Jordan Steffaniak and Brandon Ayscue of the London Lyceum podcast recently interviewed me about my book on David Hume. I enjoyed the conversation, and perhaps you will too! If you haven’t already checked out their website and podcast, I highly recommend them. They have some excellent resources there, despite being wrong about baptism. 😉
In which we discuss the meaning and provenance of Parker’s tattoo, virtual-reality mannequins, two-dimensional people, the word ‘retorsive’, Stroudian objections to transcendental arguments, the ontological status of Bilbo Baggins, and sundry other topics of deep importance.
Audio here. Video (for full tattoo experience) here:
The problem of induction may be viewed as a particular instance of a more general epistemological problem. Is there any rational order to the facts of the world, and, if so, how can we have epistemic access to that rational order? How can the multifarious facts of experience be rationally connected, so as to give us genuine knowledge of the world and its operations?
Hume’s answer, in effect, is that such knowledge is impossible. Given his starting point, his answer is correct. Kant considered this a philosophical scandal, even though he agreed with Hume that all factual knowledge of the world must come through sense experience. Kant’s innovative response to Hume’s skepticism was his “Copernican revolution” in epistemology: although we cannot know the world as it is in itself, we can know the world as it appears to us, because our minds impose rational order on the data of experience. Kant called his theory “transcendental idealism,” but we might just as well call it anthropocentric antirealism, for, on Kant’s view, the world of experience—the world we take ourselves to inhabit—isn’t a mind-independent reality, but rather a construction of the active human mind.
Kant’s system, while ingenious in its own way, fails to provide a satisfactory answer to the problems raised by Hume. Not only is it internally inconsistent (Kant couldn’t avoid making some positive claims about the unknowable noumenal world), but, like all forms of antirealism, it is haunted by the specter of epistemological relativism. If the world is a construction of the human mind, which human mind is doing the constructing? How can I be sure that the rational order I impose upon my experience is the same for everyone? Kant was the champion of intellectual autonomy—human reason must serve as the supreme judge—yet the existence of seven billion minds on earth implies seven billion independent and competing authorities.
Edinburgh’s famous Royal Mile runs from the Queen’s residence at Holyrood Palace up to Edinburgh Castle. At the corner where the Royal Mile intersects with the Mound, there stands a statue of a seated man. Occasionally seen wearing a traffic cone on his head, courtesy of exuberant and inebriated students, he nevertheless sits in dignified fashion, clothed in a toga and with a book perched on his knee. Every day thousands of people pass by him, but only a small minority of them are aware of the impact that he—or rather, the historical figure he depicts—has had on the culture in which they live and breathe.
Philosophy students at the University of Edinburgh are more aware of his significance, not least because their lectures are held in a building named in his honor: the David Hume Tower. In many ways, Hume is viewed as a heroic figure, not only for the School of Philosophy, but also for the university as a whole—both the humanities and the sciences—representing, as he does, the legacy of the Scottish Enlightenment. Hume’s significance was confirmed by a poll conducted by the Sunday Times in 1999, which awarded him the title “Greatest Scot of the Millennium,” edging out his close friend, the economist Adam Smith.
Hume’s impact on Western civilization can scarcely be overstated. Traces of his thought can be detected in almost every aspect of our culture today. It was Hume’s writings that famously roused Immanuel Kant from his “dogmatic slumber” and motivated his “Copernican revolution,” which in large measure set the epistemological agenda for the next two centuries. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that without Hume, there would have been no Kant; and without Kant, no Hegel; and without Hegel, no Marx. Friedrich Schleiermacher, the pioneer of Protestant liberalism, propounded his new understanding of Christianity as grounded in religious experience, rather than verbal divine revelation, in response to the critiques put forward by Hume and Kant. Hume’s influential objections to natural theology (arguments for the existence and attributes of God based on natural reason) and to claims of miracles (such as the apostolic testimony to the resurrection of Jesus) may have been more responsible for the subsequent decline of orthodox Christianity in the English-speaking world than anything else. One often encounters today the received wisdom that revealed religion has never recovered from the “double hammer blow” of Hume and Kant.
You can also read (or listen to) an interview about the book with Fred Zaspel at Books At a Glance.
I’ll be posting some excerpts from the book on my blog later this week, but for now here’s the publisher’s blurb and the table of contents:
David Hume (1711–1776)
Through his pursuit of a naturalistic grounding for morality and his forceful critique of supernaturalism, Scottish philosopher David Hume significantly undermined confidence in orthodox Christianity.
Professor, minister, and philosopher James Anderson summarizes the major points of Hume’s thought and offers a critical assessment from a distinctively Reformed perspective. He shows that Hume’s arguments, far from refuting the Christian worldview, indirectly support that worldview by exposing the self-defeating implications of naturalism. Deepen your understanding of this immensely influential thinker, and you will be better able to engage with today’s secular challenges to faith.
- Series Introduction
- Foreword by W. Andrew Hoffecker
- Introduction: Why Hume Matters
- 1. Hume’s Life and Works
- 2. Hume’s Philosophical Project
- Three Distinctives of the Project
- A Two-Phase Project
- Hume’s Theory of the Mind
- A New Account of Causation
- Philosophy Psychologized
- 3. Hume’s Naturalistic Ethics
- Against Moral Rationalism
- Against Self-Interest Theories
- Hume’s Moral Theory
- A New Account of Justice
- 4. Hume’s Religious Skepticism
- Religion Naturalized
- Hume’s Critique of Natural Theology
- Hume’s Argument against Miracles
- Was Hume an Atheist?
- 5. Hume’s Continuing Relevance
- The Kantian Turn
- Logical Positivism and Scientism
- Naturalized Epistemology
- The Evidentialist Challenge
- 6. A Reformed Assessment of Hume’s Thought
- Was Hume a Great Thinker?
- The Presumption of Naturalism
- The Presumption of Autonomy
- Internal Problems
- The Specter of Solipsism
- A Matter of Taste
- 7. A Reformed Response to Hume’s Religious Skepticism
- Defusing the Evidentialist Challenge
- Natural Theology Ex-Humed
- In Defense of Miracles
- 8. Hume and Christian Apologetics
- The Skeptical Sinkhole of Empiricism
- The Problem of Induction
- A Hume-Inspired Transcendental Argument
- Epilogue: The Humean Predicament
- Recommended Reading
- Index of Subjects and Names
What do you call an interview where the interviewer and interviewee switch places halfway through? A ‘switcherview’ perhaps?
Whatever you call it, I recently did one with Christopher Watkin in which we talked for nearly two hours about P&R’s Great Thinkers series. Chris has already contributed volumes on Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. He’s presently working on a third volume, this time on Gilles Deleuze. My own contribution to the series, a critical engagement with the thought of David Hume, will be published in early December (but I’ll take no offense if you feel led to pre-order it).
Chris and I had about as much fun as two Reformed philosophy geeks could have discussing Derrida, Foucault, and Hume. We talked about why these thinkers are important today, what challenges they present to Christians, and how Christians can interact critically but responsibly with their work.
Chris is a fellow Brit who is currently posted at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, where he teaches and researches in the field of French Studies. Not only has he written books on several great thinkers, he’s a gifted thinker himself with a wide range of philosophical and theological interests. Check out his personal website and his other website Thinking Through the Bible to find out more about his work. You can also follow him on Twitter if you’re that way inclined.
Here’s the full conversation:
You can also find some smaller snippets on Chris’s YouTube channel.