Hume an enquiry concerning human understanding summary

SECTION I: Different Species of Philosophy


1-3. The two different manners philosophers have of treating moral philosophy (the science of human nature) are:

first -- man as born for action and influenced by taste and sentiment, alluring him to virtue by glory and happiness, causing him to feel the difference between vice and virtue, bending his heart to the love of honour.

second -- man as a reasonable being needing to have his understanding formed rather than his manners cultivated. He speculates on human nature, fixing truth and falsehood, virtue and vice, beauty and deformity rationally, without determining the source of these distinctions. Then he proceeds from general principles to ever more general principles, seeking to uncover hidden truths for the instruction of posterity.

The first has man entering into common life and reforming and improving conduct. The second, an abstract philosophy, is in difficulty when the philosopher leaves the shade and comes into open day. Our feelings and passions reduce this profound philosopher to a mere plebeian. The first represents common sense that returns one to the right path when the natural sentiments of the mind have been temporarily blocked. The second commits one mistake in reasoning to become the parent of others, leading to contradictions to popular opinion.

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4. There are practical necessities that favour the first: man is a social as well as a reasoning being, and man is an active being submitting to business and occupation. And yet man does not always enjoy agreeable company and the mind requires relaxation. Nature has determined that a person's life must have variety and balance. The passions must indulge in relevant activity, not abstract thought. Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be a man.

This does not mean the rejection of all profound reasoning's or what is commonly called metaphysics. An artist needs to have knowledge of the operations of the understanding and the categories which discriminate vice and virtue. The painter finds useful what, to the eye, is the hideous object of the anatomist: that is, the inward structure and fabric of the human body. Accuracy is advantageous to beauty, and just reasoning to sentiment. It is important not to depreciate the value of reasoning.

Accuracy in the reasoning of philosophers can be gradually diffused throughout the whole of society, bestowing a similar correctness on every art and calling, giving greater foresight to the politician, better method and greater caution to the lawyer, and improvements to the stability of modern governments.

And when the philosopher is seeking the gratification of innocent curiosity, even this should not be despised. It is a safe and harmless pleasure offering exercise to the mind that may require, for some, severe exercise. This may not bring pleasure to some, but that is not to say it cannot bring pleasure to others. [By helping to remove barriers, bridges can be built to help extend the horizons of those who need curiosity for pleasure.] Such pleasures must not be criticised by others offering religious fears and prejudices and demanding curtailment by reverence and submission.

7. The war must be carried to the enemies of freedom of thought. But learning can only be set free by serious enquiry into the nature of human understanding. Accurate and just reasoning is the universal remedy for abstract philosophy which, when mixed with popular superstition, gives it the false air of science and wisdom.

8. A sizable part of science is to know the different operations of the mind and to distinguish and order them. But this part of science is rejected as being uncertain if scepticism rejects all speculative enquiry. To make sense of action one must and can make obvious distinctions between will, understanding, imagination, and passions.

9. But philosophy, with encouragement and care, can go further and discover the principles, the secret springs, by which the human mind operates. Astronomers were content to limit their proofs, through observation, to the motion, order and size of heavenly bodies, until a philosopher arose who determined the laws and forces governing the planets. Moralists have searched for a common principle to evaluate diverse actions; and although they sometimes have been carried away by finding one great [mistaken] principle, they can be excused for feeling the need to look for some general principles. The same for critics, logicians and even politicians.

10. But what if these reasonings are abstract and difficult to understand? This does not mean that they are false. What has escaped discovery by the wisest philosophers should not be expected to be easy. This should be expected to have considerable importance: to determine the foundations of human understanding and expose an abstract philosophy that has been a shelter to superstition, absurdity, and error!

NB. Not to be confused with the Common Sense philosophy of David Hume chief opponent, Thomas Reid.

Hume quotes on Human Understanding

Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.

The sweetest and most inoffensive path of life leads through the avenues of science and learning; and whoever can either remove any obstructions in this way, or open up any new prospect, ought so far to be esteemed a benefactor to mankind.
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