Monday, October 24, 2005

Russell on Hume on Religion

Paul Russell's article on Hume on Religion at SEP (HT: Prosblogion) is worth reading. This is a very difficult, very controversial subject, and Russell handles it with a masterly hand. The oneinor quibble I would have about his handling of the Dialogues is that he repeats the old cliché that Philo 'reverses' himself in Part XII, which I think is clearly false. As I think I've noted before, my own view of the dialogues is that Philo's position in Part XII actually follows strictly from what has gone on before. At the beginning he attacks the possibility of Cleanthes' inference at all, and ends up confounded by the end of Part III, because he has no real basis for such an attack. Then, following the lead of Demea, he begins to criticize Cleanthes's views of what this inference will actually get him, and emerges victorious. In Part XII he simply sums up this dialectic: Cleanthes's inference is legitimate; the legitimate conclusion from this inference, however, is immensely vague, far more vague than someone like Demea could accept and far less than Cleanthes thinks he can get. It would also have been nice to get a bit more on the Dialogues's Ciceronian influences. The discussion of Hume on miracles is an excellent summary. I'm not convinced that Hume's acceptance of the design argument in NHR (which is still peppered with ambiguities) is a 'veil of orthodoxy'; this type of interpretive move never convinces me, in part because if Hume thought it veiled anything he was naive to the point of almost being stupid about it. But the Natural History of Religion is very difficult to interpret, and Russell has a great summary of the argument. The discussion of whether Hume was an atheist would have been improved by considering the external evidence or two we have that Hume might have considered himself a theist (e.g., Diderot's summary of Hume's remarks at d'Holbach's party), but that, like the other things I've mentioned, is a minor issue. The big omission, I think, is that there is no discussion of Hume's conception of superstition and enthusiasm; Hume has an essay devoted to the subject, and the two concepts play an immensely important role in his historical analysis in the History of England, as well as occasionally peeking out elsewhere. That, I think, is my only serious disappointment with the article, since it's not a small omission. Well worth reading, for those who are interested in the subject.

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