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Hume's skepticism

Dennis Farrell Thompson, University of Massachusetts Amherst


David Hume has traditionally been regarded as a skeptic, perhaps the most formidable in the history of Western philosophy. Since the publication of Norman Kemp Smith's Philosophy of David Hume in 1941, however, there has been an increasing tendency to downplay the skeptical dimension of Hume's philosophy, in some cases to the point of denying that Hume is a serious skeptic, or even a skeptic at all. Much of the motivation for a nonskeptical reading of Hume comes from recognition of his endorsement of empirical science and his own project of founding a "science of man." Recent scholarship has, in my opinion correctly, recognized Hume as a constructive rather than a purely destructive thinker. Yet this recognition has, in my opinion incorrectly, gone hand in hand with a tendency to overlook or deny the skeptical side of Hume's thought. In this work, I address the issue of Hume's skepticism. I believe that though the issue of Hume's skepticism is more complicated than is suggested by some of those who interpret him as a skeptic, nevertheless the traditional view is more true to Hume's texts than is a nonskeptical interpretation. I argue, on the basis of a reading of the Treatise of Human Nature and Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, that Hume is a serious theoretical skeptic with regard to much of our alleged knowledge. In saying that Hume is a serious theoretical skeptic I mean that (i) Hume's skeptical pronouncements are in general sincere, not ironic, (ii) Hume's skepticism extends to a large part of our alleged knowledge, and (iii) Hume's skepticism is a result of his substantive philosophical views. In saying that Hume is a serious theoretical skeptic I mean that though Hume doesn't prescribe eschewal of beliefs that are not rationally justified, he thinks that much of our alleged knowledge essentially involves beliefs that cannot be rationally justified and that hence much of our alleged knowledge is not knowledge at all.

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Recommended Citation

Thompson, Dennis Farrell, "Hume's skepticism" (1998). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9841927.