Hume, Smith, Rousseau, Durant, & American brows

In CoPhi today:  David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (LH), Millican on Hume, Phillipson on Hume’s pal Adam Smith,  Melissa Lane on Rousseau, (PB), and Carlin Romano on “brows” high, middle, and low. 

Also note: not assigned but highly recommended, Alison Gopnik’s recent PB discussion of the Hume-Buddhist connection, and Vandy prof Bob Talisse on why & how to argue constructively.

David Hume (follow his little finger) agreed with Diderot that good and honest people don’t need threats to make them so, they just need to be well nurtured and postively reinforced in the customs and habits of a good and honest society. Divine justice, he thought, is an oxymoron. “Epicurus’ old questions are still unanswered… (continues)”

Everyday morality is based on the simple fact that doing good brings you peace of mind and praise from others and doing evil brings rejection and sorrow. We don’t need religion for morality… religion itself got its morality from everyday morality in the first place… JMH


Hume was an interestingly-birfurcated empiricist/skeptic, doubting metaphysics and causal demonstrations but still sure that “we can know the world of daily life.” That’s because the life-world is full of people collaboratively correcting one another’s errors. Hume and friends “believed morality was available to anyone through reason,” though not moral “knowledge” in the absolute and indubitable Cartesian sense. Custom is fallible but (fortunately) fixable. [Hume at 300… in 3 minutes… Belief in miracles subverts understanding]

On the question of Design, intelligent or otherwise, Hume would definitely join in  the February celebration of Darwin Day. Scientific thinking is a natural human instinct, for him, for “clever animals” like ourselves, providing “the only basis we have for learning from experience.” (Millican) [Hume vs. design (PB)… Hume on religion (SEP)]

Open your eyes,” Richard Dawkins likes to say. They really are an incredible evolutionary design. Not “perfect” or previsioned, but naturally astounding.



An early episode of the new Cosmos takes a good look at the eye as well.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau was an emotional thinker with a romantically-inflated opinion of human nature and the “noble savages” who would have embodied it in a hypothetical state of nature.


What’s most interesting to me about Rousseau is that his Emile so arrested the attention of Immanuel Kant that he allowed it to disrupt his daily walking routine “for a few days.” Nothing short of seriously-incapacitating illness would do that to me. Apparently Kant was typically the same way, except for just that once.

Kant could get very upset if well-meaning acquaintances disturbed his routines. Accepting on one occasion an invitation to an outing into the country, Kant got very nervous when he realised that he would be home later than his usual bedtime, and when he was finally delivered to his doorstep just a few minutes after ten, he was shaken with worry and disgruntlement, making it at once one of his principles never to go on such a tour again.


So what’s in Emile that could so dis-comport a creature of such deeply ingrained habit? A generally-favorable evaluation of human nature, and a prescription for education reflective of that evaluation. Kant thought highly enough of Rousseau’s point of view to hold us all to a high standard of reasoned conduct. We should always treat others as ends in themselves, never as mere means to our own ends. We have a duty to regard one another with mutual respect.

The character of Emile begins learning important moral lessons from his infancy, through childhood, and into early adulthood. His education relies on the tutor’s constant supervision. The tutor must even manipulate the environment in order to teach sometimes difficult moral lessons about humility, chastity, and honesty. IEP


Yes, fine. But what precisely in Emile kept Kant off the streets, until he was finished with it?

Don’t know yet. But I love a good mystery. I’ll look into it. Could have something to do with other characters in the story. “Rousseau discusses in great detail how the young pupil is to be brought up to regard women and sexuality.” Now maybe we’re getting somewhere.

Or not. Rousseau’s observations regarding women sound pretty sexist and ill-informed, nothing Kant (as a  relatively un-Enlightenend male) wouldn’t already have shared.

Maybe it’s what Emile says about freedom that so arrested Kant? “The will is known to me in its action, not in its nature.”

Or religion? “It is categorically opposed to orthodox Christian views, specifically the claim that Christianity is the one true religion.” Maybe.

The Vicar claims that the correct view of the universe is to see oneself not at the center of things, but rather on the circumference, with all people realizing that we have a common center. This same notion is expressed in Rousseau’s political theory, particularly in the concept of the general will.


That’s very promising. Kant’s Copernican Revolution etc.

I wonder if the mystery of Kant’s lost walks could be related, too, to another of fellow-pedestrian Rousseau’s books, Reveries of the Solitary Walker?

The work is divided into ten “walks” in which Rousseau reflects on his life, what he sees as his contribution to the public good, and how he and his work have been misunderstood. It is interesting that Rousseau returns to nature, which he had always praised throughout his career… The Reveries, like many of Rousseau’s other works, is part story and part philosophical treatise. The reader sees in it, not only philosophy, but also the reflections of the philosopher himself.


That may not be a clue but it’s a definite inspiration for my own Philosophy Walks project, still seeking its legs.

Melissa Lane, like me, is very interested in Rousseau’s walking. 

BTW: we know Rousseau had a dog. Did Kant? If so, wasn’t he neglecting his duty to walk her?


And like Rousseau and me, Romano is concerned that aspects of American Brow culture, especially the culture of sales and advertizing, are obstacles to happiness and wisdom. He cites an astonishing figure: the average American takes in 37,822 TV ads per year. Not me, I was hitting the mute button before there were remotes (thanks to Radio Shack). Wired it through the back of the set. Drove family & friends nuts. Became a philosopher.

The first philosophy book I think I ever read cover-to-cover was The Story of Philosophy by Will and Ariel Durant. I didn’t know it was considered middlebrow at best, libelous at its worst. That was the view of one of my later Mizzou profs. It’s not mine. I think it was a darned good invitation to philosophy.

We want to know that the little things are little, and the big things big, before it is too late ; we want to see things now as they will seem forever — “in the light of eternity.” We want to learn to laugh in the face of the inevitable, to smile even at the looming of death.

Then he quoted Thoreau (“…simplicity, independence…”) and I was hooked, happily “failing to keep pace” with most of my companions ever since.

Didn’t know then that I’d eventually come to share Will Durant’s prescient view that “epistemology has kidnapped modern philosophy.”  Did he poison my well? Again to cite the eloquent old Dominican baseball skeptic Joacquin Andujar’s “favorite word in English”: Youneverknow. But my aversion to a certain sort of nitpicking epistemologizing was confirmed when later I discovered William James’s delightful contempt for “the baldheaded young PhDs boring each other with erkentnisstheorie” at conferences.

Also didn’t know Durant was a cradle-robber. But I have nothing against his “entertaining and popular” style. Does that make me a middlebrow? Even if it doesn’t, some of my epistemologist friends will still say my penchant for Open Court’s (etc.) pop philosophy does. Middlebrow, “vulgar,” ephemeral, superficial… but also “relevant” and in some ways “whole.” Should I apologize? Would Mill? Should we, in a pluralistic would-be democracy’s marketplace of ideas? I say no.

I do agree with Romano, that it’s a good idea to try and “impose quality control on a university culture with low standards of clarity, originality and style.” And, to recognize that “Brow labels, like art itself, shift over time.”

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