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The External World and Our Knowledge of It

The External World and Our Knowledge of It: Hume's Critical Realism, an Exposition and a Defence

  • Book Info
    The External World and Our Knowledge of It
    Book Description:

    David Hume is often considered to have been a sceptic, particularly in his conception of the individual's knowledge of the external world. However, a closer examination of his works gives a much different impression of this aspect of Hume's philosophy, one that is due for a thorough scholarly analysis. This study argues that Hume was, in fact, a critical realist in the early twentieth-century sense, a period in which the term was used to describe the epistemological and ontological theories of such philosophers as Roy Wood Sellars and Bertrand Russell.

    Carefully situating Hume in his historical context, that is, relative to Aristotelian and rationalist traditions, Fred Wilson makes important and unique insights into Humean philosophy. Analyzing key sections of theTreatise, theEnquiry, and theDialogues concerning Natural Religion, Wilson offers a deeper understanding of Hume by taking into account the philosopher's theories of the external world. Such a reading, the author explains, is not only more faithful to the texts, but also reinforces the view of Hume as a critical realist in light of twentieth-century discussions between externalism and internalism, and between coherentists and foundationalists.

    Complete with original observations and ideas, this study is sure to generate debates about Humean philosophy, critical realism, and the limits of perceptual knowledge.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8807-0
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Note on References
    (pp. xiii-2)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 3-20)

    Hume is a sceptic. He uses reason to attack reason, and finds that reasoning wanting: there are no good reasons at all for any of our beliefs. That, at least, is the standard picture of Hume.¹ Nor is it entirely wrong: about entities, such as God or objective necessary connections, that lie beyond the world of ordinary experience, Hume is indeed a sceptic. More strongly, he is an Academic sceptic. He knows that he does not know: he knows this because discourse that goes beyond the limits of our ordinary world is strictly speaking meaningless. But about the ordinary world,...

  6. 1 Abstract Ideas and Other Linguistic Rules in Hume
    (pp. 21-130)

    Language plays a central role in Hume’s philosophy of human nature and of human thought. As one would therefore expect, he gives a careful account of the conventions that define language. Specifically, he locates these conventions of language in the same context as those of justice: after describing the origins of justice, based on shared human interests, he tells us that ‘In like manner are languages gradually establish’d by human conventions without any promise’ (Treatise, 490). His locating of language in his account of morality implies that the general features of his account of the artificial virtues of morality apply...

  7. 2 The Waning of Scientia
    (pp. 131-253)

    In order to become clear on what Hume is about in his account of the external world and our knowledge of it, it is helpful to see what is in the background and what he is opposing. We shall therefore look at the older, substantialist ontology, and its account of knowledge asscientia,knowledge as incorrigible or infallible judgment and as involving the abstract forms or natures of things construed as substances. We shall try to trace the background to Hume and the positions against which his views were formed and against which he was contending. We shall emerge from...

  8. 3 Geometry as Scientia and as Applied Science: Hume’s Empiricist Account of Geometry
    (pp. 254-305)

    Traditionally, rationalism gets its hold on one through geometry. Geometrical truth is (as we now speak) synthetic: it states facts about the world. Such truths are not ordinary truths but essential truths, giving the reality of the empirical world in which they are imperfectly embodied. But if such truths give facts about the world, it is also the case that our knowledge of them is absolutely certain. It is certain because it is about such ideal geometrical concepts as that of a perfect circle, or exact equality. Knowledge of these entities is not given in sense, so they must be...

  9. 4 Hume’s Defence of Empirical Science
    (pp. 306-331)

    When Hume argues on the basis of his Principle of Acquaintance (PA) that causal generalizations are nothing more than matter-of-fact regularities, he is often accused of falling into a Pyrrhonistic scepticism, and of adopting the position that empirical science can have no rational justification. But these claims are just wrong.

    It is incorrect to construe Hume as a Pyrrhonian sceptic. Or so we are arguing in the present study and so I have argued elsewhere.¹ To the contrary, Hume in fact offers a detailed defence of the thesis that the norms of scientific inference² – that is, the ’rules by which...

  10. 5 Hume on Testimony and Its Epistemological Problems
    (pp. 332-366)

    We have seen in the preceding chapter that reason, on Hume’s account, is a virtue. Specifically, it is a virtue to conform one’s judgments to the ’rules by which to judge of causes and effects,’ the rules of the scientific method. We need, however, to look at another aspect of the cognitive or epistemic virtue of right reason. This is the idea of theresponsible knower. We can get hold of this idea, I think, if we look at how Hume deals withtestimony.

    And we can begin our discussion of this topic by putting Hume’s account of testimony into...

  11. 6 Knowledge
    (pp. 367-446)

    We have come this far: For Hume, given our interest in truth, conformity to the rules for evidence is the means by which we achieve, as best we can, that end, and such conformity is cognitively virtuous: it constitutes our epistemic or cognitive duty. In the light of our experience of the world, we ought to adjust our belief-forming mechanisms and inference patterns in such a way that we maximize the amount of our beliefs that are true and minimize the amount that are false, and to proportion the strength of our beliefs (and disbeliefs) to the strength of the...

  12. 7 Naturalism and Scepticism
    (pp. 447-535)

    There is an important sense in which Hume is a defender of common sense, that is, a defender of the acceptance as true of certain propositions about perceptual or material objects – objects ’to be met with in space’ – such propositions as here is a hand (when I wave my hand – Moore’s example), or here is an ink-bottle (where I am writing in good light on the desk at which the ink bottle is located – Malcolm’s example), or here is a shadow; and of the acceptance of certain further propositions defining the normal framework of belief propositions to the effect that...

  13. 8 Hume’s Critical Realism
    (pp. 536-692)

    We have been arguing that Hume’s account of material objects is non–substantialist but empiricist and objective. Many have argued that, while Hume’s account is no doubt non-substantialist and probably empiricist, it is hardly objective; there is the feeling that Hume is unavoidably subjectivist. What certainlyisclear is that Hume is in some way sceptical about ordinary objects; in some sense, they do not really exist, according to his position. It is also clear that Hume is at least more sceptical than most about the objects – the atoms, or whatever – that so many scientists were unhesitatingly prepared to assert...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 693-770)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 771-786)
  16. Index
    (pp. 787-809)