Hume & Rousseau

In CoPhi today:  David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (LH), Millican on Hume, Phillipson on Hume’s pal Adam Smith, and Melissa Lane on Rousseau.

Also note: not assigned but highly recommended, Alison Gopnik’s recent PB discussion of the Hume-Buddhist connection.

David Hume (follow his little finger) has a public “walk” in Edinburgh.

In 1724 the town council bought Calton Hill, making it one of the first public parks in the country. The famous philosopher David Hume lobbied the council to build a walk ‘for the health and amusement of the inhabitants’, and you can still stroll along ‘Hume Walk’ to this day.

He 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.


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

Julia Sweeney’s ex-boyfriend notwithstanding, an evolving eye is quite a useful adaptation at every stage.

Hume, open-eyed but possibly blind to the worst implications of his skeptical brand of empiricism, is on Team Aristotle. Russell, though, says we must look hard for an escape from the “dead-end” conclusion that real knowledge must always elude us, that (for instance) we cannot refute “the lunatic who believes that he is a poached egg.” Russell says this is a “desperate” result. I say it would be more desperate to feel compelled to refute Mr. Egg in the first place. Remember the old Groucho line? My brother thinks he’s a chicken – we don’t talk him out of it because we need the eggs.”


Jean-Jacques Rousseau, of Team Plato along with other celebrants (like the other Marx) of “a communitarian ideal based on men’s dreams,” 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?

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?
Is nature full of design without a designer (as possibly reflected in the eye), complexity without a goal, adaptation and survival without any ulterior purpose? Is this marvelous or weird or grand (as in the “grandeur” of nature, in Darwin’s view) or what? Most designers sign their work unambiguously, even ostentatiously.

We talked miracles earlier in the semester, so this may be redundant. But so many of us were so sure that we’d encountered or directly experienced suspensions of natural law that it seems worth a second pass. Was it a “miracle on ice” when the U.S. beat the U.S.S.R. in 1980? Is it a miracle that K.C. almost won the World Series? Isn’t it a miracle that you and I are alive? Or that your friend or loved one, who’d received the very bad prognosis, is? Well, not exactly. All of those are plenty improbable, given certain assumptions. But none of them is an obvious law-breaker. We need a better word for these events, a word that conveys astonished and grateful surprise but does not court woo. Or I do, anyway.

J-J Rousseau seems to have been a self-indulgent paranoiac scoundrel, but he wasn’t wrong to say we need to balance personal freedom with the public interest. Minimally, we need to tax ourselves enough to provide good public education, reliable infrastructure, and a secure peace. And we need to vote. (I’ll ask in class how many are registered and how many will actually cast a ballot tomorrow, then I’ll ask what would J-J say.) 

Maybe he was just phrase-making, but “compelled to be free” has a chillier aspect from our end of the twentieth century. Whenever we act to pad our own nest wile neglecting the well-being of others, we reinforce the “chains” of oppression. Yet life is a chain. We should remember that a chain is no stronger than its weakest link.

Whenever I hear libertarians rail against government activism, I wonder: if a Rand Paul had been President in the 1960s, would there have been an effective Civil Rights movement in America?

Last Fall I tried to buoy the spirits of my friend from Kansas City, after his upstart Royals fell to the Giants. I pointed out that teams more often rally when down 3-2 than not. His pessimistic reply: I’m a skeptic about induction. It was a joke, and maybe Hume was joking too. Aren’t we all Inductivists, regularly anticipating, worring about, planning for the events of our days? Would it be reasonable or prudent to do otherwise?

Of course we could do with less worry, but that’s because experience has taught the truism that most of our worries are unfounded. So what, really, is the practical point of entertaining Humean skeptical arguments? It’s not to urge us over the Pyrrhonic cliff, but to redouble our curiosity and our humility: to make us kinder, gentler, less neurotic friends and fellow citizens. As Hume said, “Be a philosopher; but amidst your philosophy, be still a man.”

Melissa Lane’s interview on Rousseau raises important questions for our time, when the marketplace so clearly has faile to provide justice, fairness, security, and a shot at (the pursuit of) happiness for all.  Michael Sandel rightly says there are some things money cannot buy, but that the public interest and common decency nonetheless require us to try and provide for one another.

Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” seems more invisible than ever, short-term private profiteering more prevalent. Can a market-oriented economy deal adequately, for instance, with climate change? Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate says no.

More Rousseau-inspired challenges: 
Are we happy? Would we be happier if we had better access to health care, if college costs were lower, if career competition were less intense, if you didn’t have to commute to school and work, if your neighbors were your closest friends, if your community was more supportive and caring, …? What if any or all of that could be achieved through higher taxes and a more activist government?

But let’s be real, Jean-Jacques: most of that was never on offer in any realistic state of nature. 

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