“Be Still a Man”

So writes the philosopher David Hume, that (in)famous empiricist, after tearing apart our notions that we can “know” anything outside of our sense experience.

I find his stance fascinating. At the beginning of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, he makes clear that his goal is to establish what we can know, and how we know it. In doing so, he defines mankind:

Man is a reasonable being; and as such, receives from science his proper food and nourishment: but so narrow are the bounds of human understanding, that little satisfaction can be hoped for in this particular, either from the extent of security or his acquisitions.

Section 1.3, emphasis added

Hume sees his goal as relatively modest one. He is not interested in building up a system of knowledge and truth like Descartes. Rather, he is looking for the bare bones of human knowledge, giving us a springboard for exactly how and what we can know. For Hume, we know “impressions,” which are the content of our immediate experience, and “ideas,” the mental pictures that come from impressions. This means — generally speaking — that knowledge of the physical world (i.e., our direct observations) are relatively reliable. Relations between ideas are not necessarily knowable — especially, for Hume, cause and effect, but that’s irrelevant to this discussion. The rest is simply not knowable with certainty.

That limits us significantly, and that’s exactly Hume’s point: we’re extremely finite, and it’s our inescapable position in the world.

All well and good, but that’s not what intrigues me about his point. What intrigues me is his personal attitude towards all of this. Where Descartes displays a heavy amount of obsession about building up a complex system which will give us certain knowledge about the world, Hume essentially says, “Nah, we really can’t know much at all. But don’t worry too much about it.” Later, in section 1.4, he writes:

Man is a sociable, no less than a reasonable being: bt neither can he always enjoy company agreeable and amusing, or preserve the proper relish for them… Nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable to the human race, and secretly admonished them to allow none of these biases to draw too much, so as to incapacitate them for other occupations and entertainments. Indulge your passion for science, says she, but let our science be human…

Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.

Section 1.4

I disagree with Hume on some significant points. But of the philosophers that I admire most at the moment, I find that I am interested in those that force us to look back on ourselves, and point out the silliness of our abstract thinking. We ought to philosophize, we ought to discover, we ought to think critically and rationally. But in the midst of all that, and even more so, we ought to be human beings, living in the world.