Hume’s Book Burning Argument

“If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”
~David Hume

Does this passage contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but that which it directs thereto.


About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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7 Responses to Hume’s Book Burning Argument

  1. Hume’s fork is the early seed of logical positivism. Hempel talks about this problem in part 6.

  2. It is indeed tricky business to try to come up with some Archimedean point outside of thought itself from which you can divine a set of non-self-referential, context-free rules.

    But you know what’s harder? Actually coming up with good reasons for thinking there is some descriptive vocabulary outside these categories that isn’t just “playing Calvinball with words.” So the Humean imperative is best treated as a hypothetical one.

    I can rattle off a list undesirable consequences if you consistently mistake pyrite for gold, or commit mathematical errors etc. In contrast, it is very hard to spell out what the consequences of “getting it wrong” might be when it comes to most speculative metaphysics. And as Hume saw, just the number of calories your brain might burn thinking about it is already quite the expenditure of resources, and that’s before taking into account the very real dangers of some abstract philosophical conceit standing athwart scientific or moral progress and shouting “stop!”

    • I was just starting to miss you, and I was worried that my lack of blog activity in the summer may have put my rudest commentator off. I’m glad to see you back again. Did you have a good summer?

      • I suppose it isn’t so obvious that I shouldn’t make it explicit. Perhaps I’ll just say it.

        Does your comment contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No.

      • What a bizarre response.

        I made a comment agreeing that the empiricist quest for a priori criteria is misguided, and spoke in terms of hypothetical imperatives — unproblematically and innocuously matters of fact. And yet you reply as if I had done the opposite of these two things. Usually I’m pretty good on picking up when someone is using irony or sarcasm to make an oblique point, but I’m afraid this is a bit too wheels-within-wheels for me.

        Now, where was I? Unexamined foundationalist assumptions were always the soft underbelly of empiricism, and we’re all better off junking them and going for the whole pragmatist hog. But there is a difference between saying demarcation problems don’t admit of algorithmic solutions, and saying “anything goes”.

        “If you want to lose weight, try eating less of this and more of that.” “If you want to know whether a drug is effective, try double-blind studies with large sample sizes instead of cherry-picking anecdotes.”

        What is it we want to accomplish when we talk about prescriptive laws of nature, or the filioque, or two objects with identical properties which differ in “substance”, or possible worlds being fully ontologically real? It gets harder to spell out the antecedents of those hypothetical imperatives than it is in straightforwardly logical or empirical contexts. Don’t have false beliefs about where the chair leg is, on pain of stubbing your toe on it.

        Don’t have false beliefs about speculative metaphysics, on pain of _____ ?

  3. I think most human beings have a natural love of truth. If nothing else, having false beliefs about metaphysics isn’t as ideal in principle as having correct beliefs. Of course, the consequence of having false beliefs about metaphysics may in fact depend upon what is true about metaphysics. Perhaps the Christian story is true – and wouldn’t that be worth knowing if it were (though it’s not like a mere failure to believe it entails a bad consequence, like hell, but it is the case that a failure to believe it means missing out on the goods Christ offers, the presence he can be in your life, etc.)? If Naturalism is right (here I mean metaphysical naturalism) then it seems it would be to our benefit to not believe it. If some version of sophisticated religious pluralism is correct, like Jacques Dupuis’ or even more radical theses, then it would still be to the benefit of all to believe in Christianity, or Islam, or Hinduism, etc.

    Of course, you obviously don’t seem to agree with me about my assumption that we all have a natural love of truth for truth’s sake (and not for utility’s sake). That, or, you suspect that even if we all do have such a natural love, we just cannot attain metaphysical truths with certainty try as we might (a kind of defeatist attitude, we might say), so we might as well not bother. I am enough of an optimist that I think we can attain certainty about metaphysical truths, and I am enough of a romantic to love truth for truth’s sake; I’m a hopeless metaphysician. What we want to know when we talk about the Filioque, Logically Possible Worlds, and the likes of such, is no less than the truth about the world.

    You’re willing to go the whole way with the pragmatist? The pragmatist, I think, is playing a very different game with different rules, one which is designed to accomplish some kind of pragmatic imperative, but it isn’t about ‘truth’. Foundationalism, for all it’s supposed failings, is at least about truth. The pragmatist’s version of truth is shrunk down, it’s a reduced notion, and it’s defined in some pragmatic sense – that just isn’t the kind of thing we have a natural love of.

    “But you know what’s harder? Actually coming up with good reasons for thinking there is some descriptive vocabulary outside these categories that isn’t just “playing Calvinball with words.” So the Humean imperative is best treated as a hypothetical one.”

    I realize what you were trying to say, and perhaps I’m at fault for reading what you wrote with too much haste the first time around. However, I am inclined to think the problem may go deeper than you acknowledge, and I’ll take a shot at spelling out why. I take it that you’re saying that in order to achieve some pragmatic imperative or end we should adopt this hypothetical imperative. With this I see a few problems. First, one has to have some value in mind which makes sense of the hypothetical imperative. To say that we ‘should’ adopt this Humean hypothetical imperative is to say that we ‘should’ do so with respect to some goal, but to say this is to say that we ‘should’ value such a goal. That goal can only be articulated in language which has nothing at all to do with either abstract reasoning about math or logic (about analytic truths) or with experimental findings. So, to say we ought to adopt this hypothetical imperative is to commit oneself to a claim about a value we should share, and this itself is the kind of talk that the hypothetical imperative is intended to eliminate (a textbook normative statement). Perhaps you will say that such normative statements as ‘we ought to value X’ are not the kinds of statements Hume’s hypothetical imperative precludes, but I don’t see how not. To ask what values we should have or adopt cannot be answered in a vacuum; to ask such questions leads naturally to asking questions about what kind of world we live in, what our place in it is, and so on. But any answer to such questions as these will be the kind Hume wants to rid us of (I suppose). What can it mean, then, to say that we should adopt such a hypothetical imperative – at bottom it must just be an expression of raw emotion ‘I have this value, and I would like you to have it too’; otherwise it is a claim about the way the world really is (and that’s going to have some metaphysical purchase). In short, to take this Humean imperative as a hypothetical imperative, and to recommend it as such, is to implicitly submit a normative claim, and this normative claim is either just declarative and emotive (unjustified), or (if justified) it fits into a world-view, and is implicitly a claim about metaphysics (however small a claim).

    Another problem which comes to mind, in passing, is that the Humean hypothetical imperative here is not prescriptive at all, it is proscriptive. It does not tell us what to do or how to go about doing it, it tells us what not to do and how to go about not doing it. It tells us not to (or rather to not) ask questions about modality, about religion, about ethics, about aesthetics, about metaphysics in general, about epistemology in general, about the philosophy of science, etc. What goals do we want to accomplish? If my goal is to know metaphysical truth then this hypothetical imperative is the last thing I would want to follow. If my goal is some more mundane pragmatic goal, then couldn’t I do just as well with the prescriptive “read that which contains abstract reasoning about quantity or number, and read that which contains experimental reasoning about matters of fact” and drop the proscription altogether? The point is that that the hypothetical imperative, understood as a proscription, can’t be worth following – it doesn’t do anything to help us at all (after all, it’s compatible with the proscription that we should also burn all books with abstract reasoning about quantity and number or with experimental reasoning about matters of fact). Even interpreted charitably as a prescription it can only be worth following if (or while) one’s goals aren’t to find out the truth about the world we inhabit.

    Sorry for such a long-winded response, and I should say in advance that I am too busy to continue batting responses back and forth for long. I will, of course, read everything you decide to write, but I will not engage actively (I’m really quite busy, and already feel a little guilty for writing this response rather than getting to things I really must do today). I look forward to reading your thoughts.

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