Philosophers who influenced us: David Hume & Arthur Danto

Recently Dan Kaufman and I have had another of our recurrent conversations, this time a second installment of an occasional series that we might call “philosophers who influenced us” (the previous one featured Bertrand Russell, on my part, and Gilbert Ryle for Dan).

This time I picked David Hume, the empiricist and skeptic who famously awoke Kant from his “dogmatic slumber,” and who — I think — is still not appreciated as much as he should be for his impact not just on subsequent philosophy (including epistemology, ethics and aesthetics), but on science as well. Dan’s pick was the philosopher of aesthetic and highly impactful critic of art Arthur Danto, who developed one of the most recent and compelling theories of art to date.


The conversation begins with my explanation of why Hume has been pivotal in my own philosophical upbringing. One of the things that have always impressed me about Hume, quite apart from his specific philosophical positions, is his general demeanor. He was a true gentlemen and scholar, nicknamed “le bon David” by his Parisian friends who frequented the famous salons of the Enlightenment. We then go into Hume’s famous “fork,” the idea that the only things worth taking seriously in philosophy are “matters of fact” and “relations of ideas.” Here is how he memorably formulated the concept, in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

“If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

Dan and I discuss the influence that Hume’s fork has had on logical positivism, as well as its limitations as a criterion of what is and is not of philosophical interest.

From there the dialogue moves to another of Hume’s great contributions: his analysis of causality, which takes the form of a deflationist account according to which we talk of causal influences out of psychological habit, not because we can actually perceive a true relation of causality. I suggest that Hume was wrong here, for one thing because his account would make it impossible to make the all-important (especially, but not only, in science) distinction between causation and correlation. Nonetheless, even if one disagrees with his positions, Hume is interesting in very fecund ways, which have led to literally centuries of thinking about this and many other issues.

Another such issue is, of course, how to think about morality. Here Hume gives a psychological account of it, and famously says — in A Treaty of Human Nature — that “We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Well, no. Both other philosophers and much research in cognitive science shows that reason and passion should to be balanced in a continuous feedback in order to generate a healthy human mind. But of course Hume was reacting to centuries of Platonism and Aristotelianism, during which emotion had always been considered something to be dominated by reason, or else. So he turned the table around, and generated much needed reassessment as a consequence.

From there Dan and I move into a discussion of the likely origins of our moral instincts, but then move to his choice of influential philosopher: Arthur Danto. Dan tells us why Danto was so influential in his early career, and explains Danto’s theory of art. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry:

“Danto’s definition has been glossed as follows: something is a work of art if and only if (i) it has a subject, (ii) about which it projects some attitude or point of view (has a style), (iii) by means of rhetorical ellipsis (usually metaphorical) which ellipsis engages audience participation in filling in what is missing, and (iv) where the work in question and the interpretations thereof require an art historical context. Clause (iv) is what makes the definition institutionalist. The view has been criticized for entailing that art criticism written in a highly rhetorical style is art, lacking but requiring an independent account of what makes a context art historical, and for not applying to music.”

Danto is also famous for his controversial idea that art history has come to an end, take a look at this clever illustrated summary of “The End of Art” to get a sense of what we are talking about. Danto provocatively wrote: “In our narrative, at first only mimesis [imitation] was art, then several things were art but each tried to extinguish its competitors, and then, finally, it became apparent that there were no stylistic or philosophical constraints. There is no special way works of art have to be. And that is the present and, I should say, the final moment in the master narrative. It is the end of the story.” As you’ll find out toward the end of the discussion, he may have had a point, though not necessarily for the reasons he put forth.

Advertisements

117 thoughts on “Philosophers who influenced us: David Hume & Arthur Danto

  1. Hi Robin,

    I am not sure why you say that wanting to have sex and then, on consideration, deciding not to have sex is not rethinking it

    Because you are deciding not to have sex, not to refrain from feeling lust. You’re not rethinking your passion. You still have the passion, but you are valuing other passions more highly.

    But, consider, if I hadn’t thought the whole thing through then I would have probably just gone for the sex.

    OK, but why did you bother to think it through? Because of some passion to be cautious or careful or whatever, or just because you have a passion for thinking things through.

    But when say “slave” you imply that “passions” are firmly in the drivers seat, but in this case reasoning made the difference to which “passion” I went for.

    I guess maybe we’re too caught up the metaphor. The point I think Hume is making, and the point I agree with, is that there’s no point trying to justify passions with reasons. Passions ultimately give us our motivation to do things, and reason is deployed in how we go about doing them. We need reasons to justify how what we plan helps us to satisfy our passions, not to justify the passions themselves. So I think his is the right answer for questions of the sort I had as a teenager — “How can morality be justified rationally in a world without God?”, the answer being “Being a passion, a desire to be moral needs no rational justification”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Robin:

    wants to experience the love of Jesus

    Wanting to experience the ‘love of Jesus” ins not a passion. Desiring to be loved is a passion. The specific want was miss-directed and reason figure that out.

    The underlying desire is likely still there. Reason has redirected it in more sensible direction like wife and kids.

    The prevalence of Jesus does say something about the strength of this passion.

    As DM or somebody said ‘want’ and passion, (a.k.a.. drive) are not same things.
    passion X information X reason –> want (where X mean convolute).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t think a razor has been manufactured yet to slice these points as finely as some want to. Maybe lasers. At any rate, tools–not at all an adequate term in this case–are being employed to advance the discussion. Whether this matter reflects in a passion for discussion or a discussion of passions, I think Hume is chuckling.

    One of my personal frustrations is to try to engage my wife in similar discussions when she simply responds, “I refuse to discuss this matter any further.” That’s it.

    Years ago I wrote a haiku commemorating such times:

    The big old boulder,
    It keeps its place, settles in,
    Deeper if it’s pushed.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Personally, when I cogitate about something, especially if I make a “pro/con” list to help on a major decision, and even more if it’s a weighted pro/con, I’ll find it brings emotions to the surface. Perhaps I want to re-weight a certain item within the list to be worth 10 points, not 5.

    At the same time, if I work on something like Nathaniel Branden’s sentence-completion exercises, I will often start cogitating on why I feel a certain emotion.

    (Note: I don’t agree with everything in Branden’s psychological toolkit, and certainly not his modified Objectivism as a philosophy. Nonetheless, here’s one of two webpages from his site illustrating the sentence-completion exercises: http://www.nathanielbranden.com/sentence-completion-i )

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Thanks. It’s not “deep” psychological work, but mild-moderate stuff that can be a useful tool, the Branden. And, per the likes of Daniel Kahnemann, there’s probably a “slow” emotional system that goes along with “slow” thinking.

    Kind of like “counting to 10” before displaying anger. Maybe we blow it off at that point, but maybe we recognize some degree of anger is appropriate stilll.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m very interested in the emotion/reason topic. I think the direction the debate has taken focusing on which aspect is in charge however may be not be the most productive.

    I agree with Massimo that in practice there is an entangled reciprocal relational between the emotion and reason. So this aligns with Ryle when he points out that reasoning is itself a practice that can be done well or poorly. I think poor reasoning is often spontaneous and of the post-hoc variety where the reasoner is not mindful of the underlying emotional drivers behind the reasoning process. When we are unaware of those emotional drivers we are prone to simply reason in a away that makes feel good about ourselves or to fit our reasoning process to our existing world views. In these cases I think it can be said that reasoning is the slave of the passions.

    Conversely however, we also have the capacity to reason well. This is a capacity I think like any other that needs to be developed though practice. In my view reasoning done well is a mostly receptive process in which we allow ourselves to pay attention to uncertainty or conflict among potential thought paths. That uncertainty or conflict may be accompanied by less pleasant emotions or not such a ‘feel good’ state as the conflicting though paths inter-relate. This may or may not result in some type of resolution with the possibility of novel ideas being introduced to our previous world view. In well conducted reasoning I don’t think it makes sense to say either the emotions or rationality is in charge. I think it is a single process.

    Ryle also said the intelligence in the sense of knowing how to something or being well disposed to act in accordance with context entails thinking as part of the doing or action. I think the same is true with a well conducted thought process. Emotions and rationality, ever intertwined are employed together in support of greater understanding and know how.

    Like

  7. Hi all, this far into the convo I can only say that I pretty much agree with everything DM wrote (including science on sociopaths/psychopaths).

    Only he was dead wrong that Night Manager was “pretty good”. It was great! 🙂

    Regarding “too much reason” isn’t that based on emotions, such as an irrational fear of making a mistake, or desire to be right? Those prompt more evidence gathering and analysis, causing indecision, or over critical thinking.

    Like

  8. Hi Seth,

    “Conversely however, we also have the capacity to reason well. This is a capacity I think like any other that needs to be developed though practice.”

    I agree that reason is a capacity (or tool) which can be improved with practice, and that it can end up being used to make us feel good about ourselves, rather than productively. I analogized this earlier to performing a rearguard action against criticism.

    However, while I also agree with Massimo (and you) that reason is intertwined with emotions, I am not sure how that ever puts emotions equal or beneath reason as a motivating force to act or choose.

    For example, to practice reasoning well, one has to have a desire to do so. Indeed, reasoning well takes a lot of effort and discipline, so much so that it is often easier not to (at least regarding our own interests). It takes a strong desire to maintain such commitment to reason. Usually this is a desire to be consistent, or viewed as intelligent, or to just plain get things right.

    Reason may help us work through our feelings, but it will be feelings that let us know which is a more satisfactory end point (for ourselves).

    Like

  9. Thanks DB:
    “However, while I also agree with Massimo (and you) that reason is intertwined with emotions, I am not sure how that ever puts emotions equal or beneath reason as a motivating force to act or choose.”

    It seems to me actions and choice making involve a ‘motivating force’ but I don’t think that ‘motivation force’ need be mindless in it’s application nor do I accept that it can be in some way separated from prior reasoning processes. The presence of a necessary motivating force I think demonstrates that pure rationality is an abstract. I don’t think it requires that the role of emotion or feeling has to be dominant.

    Like

  10. DB:
    “Reason may help us work through our feelings, but it will be feelings that let us know which is a more satisfactory end point (for ourselves).”

    Again here I would resist the urge to take useful dichotomies like reason and emotion ( which I view as abstractions ) and map them onto a dynamic experience feeling the need to choose one or the other as being necessarily in charge. What precisely is the endpoint you are referring to? When we change a belief in our self-narrative, when the feeling of uncertainty resolves to a more pleasant feeling, when that process occurs often enough that we become disposed to act or think or believe differently then in the past? Or does the process roll forward with theses aspects we refer to as reason and feeling always present playing off each other in different intensities?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Hi Seth, I guess my main issue is that I don’t see decision making as reason vs emotion. It is a combination of the two (they work in concert).

    Hume had been reacting to a position that reason was in conflict with emotion and that it should be put in charge of it. He flipped the idea around to say that one should not counsel reason should control emotion, because such a thing is impossible.

    By slave to passion, I took that to be identifying which was the motivating factor (the drive) versus which was the calculating factor (the tool)… not simply that emotions will push around reason to reach certain conclusions irrespective of reason (like reason had no force), otherwise his argument would fail (or not be compelling) since that would mean it’s conclusion was decided by emotion and not reason.

    Reason, all by itself, cannot initiate a decision. Even by neuroscience standards I take that as a pretty sound claim. So it’s not exactly like a chicken or egg situation. And while working in concert (tied like ying/yang) one will be the active and the other the passive element, even if the passive is capable of turning the active.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I think that all the replies are no different to what I said in the first place. The “what we want” is the subject matter of reasoning. What else is there?

    And, yes, the result of this reasoning will be what we want. Again, what else is there?

    But hopefully it will be something we would consider, even in hindsight, to be what we really wanted and worth wanting.

    Like

  13. I wonder if a differentiation between rationality (as in ratio, math) and reasoning (as in reasons for doing things) is useful. In reasoning, I weigh different desires and goals, and decide which are fulfillable and worthwhile with respect to other desires and goals, some of which are actually very abstract eg DM’s drive to be good.

    Like

  14. Thanks DB:

    Your last comment which seems to depart from your prior comments actually looks pretty close to what i was arguing. I don’t think anyone in the comments here was arguing against the Hume position in the sense that rationality can or should be put in a dominant position in charge of emotion – ( maybe Massimo was to a degree although he caveats with the reciprocal relationship qualifier).

    I think we differ on the passive/active alternation idea. I don’t think it’s ‘on/off’, ‘one or the other’ trading places, but instead change along a passive->active continuum. It could be both like the default mode network that tends to switch back and forth, but recent research shows certain type of engaged tasks (like those that include engagement with beauty) in which both default network and task engagement networks active together.

    Like

  15. With selfishness and greed, normally people don’t just want them because they want them, rather they want them as ways of gaining more pleasure, happiness etc and of avoiding pain or inconvenience.

    It seems to be reason enough that something is pleasurable to want it, or that something is painful to not want it.

    If I wanted to be good, would there be any similar reason why I wanted to be good? I mean I know I want to be good because these feelings push me towards behaviours which once, long ago, increased the probability that certain patterns in molecules predominated over others.

    But, knowing that, why do I want to continue to be good? It can’t be to get happiness or pleasure or fulfillment or to avoid pain because if I were really good (whatever that is) then it seems as though there will be situations where I would sacrifice pleasure, happiness and even fulfillment, or to undergo pain, for the good of others.

    I can’t see that the fact that I want to be good is any reason in itself to use this as a factor in my decisions than the fact that I want sex, food or safety.

    But everyone’s decisions have to work for them, so I wouldn’t say anyone was wrong if they came to another conclusion.

    Like

  16. I mean would anyone say that explicitly? Say “Yes, I know I only have these feelings because they promote behaviours that once helped some patterns of molecules predominate over others and there is nothing more to it than that, but still I think the fact that I want to be good is, in itself a reason for basing my actions on it”?

    Like

  17. >when the feeling of uncertainty resolves to a more pleasant feeling, when that process occurs often enough that we become disposed to act or think or believe differently than in the past? Or does the process roll forward with theses aspects we refer to as reason and feeling always present playing off each other in different intensity

    Like

  18. In the case of IBM’s big blue the reasoning (working out consequence of possible moves) is done by the program. The emotions (i.e., weights assigned) are input by programmers/chess masters.

    Like

  19. >But, knowing that, why do I want to continue to be good? It can’t be to get happiness or pleasure or fulfillment or to avoid pain because if I were really good (whatever that is) then it seems as though there will be situations where I would sacrifice pleasure, happiness and even fulfillment, or to undergo pain, for the good of others.

    Eudaemonia

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Hi Seth, as a quick correction on my last comment I should have said that Hume argued “one cannot counsel” instead of “should not counsel”.

    I didn’t see my last reply as different from what I said earlier (or meant anyway), and glad if it at least helped clear things up. I realize not everyone is arguing reason “should” control emotions, though I take it that Massimo is not only thinking it is possible but that (to some extent) it should be done.

    I have great respect for Stoicism, but I think they (the original authors) erred in viewing reason as a contrast to emotion, and further that it should be put in control. Massimo has wayyyyyyy more knowledge on this and so can correct me if my read was wrong.

    To me reason and emotion are instead two different capacities, serving two different functions. Reason being a tool of information gathering/analysis as well as a sort of meditator.

    When Stoics employ reason, it seems to me it is already goal (desire) directed: to have a good life. They can use reason to sort through methods and ends to assess a “good”, and given an assessment help decide which passions may be better left aside and others promoted, but the initial desire is there, a feeling there is a life to be preferred already exists, before reason is brought to bear toward that goal. It seems it is a dedicated practice, a form of discipline, to be rigorous in one’s use of reason toward that goal.

    The opposite account would seem to be reason having determining there is a preferred life and telling emotions they ought to want it, which seems counterintuitive.

    “I think we differ on the passive/active alternation idea. I don’t think it’s ‘on/off’, ‘one or the other’ trading places, but instead change along a passive->active continuum. It could be both like the default mode network that tends to switch back and forth, but recent research shows certain type of engaged tasks (like those that include engagement with beauty) in which both default network and task engagement networks active together.”

    Hmmmm, I wasn’t trying to say that it is always an alternation, and so don’t have a problem with what you just described. This is especially true as one has so many different goals and feelings and so things one is reasoning about, all the time (in parallel). I just think that the first motivation (you could say prime mover) would be emotional not rational.

    Like

  21. Synred, you couldn’t simply be clogging up Massimo’s site to inform us that there are schools which teach things in English. So perhaps this time you’re clogging it up in order to insult various people, and me namely? I’ll let Massimo decide if that’s appropriate here.

    Like

Comments are closed.