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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

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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 Socrates.

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 philosophy.

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 [1] 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 commonsensical.

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.


[1] Texts quoted from Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding are indicated as E in the sidenotes.

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Abortion: What Can Be Done? | Introduction to Three Approaches to Abortion | Peter Kreeft
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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 Meets Kant.

Dr. Kreeft has written more than forty books, including C.S. Lewis for the Third Millennium, Fundamentals of the Faith, Catholic Christianity, Back to Virtue, Three Approaches to Abortion, and The Philosophy of Tolkien. His most recent Ignatius Press books include You 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 author page.)

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