Hume the pragmatist

Looking forward to the David Hume course my cophilosophers and I are about to embark on. We’re so eager to get going, in fact, that we’ve already sort of begun. One of us has ventured the view that Hume was not a pragmatist.

He was a skeptical but not a radical empiricist in the sense intended by William James, one who notices not only the objects of phenomenal experience but also their conjunctive relations, as mirrored in the grammar of speech (“and,” “with,” etc.) but only partially articulated thereby. James thought Hume’s version left our experience chopped into bits, when in reality it flows in and through the interstices of nominative thought.

If Hume were right, James suggests, it’s as if that bird I’ve been watching flit about, here near my thinking porch, were visible only in the moments of arrested movement and I had to be skeptical about how he arrived at each successive stop. In fact, his flits and flights and hops and skips are continuous with his perchings. It’s part and parcel of his experience. The attentive birdwatcher sees this, where the intellectualist is tricked into missing it.

But not being a radical empiricist is one thing, not being a pragmatist another. Depends as always on how we define our terms, of course; but that famous Humean call to common life – “Be a philosopher, but be still a man” – is to me the epitome of a pragmatic sensibility. Acknowledging the impracticality, imprudence, and un-sociability of using reflective reason to cover one’s un-salubrious retreat from what the world calls “real life,” Hume knew when to remove his philosopher’s cap, drop the skeptical routine, and join his peers in a game over a pint.

His was the extrovert’s version of Thoreau’s definition of philosophy, as the ability to solve some of the problems of life not just theoretically but practically. I’ll be surprised if we students of Hume don’t end up agreeing that the most pressing practical problem, from both Hume’s and James’s points of view,  is how to live happily and well. They’re both that kind of pragmatist.

6:45/5:52, 77/91

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