Dr. Ari Santas’ Notes on

Hume’s Enquiry, Section XII


A.     What is Skepticism?

      ·  Skepticism in healthy amounts could do us all some good according to Hume

      ·  Basically, skepticism is a critical attitude to what is presented to us as true

      ·  In short, to be skeptical is to be doubtful

·  There are degrees of skepticism corresponding to the degrees of doubtfulness someone may exhibit

·  Extreme skepticism amounts to universal doubt

      ·  Remember Descartes' doubt?

·  It arises either because someone has made an outrageous knowledge claim, or because our criteria for knowledge is extremely stringent, or both

      ·  Descartes' doubt seemed to be a product of the stringency requirement


B.     Pitfalls of Skepticism

·  The first problem with extreme skepticism is that once we take it seriously, there is no way top escape it

      ·  Descartes can never get beyond his existence without cheating

·  A sincere skeptic would soon cease to exist as he could not do anything

      ·  It is only when we remove ourselves from the world that we can be skeptics

·  The biggest problem with extreme skepticism is that it amounts to a rebellion without a cause

      ·  It is one thing to debate an opponent to help us decide to believe

      ·  It is another to compel us to not believe anything

·  Why tell people to doubt?  What is the purpose?

      ·  To get on the right track towards the truth!


C.     Virtues of Skepticism

      ·  Moderate skepticism can do two things for us:

1)      Counters Dogmatism

·  Most people, including many philosophers, are dogmatic, unwilling to question their beliefs

·  A good dose of skeptical inquiry softens their imprudence and may awaken them from their "dogmatic slumbers"

2)      Finds the Limits of Understanding

            ·  From time to time we get too confident about what we can know

·  A good dose of skepticism makes us more modest in our pretentions; we realize that maybe we cannot know everything

·  It puts philosophy back in the realm of common life and practice, and hence keeps science out of the netherworlds


D.     Hume's Skepticism

·  Recall that Hume is skeptical about how we can apply (pure) reason to matters of fact and existence

·  He shows that all our reasonings concerning matters of fact are based not on reason, or single sense impressions, but on custom

·  He is skeptical not only of the scope of inquiry of Rationalist ideas, but also about abstract ideas in general

·  All so called abstract ideas are either concrete ones in disguise, or so confused that knowledge of them is impossible

      ·  Horse in general = the horse you saw

      ·  Triangle in general = a blur

·  Only quantity and number are clear abstract ideas, so only they are legitimate objects of pure reason

1)      Is there abstract reasoning concerning quantity and number? No

2)      Is there experimental reasoning concerning matters of fact? No


E.      The Limits of Knowledge

·  Hume's account of what we can genuinely know (his epistemology) has some consequences

1)      We cannot talk about the things-in-themselves

·  Cannot try to describe the world as it exists independent of our experience of it

2)      We cannot logically prove the existence of anything (God or otherwise)

            ·  Existence is known through observation alone

·  The idea of existence adds nothing new to the concept in question, so relations of ideas will not reveal existence

            ·  Recall Kant: existence is not a real predicate

3)      We cannot prove the existence of a first cause (e.g. God)


F.      Common Life and Practice

      ·  Philosophy, then, says Hume, should not concern itself with metaphysics:

            ·  Forget ultimate reality

            ·  Forget where the world came from

·  Philosophy (and hence science) should concern itself with those things that have real bearing on our world

      ·  Those things that can be observed

·  After all, philosophy is nothing more than ordinary reflections on life that have been scrutinized, corrected, and given a method

·  Remember the goals of section I

·  To find a moral philosophy that both has bearing on real problems and employs a respectable method

            ·  Liberty and Necessity:

                        ·  Allows for a science of Human Nature

                        ·  Can be used to solve problems