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Thursday: September 29, 2005

To Err Is Humean

Filed under: — site admin @ 11:57 PM UTC

Brian Leiter continues his “Thus Spoke” series by quoting some “sharp observations of Hume” on the (alleged) “dysfunctionality of religious societies in comparison to secular ones”. This time he provides a reference — Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, XII, 220 — but still no link, though the complete text is available here, among other places.

It’s odd to see a Professor of Philosophy make such a sophomoric error: it is not Hume who speaks here but Philo, one of the characters in Hume’s Dialogues, and his argument is immediately challenged by Cleanthes. To what extent Philo’s opinions can be assigned to Hume himself has been disputed since the work was published in 1779. This site lists some of the possibilities, with references.

The dialogue ends with the the words of the narrator Pamphilus, writing to Hermippus:

Cleanthes and Philo pursued not this conversation much further: and as nothing ever made greater impression on me, than all the reasonings of that day, so I confess, that, upon a serious review of the whole, I cannot but think, that Philo’s principles are more probable than Demea’s; but that those of Cleanthes approach still nearer to the truth.

Of course, though Pamphilus gets the last word and endorses Cleanthes over Philo, we could argue that that is just a smokescreen, and that Hume in fact put his own opinions into Philo’s mouth, while explicitly pretending otherwise so as to avoid the unpleasant consequences facing an open atheist or agnostic in his day. Is Leiter presuming such a (dare I say?) Straussian interpretation of the Dialogues? Or did he just forget that a dialogue is not a treatise, and that none of the characters in a dialogue (or a play, for that matter) can be presumed without argument to speak for the author, not even the Platonic Socrates or a Sophoclean chorus? That’s the sort of thing students are supposed to learn in Philosophy 101, if they have not already learned it in high school, as many do.