Occasionally Even a Skeptic Gets Something Right

Even a broken clock is right twice a day. Perhaps the same goes for broken philosophers. David Hume, notorious 18th century critic of supernaturalism in religion, tries to pretend to have a philosophy free of prejudice and superstition, but ultimately produces just one more big prejudice and superstition. Nevertheless he gets a few things right here and there. Here’s one of them:

…The greater part of mankind are naturally apt to be affirmative and dogmatical in their opinions; and while they see objects only on one side, and have no idea of any counterposing argument, they throw themselves precipitately into the principles, to which they are inclined; nor have they any indulgence for those who entertain opposite sentiments. To hesitate or balance perplexes their understanding, checks their passion, and suspends their action. They are, therefore, impatient till they escape from a state, which to them is so uneasy: and they think, that they could never remove themselves far enough from it, by the violence of their affirmations and the obstinacy of their belief. But could such dogmatical reasoners become sensible of the strange infirmities of human understanding, even in its most perfect state, and when most accurate and cautious in its determinations; such a reflection would naturally inspire them with more modesty and reserve, and diminish their fond opinion of themselves, and their prejudice against antagonists. The illiterate may reflect on the dispositions of the learned, who, admidst all the advantages of study and reflection, are commonly still diffident in their determinations: and if any of the learned be inclined, from their natural temper, to haughtiness and obstinacy, a small tincture of [doubt] might abate their pride, by showing them, that the few advantages, which they may have attained over their fellows, are but inconsiderable, if compared with the universal perplexity and confusion, which is inherent in human nature. In general, there is a degree of doubt, and caution, and modesty, which, in all kinds of scrutiny and decision ought for ever to accompany a just reasoner. [”An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding”, Section XII, Part III, 129, in Hume: Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals (Oxford University Press, 1952), pp. 161-162]

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