David Hume and the origin of modern rationalism.

Author:Livingston, Donald
Position:Response to Claes Ryn in this issue, p. 5 - A Symposium: Morality Reconsidered

In "How Desperate Should We Be?" Claes Ryn argues that "morality" in modern societies is generally understood to be a form of moral rationalism, a matter of applying preconceived moral principles to particular situations in much the same way one talks of "pure" and "applied" geometry. Ryn finds a number of pernicious consequences to follow from this rationalist model of morals. First, the purity of the principles, untainted by the particularities of tradition, creates a great distance between what the principles demand and what is possible in actual experience. The iridescent beauty and demands of the moral ideal distract the mind from what is before experience. (1) The practical barriers to idealistically demanded change are occluded from perception, and what realistically can and ought to be done is dismissed as insufficient. And "moral indignation is deemed sufficient" (2) to carry the day in disputes over policy.

Further, the destruction wrought by misplaced idealistic change is not acknowledged to be the result of bad policy but is ascribed to insufficient effort or to wicked persons or groups who have derailed it. A special point Ryn wants to make is that, "One of the dangers of moral rationalism and idealism is that they set human beings up for desperation. Especially in unanticipated and highly charged situations ... [they] leave people disoriented." (3) Matters can become so complex, unstable, and tense that they threaten simply to overwhelm the abstract ideal. Ryn concludes: "Because it disarms, confuses, and discourages attempts to make the best of real situations, there is even warrant for calling this idealism immoral." (4)

I agree with the substance of Ryn's criticism of moral rationalism, and wish only to add two amendments which might strengthen the case. First, is "immoral" the best way to describe the "idealism" of moral rationalism? I suggest the pathology is best thought of as an ontological disorder rather than a moral one--though, of course, moral disorder follows as a consequence. Second, if the disorder is ontological, then the problem is not the use of "ideals" as such but the ontological disorder itself which need not have an ideal character. Finally, I would like to make these two points by working through David Hume's critique of rationalism both because it is insightful and because it is little known.

Ryn's critique of moral rationalism, as a pathological condition which permeates the modern world, is one of a family of similar critiques worked out by thinkers as different as Edmund Burke, David Hume, Eric Voegelin, Albert Camus, and Michael Oakeshott. But what do I mean in saying the pathology is an ontological disorder?

We may begin with an observation by Albert Camus in The Rebel where he says "there are crimes of passion" (immoral acts) and "crimes of logic," and that we are living in the era of the "perfect crime." "Our criminals ... have a perfect alibi: philosophy, which can be used for any purpose--even for transforming murderers into judges." (5) In the ancient world when tyrants dragged conquered people and their possessions through the streets to cheering crowds, the people were proud of their theft, cruelty, and dominion, and knew it to be such. Moral judgment remained unclouded. But in modern times the flags of freedom and human rights fly over lies, cruelty, and murder, which are transmuted by philosophy into truths Edmund Husserl, who explicitly acknowledged Hume's influence on him. (8) But that is a story for another place.

The very heart of Hume's philosophy--and what was needed to lay the human sciences on a secure foundation--is the distinction he draws between what he calls "true philosophy" and "false philosophy," or what comes to the same thing, a true and a false "rationality." But that poses a question. How can one know that the philosophy through which the "false philosophy" is discovered is not itself an instance of the false form? The distinction can be drawn only by a dialectical mode of inquiry in which philosophical thought discovers a standard independent of itself by reference to which its true and false forms can be distinguished. (9) In short, the science of human nature presupposes a prior act of philosophical self-knowledge whereby the disposition to false philosophy (or what we today call ideology or rationalism) is exposed and purged from the human sciences--and from morals and common life generally.

So what is philosophy? (10) Philosophy begins in the wisdom of Socrates who said the unexamined life is not worth living. But philosophy is not just any kind of self-examination. In Hume's account, the philosophical act of thought is structured by three principles which I call ultimacy, autonomy, and dominion. Ultimacy. Philosophical inquiry is not empirical inquiry. Empirical science seeks merely a conditional understanding of events in space and time testable by sense experience; whereas philosophy seeks an unconditioned understanding about what is ultimately real. This, Hume says, "is our aim in all our studies and reflections." (11) Mere empirical facts cannot refute a philosophical claim because, being a claim about ultimate reality, it claims authority to define what is to count as empirical facts. The empirical, after all, must first be real. And so must the moral.

Autonomy. Philosophy is and must be radically free inquiry. The philosopher cannot begin his inquiry by assuming the truth of what the poets, priests, or founding fathers have said. That would make philosophy the handmaiden of theology, or of politics, or of some other inherited authority. The philosopher must determine the real with nothing other than his own autonomous reason.

Dominion. Once the philosopher determines the real through his autonomous reason, the philosophic vision has a title to rule society. Hume writes: "Reason first appears in possession of the throne, prescribing laws, and imposing maxims with an absolute sway and authority." (12) Plato's teaching that philosophers should be kings is necessitated by the philosophical act itself.

In Hume's dialectic, the first stage of the philosophical act is to suspend beliefs inherited from the pre-reflectively received order of common life. Indeed, that order, and all within it, is presumed false as a whole unless certified by the philosopher's autonomous reason. What Hume discovered is that, if the pre-reflective order is consistently purged from thought, no proposition in philosophy or common life can be established. This reduces the true philosopher to total skepticism and to despair because he was determined to guide thought and life by his own autonomous grasp of the real. Now he has no guide at all. Hume was thought to be a nihilistic skeptic because his readers did not see that this is merely the first stage in a dialectical inquiry.

The false philosopher, however, never experiences despair because he does not consistently follow the principles set by the demands of philosophy. At some point he cheats by smuggling in a favorite set of prejudices from his inheritance and participation in common life, while at the same time passing them off as the work of a neutral autonomous reason untainted by the prejudices of common life. The false philosopher is "false" because he is self-deceived about what he is doing.

In the condition of utter despair where all argument has been brought to silence, the true philosopher discovers for the first time that he has never ceased to participate in that radiant but mysterious pre-reflective order of common life. In despair, and having no other recourse, he affirms his participation in this order with humility. Whereas before he had presumed the pre-reflective beliefs of common life as a whole to be false unless his autonomous reason showed otherwise, he now presumes they are true unless there is reason to think otherwise. This does not mean he has abandoned critical reason but only that it must be redefined to make it coherent with common life. Henceforth any belief can be criticized if it is incoherent with other beliefs and by standards, rules, and ideals which themselves emerge in the practices of common life.

This yields a reformed conception of rationality and of philosophy which Hume explains as follows: "philosophical decisions are nothing but the reflections of common life, methodized and corrected." (13) This means the autonomy principle which seemed essential to philosophy must be given up. The philosopher must recognize himself not as the spectator of common life with his autonomous reason as a grim measuring rod for examining it, but as a humble, yet critical, participant in it.

But the principle of ultimacy remains. The philosopher still inquires into the nature of what is ultimately real. However, he does so within the framework of an inherited order of beliefs and practices and with a chastened attitude of humility and even a certain diffidence. And this means the principle of dominion must be abandoned. The philosopher, as a critical participant in common life, has no special title to rule.

Here I must guard against a misunderstanding. "True philosophy" does not mean the philosopher has special access to truths about the world, but that his mode of inquiry is the only way philosophy can coherently gain truth. The distinction between true and false philosophy is like the distinction between valid and invalid arguments. Valid arguments do not give us truths about the world, but given that we have truths, other truths can be deduced from them with certainty. And just as a valid argument can be made up of false statements, so can an engagement in true philosophy. What distinguishes true philosophy from false is that the latter both rejects the prejudices of common life as a whole and presupposes a favored set of them. The true philosopher acknowledges the primordial authority of common life as a whole and against this background criticizes a part.


To continue reading