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Socrates and Hume | Peter Kreeft | The Introduction to Socrates
Meets Hume: The Father of Philosophy Meets the Father of Modern Skepticism | Ignatius Insight
Hume is the most formidable, serious, difficult-to-refute skeptic in the
history of human thought. I will never forget my first exposure to him, in a
seminar in Modern Philosophy at Calvin College taught by William Harry Jellema,
who was the best teacher I ever had but who, like Socrates, never wrote a book.
All ten of us in the seminar were philosophy majors and friends. We had to read
Hume over vacation week. We took this great skeptic very seriously, because we
were more concerned with finding the truth than with finding an A, and Hume
deeply disturbed us because we could not refute his arguments, yet could not
accept his skeptical conclusions. For if we did, what would become of
philosophy? What would become of science and common sense and religion and
morality and education and human knowledge in general? The whole process of
liberation from the cave of ignorance would be merely another cave.
We shared our anguish with the professor when classes resumed, but instead of
"telling us the answers", he simply sent us back to Hume again, with
the reminder to remember our logic. If we did not accept Hume's conclusion, we
had to find either an ambiguously used term, or a false premise, expressed or
implied, or a logical fallacy. It was not sufficient simply to say we disagreed
with his conclusion; we had to refute his argument.
That is the process you are invited to participate in, with the aid of
No one wants to be a skeptic; no
one is happy as a skeptic, except the unpleasant type who just want to shock
and upset people. Happy skeptics are dishonest; unhappy skeptics are honest.
(The same is true of atheists. Only idiots, masochists, or immoralists want to
be atheists. Contrast Sartre, the happy hypocritical atheist, with Camus, the
unhappy, honest atheist.) Hume is an unhappy skeptic, an honest skeptic, and he
demands and deserves to be taken very seriously and answered very carefully.
He also deserves this because of his continuing, enormous influence on
English-speaking philosophy today. Hume's immediate thought-child was the
extreme, dogmatic, reductionistic form of "analytic philosophy" that
called itself "logical positivism", as summarized in A. J. Ayer's Language,
Truth and Logic. This is no longer in
vogue, but softer, modified versions of it are, and they all go back to Hume,
especially his reduction of all objects of human reason to "matters of
fact" and "relations of ideas". These are approximately what
Kant later called "synthetic a posteriori propositions" and
"analytic a priori propositions". But please don't close this book
and run when you see these verbal monsters. Hume uses a minimum of such technical
terms and gives clear, common-sense definitions of each of them. Hume may be
disturbing, and he may be disturbed, 'and he may even be dull sometimes (I
tried to omit all the dull passages), but he is always clear.
Hume is also very important because of his influence on Kant and because of the
influence of both Hume and Kant on all subsequent philosophy. Kant says it was
Hume who woke him from his "dogmatic slumber". And by his
"Copernican revolution in philosophy", which was his answer to Hume,
Kant divided the history of Western philosophy in two (the pre-Kantian and the
post-Kantian) almost as Christ divided history into B.C. and A.D. (The next
book in this series will be on Kant.)
Hume's philosophy, like that of Locke and Berkeley before him, is an Empiricist
critique of the Rationalism of Descartes, "the father of modern
philosophy". Hume's skeptical conclusions were the logical consequences of
Locke's Empiricist starting point. They were conclusions that Locke did not
draw because they were too radical. By his relationship to both his successors
and his predecessors, Hume holds a crucial position in the history of Western
philosophy, that "great conversation" that began with Socrates and is
still going on.
The typical three-stage bare-bones summary of classical modern philosophy is:
Descartes' Rationalism versus Hume's Empiricism versus Kant's Idealism. All
three are theories in epistemology.
Most of the philosophy in that astonishingly rich two-hundred-year period
between the publication of Descartes' Discourse on Method in 1637 and the death of Hegel in 1831, the period
of classical modern philosophy, was concerned with epistemology.
"Epistemology" means "theory of knowledge". (What is
knowledge? How do we know? How does it work? How should it work?) It is probably the trickiest and most
purely theoretical division of philosophy. Yet it is foundational, for any
position you take in epistemology will always have consequences for, and make a
great deal of difference to, all the rest of your philosophy: your metaphysics,
cosmology, philosophical theology, anthropology, ethics, and political
Philosophers frequently write two versions of their thoughts, one long and the
other short. Inevitably, the short book becomes the classic, the book that is
well known and loved, while the longer one becomes the subject of advanced and
abstruse doctoral dissertations. Descartes wrote the simple Discourse
on Method as well as the more difficult Meditations. Kant wrote the relatively simple and short Prolegomena
to any Future Metaphysic as well as the
formidable and long Critique of Pure Reason. He also wrote the short and simple Fundamental
Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals as
well as the long and complex Critique of Practical Reason. Similarly, Hume wrote the short Enquiry
Concerning Human Understanding  as well
as the longer Treatise on Human Nature.
Like his readers, he preferred his shorter work. In fact he explicitly called
his earlier, longer book "that juvenile work" in the preface to the
posthumous 1777 edition of the later one (the Enquiry), adding:
"Henceforth the Author desires that the following pieces may alone be
regarded as containing his philosophical sentiments and principles."
This book is a short Socratic critique of Hume's short classic, the Enquiry
Concerning Human Understanding, in the
fo,rm of a Socratic dialogue between the two philosophers who meet after death.
In quoting Hume's words, I have altered some of the punctuation, since
eighteenth-century English style multiplied commas in a way that appears
bewildering and confusing to twenty-first-century readers.
I have sometimes italicized Hume's words for emphasis. The student can refer to
Hume's texts in order to differentiate.
I have also capitalized "Empiricism" and "Rationalism", as
two ideologies, but not "empiricistic" and "rationalistic",
as two generic tendencies or methods. I have at times ventured beyond Hume's
actual words in imagining how he would have replied to some of Socrates' questions.
I trust that I have not violated the integrity of Hume's philosophy in doing
so, but I cannot guarantee this.
This is not a scholarly work. There are more exact, more technical, and more
severely logical critiques of Hume, but I have deliberately used none of these
professional secondary sources but only my own more "amateur",
spontaneous, original ones, which I think are more simple and natural and
I have also compressed some of Socrates' arguments, rather than always having
him use his famous "Socratic method" of long, careful, step-by-step
questioning, when I thought the latter would become too tedious or artificial.
My apologies to the real Socrates.
 Texts quoted from Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding are indicated as E in the sidenotes.
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Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor
of philosophy at Boston College who uses that dialog format in a series
published by Ignatius Press, called "Socrates Meets..." So far,
Dr. Kreeft has written Philosophy
101 by Socrates, Socrates
Meets Marx, Socrates
Meets Machiavelli, Socrates
Meets Sartre, and Socrates
Dr. Kreeft has written more than forty books, including C.S.
Lewis for the Third Millennium, Fundamentals
of the Faith, Catholic
to Virtue, Three
Approaches to Abortion, and The
Philosophy of Tolkien. His most recent Ignatius Press books include
Can Understand the Bible, The
God Who Loves You, and Because God Is Real:
Sixteen Questions, One Answer. (A complete list of Ignatius Press books
by Kreeft can be viewed on his IgnatiusInsight.com
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