you can be fundamentally in error, that makes us more mild and moderate? Or is it just an empirical observation that no one ever hurt anyone else over a philosophical point? Either point would be contestable, of course. For example, after the French Revolution and Marxism, you can’t get away with a breezy claim about how harmless philosophy is any more. But before we get to evaluation, we have to know what he meant. And that isn’t obvious.

He had quite a lot to say about religion: aside from history, it’s the subject on which he wrote the most and even his history gives prominent place to the religious causes of the English Civil War. We won’t have time to go into that, but this is a point where what the motivation for what I have called his “big p Philosophy” is very clear.


The facts I referred to at the end, about the execution of the student and Hume’s own brush with excommunication, are described in David Denby’s review of James Buchan’s book Crowded with Genius. And in Buchan’s book too.

As for Diarmaid MacCulloch’s observations about finding the Protestant Reformation in the US, here’s an interview to read and one to hear. I think it’s certainly the case that President Bush’s expressions of certainty and mental clarity resonate very strongly with a particular segment of the culture. I don’t mean that Hume would have been a Democrat. That’s silly. But I do suspect he would have found some aspects of Bush’s rhetorical appeal both familiar and distasteful.