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.