David Hume: Empiricism, Skepticism, and Enlightenment (In-Person)
68 Jay Street, #425
Brooklyn, NY 11201
David Hume is often characterized as the principle thinker of the Scottish Enlightenment. While this does capture Hume’s towering philosophical influence and legacy, it is also somewhat confounding. Where many contemporary figures of the European Enlightenment assumed that human reason alone could piece together the workings of the natural world and even establish individual moral, social, and political orders, Hume was an ardent skeptic, antagonistic to such grand convictions and incredulous that the world can be so easily and obviously understood. Hume denied human certainty about nature and causality; and far from extolling reason as supreme to emotion, Hume famously claimed that “reason is and ought to be a slave to the passions,” even where morality was concerned. Yet Hume’s skeptical philosophy became hugely influential, serving as a catalyst for Kant’s Critical Philosophy, Adam Smith’s economic thought, and even Darwinian biology, while also inspiring important work in 20th century “analytic” philosophy and contemporary philosophical naturalism. A famously convivial philosopher, Hume’s social thought turned to oft-ignored questions of pleasure, comfort, and material prosperity while simultaneously establishing the now well-known critical insight of the natural fallacy: namely, that what something empirically is tells us little of what it ought to be. How can we understand these and other Humean insights today? What can we garner from his skepticism, from his embrace of those aspects of experience neglected, if not undermined, by those he helped to inspire?
In this course, we will take a broad survey of Hume’s philosophical views: epistemological, moral, aesthetic, and theological. By way of his two major Enquiries (Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals), as well as his classic essay “Of the Standard of Taste,” and his infamous posthumously-published atheistic manifesto “Dialogue Concerning Natural Religion,” we will ask: what is the basis of Hume’s skepticism? Is free will compatible with necessity and determinism? What lies at the basis of our moral principles, and what could motivate us to moral action? What, if anything, grounds common supernatural beliefs? What are the roles of custom, emotion, and sentiment in rational inquiry and life more broadly? And, moving beyond is to ought, what kinds of society should philosophy and the sciences help establish?
Course ScheduleThursday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
July 14 — August 04, 2022