David Hume On Thinking Too Much

David Hume is one of my intellectual heroes. Let me briefly explain with an amusing anecdote. Years ago I was cornered by a graduate student who wanted to discuss his dissertation—wheat production in post-war Albania. Well, I’m interested in many things but this wasn’t one of them. After a few minutes feigning interest with a frozen smile on my face … I kindly excused myself. I wish this guy had read the following paragraph by Hume,

Man is a reasonable being; and as such, receives from science his proper food and nourishment: But so narrow are the bounds of human understanding, that little satisfaction can be hoped for in this particular, either from the extent of security or his acquisitions. Man is a sociable, no less than a reasonable being: but neither can he always enjoy company agreeable and amusing, or preserve the proper relish for them. Man is also an active being; and from that disposition, as well as from the various necessities of human life, must submit to business and occupation: but the mind requires some relaxation, and cannot always support its bent to care and industry. It seems, then, that nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable to the human race, and secretly admonished them to allow none of these biases to draw too much, so as to incapacitate them for other occupations and entertainments. Indulge your passion for science, says she, but let your science be human, and such as may have a direct reference to action and society. Abstruse thought and profound researches I prohibit, and will severely punish, by the pensive melancholy which they introduce, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you, and by the cold reception which your pretended discoveries shall meet with, when communicated. Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.

Hume’s phrase “the cold reception which your pretended discoveries shall meet with, when communicated” always reminds me not to preach to anyone about some intellectual interest of mine. I may find sociobiology and the possibility of ethical naturalism or  Gauthier‘s argument for constrained maximization fascinating but most people do not. So I don’t corner people proclaiming “I have a Ph.D. in philosophy so listen up!” (I write on my blog but my readers aren’t coerced into reading. At least I hope they aren’t!) 

But what do you do if your own “abstruse thought and profound researches” introduce
“pensive melancholy” and “endless uncertainty?” Hume answers with some of the best and most quoted lines in the history of Western philosophy, 

Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? and on whom have, I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, invironed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.

Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.

Thus Hume advocates joy and play. A topic we just discussed in the previous post.

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One thought on “David Hume On Thinking Too Much

  1. Okay, but why even mention coercion involving our reading your articles? However if you send an Enforcer to visit us, saying,

    “You are, like, strongly adviced to perryouse the pofessor’s woiks—if you get my DRIFT.”

    And if our cars don’t start in the morning, we’ll be further enlightened.

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