David Hume on Obfuscatory Philosophy

I came across a wonderful quotation by the great David Hume. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1777) Hume unpacks his targets and what he hopes to avoid. In the very first section, “On the Different Species of Philosophy”, he considers the cases of some “metaphysical” philosophy which is obscure because it is not “science”. This is not to say that because it is not science it is worthless, but that a good red flag is something that revels in not being science, bathing itself in obscurity and obfuscation. (Which today identifies such things as obscure New Age nonsense, astrology, and homeopathy.)

To Hume, because “man is a reasonable being”, “science [is] his proper food and nourishment”. This is the famous paragraph, where he dissects the contradictory nature of “man” and ends off with (personified) nature telling us: “Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.”

Of course, here there was little differentiating between the kind of philosophy and science we ought to do. Both should be focused on remaining “human”. “Indulge your passion for science, says she [nature], but let your science be human, and as such have a direct reference to action and society.” (Emphasis added.)

I take such words to heart, considering the applicability of my thoughts, research and philosophical focus. I do not want to indulge in irrelevant navel-gazing on publicly meaningless topics. A danger, I think, in many disciplines.

And this is the paragraph I want to quote; where Hume admonishes all who would indulge in obscurity, superstition and meaningless drivel (I’m looking at you literary theory). Every academic should have this paragraph on their door; or above their keyboard or quill or whatever academics write with these days. Says Hume:

But this obscurity in the profound and abstract philosophy, is objected to, not only as painful and fatiguing, but as the inevitable source of uncertainty and error. Here indeed lies the justest and most plausible objection against a considerable part of metaphysics, that they are not properly a science; but arise either from the fruitless efforts of human vanity, which would penetrate into subjects utterly inaccessible to the understanding, or from the craft of popular superstitions, which, being unable to defend themselves on fair ground, raise these intangling brambles to cover and protect their weakness. Chaced from the open country, these robbers fly into the forest, and lie in wait to break in upon every unguarded avenue of the mind, and overwhelm it with religious fears and prejudices. The stoutest antagonist, if he remit his watch a moment, is oppressed. And many, through cowardice and folly, open the gates to the enemies, and willingly receive them with reverence and submission, as their legal sovereigns. (Enquiry, I: Par. 11)

Hume teaches everyone, not just philosophers. Indeed, anyone can benefit from this man’s powerful and beautiful writing, thought and grace. His sobriety and clarity is second to none.


2 thoughts on “David Hume on Obfuscatory Philosophy

  1. Pingback: baalbek.org » “Amidst all your philosophy, be still a man”

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