Sunday, June 15, 2008

Hume's Naturalism

If claiming to be a "naturalist" means anything at all, it must mean that one is some sort of metaphysical monist; put the other way around, if "nature" just refers to whatever exists, metaphysically heterogenous or not, it is a vacuous term.
Hume says, "For as to the notion of external existence, when taken for something specifically different from our perceptions, we have already shown its absurdity" (Treatise 1.4.2, Of scepticism with regard to the senses). Before we follow this reference, note that Hume is not, as commonly supposed, some sort of happy sceptic, whose empiricism entails codifying Cartesian scepticism as irrefutable. Very much to the contrary, Hume takes the much more ambitious position that Cartesian scepticism is a pseudoproblem, based on misunderstanding. The very idea of a distinction between "external existence" and "perception" is absurd. Thus the idea that we are "stuck inside our heads," unable to see around our "mental representations," is absurd. The representational theory of mind itself is an absurdity. And if this interpretation of Hume bears textual scrutiny, as I think it does, the whole main trunk of Hume interpretation, sympathetic and hostile, of the past 250 years is spurious root and branch.
This absurdity is shown, Hume claims, at 1.2.6, Of the idea of existence, and of external existence. "Now since nothing is ever present to the mind but perceptions, and since all ideas are deriv'd from something antecedently present to the mind; it follows, that 'tis impossible for us so much as to conceive or form an idea of any thing specifically different from ideas and impressions." This is Berkeleyan. Berkeley, who seems so bizarre to generations of undergraduates who are simply presented with his idealism without enough context, is basically a competent philosopher trying to clean up a mess: if we can't make our way from the "properties of the things-in-themselves" and the "properties of experience," granting that experience is what we have, let's go with experience and leave it at that. A thoroughly empiricist solution to be sure. But not one that warrants the bizarre (Cartesian) metaphysical interpretation to which Berkeley is commonly subjected. The point rather is that the whole discussion, from Descartes to Locke, is a mistake. It is meaningless to talk about some "reality" beyond the reality of experience. This (one must repeat the point to have any chance of overcoming centuries of indoctrination) is not at all the same as saying that there is an external world to which we do not have access, trapped as we are within our experience. "The world," understood in any meaningful way, refers to the world of experience. It is literally inconceivable that there might be a world distinct from experience, or experience distinct from the world. Technically the position is nominalist: "the world" is the name of the category of all experiences. And on that point, Hume, in a footnote to 1.2.6, explicitly refers us to a citation of Berkeley: "A great philosopher (Berkeley)...has asserted, that all general ideas are nothing but particular ones, annex'd to a certain term, which gives them a more extensive signification, and makes them recal upon occasion other individuals, which are similar to them" (1.1.7, Of abstract ideas: the "external world" is an abstract idea of this kind).
The idea is common to scholars of Buddhism. Dogen, the classical sage of Zen, says that experience (the mind) is "the blade that cuts, but does not cut itself." The mind cannot perceive itself (Hume: there is no "self" other than experience itself). Thus there is no Cartesian mystery as to "the world-in-itself" vs. "the world as I experience it." When the distinction breaks down, both sides of the Cartesian dilemma vanish simultaneously: it is equally absurd to refer to "representations" as it is to "mind-independent reality."
I have to go to K-Mart to buy a laundry basket and a dish-drying rack, and take a comforter over to my mother-in-law's house (speaking of reality). Final chunk of argument for this afternoon: it turns out that perceptual states, on Hume's view, are not "copies" of external reality (this has been shown to be absurd). Rather they are states of the body. That is, there is no metaphysical distinction between the mind and the body. It is true enough that when we talk about our "perceptions" we are talking about states of our own bodies; this need not involve us in the concept of "representation." And here's a remarkable outcome: this is Spinoza's view as well.


  1. All good words; I have to say though that sometimes I get the feeling that Descartes is as mis-characterized as Berkeley has been. There is a sense in which "we are all trapped inside our heads" is an equivalent of "things disappear when they are not looked at". Its funny, as I was reading your post I actually thought of Berkeley just was you were speaking of Descartes. Most definitely, Descartes forwarded a hard-to-support representationalist view of knowledge, but without taking into view his conceptions of thinking-the-divine, his use of the imagination as a means of focusing one's "eye" upon the divine, that is, once "God" is taken out of Descartes, like Berkeley, he sounds much more absurd. One needs only to look at Descartes's analogy of "vision" to be more like a blind man who uses and experiences his cane, instead of the receipt of accurate images, to see that Descartes has within his thought more subtlety and tension than is often attributed to him.

    As a Spinozist though, I like your rightful conclusion:

    "That is, there is no metaphysical distinction between the mind and the body. It is true enough that when we talk about our "perceptions" we are talking about states of our own bodies; this need not involve us in the concept of "representation." And here's a remarkable outcome: this is Spinoza's view as well."

    If you have not read them, Wim Klever has argued in two interesting articles, "Hume Contra Spinoza?" (1990) and "More About Hume's Debt to Spinoza" (1993), that Hume bears a hidden and strong Spinoza influence. Perhaps his line of reasoning here would also aid the point of your arguments against Descartes.

  2. If existence is not taken to be a predicate or a quality, then would that mean that we could posit the existence of the "outside" world and at the same time also claim that it is absurd or meaningless to say that we are trapped inside ourselves insofar as we cannot come to know this outside world?

    We can't come to know reality "in itself" because to come to know something requires one to form predicates to things. And in doing so, one is pointing out qualities of things. But by definition, this would require one to be "trapped" within one's self. But it is absurd to say that we are "trapped" since that suggests the logical possibility that we can "get out" of ourselves and see the world as it is. But, of course, this has already been shown to be not possible, by definition.

    However, I still think that we can posit the existence of the "outside" world, as separate from the phenomenal world, because existence is not itself a quality. So the world "in itself" exists; it just doesn't exist as anything, and so it's absurd to suggest that we could either know it or not know it. There is nothing to know.

    Am I on the right track here?

  3. Lamar, The way you're approaching the topic is Kantian: Kant thought that the way to resolve the Cartesian dilemma was to posit a phenomenal world (the world as we perceive it) and a noumenal world (the world-in-itself). But I think this was a setback: when one looks at the passages in Hume's Treatise discussed in the post, Hume's claim seems to be that existence is not a predicate in itself, rather that we only conceive of anything when we have sensory impressions: the real meaning of "exists" is just "makes impressions." Then the reference to Berkeley as a nominalist is interesting: we realize that we have impressions (experiences), and so we name that set (the set of experiences). We name this set "existence." But then it seems that we can think of existence per se, not any particular instance of it (which, remember, would just be a particular impression). But this is a conceptual error. A confusion of reference and use, maybe. And this is Wittgenstein's diagnosis of Plato's realism about universals. I'm claiming that Hume is anticipating that (I'm part of a new wave of Hume interpreters claiming that). The result is that it is meaningless to talk about "reality" apart from experience. And I think that this is the Buddhist view as well. Good to hear from you again.