Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Hume on Mortality of the Soul

An argument by David Hume against the immortality of the soul:

On the theory of the soul's mortality, the inferiority of women's capacity is easily accounted for. Their domestic life requires no higher faculties either of mind or body. This circumstance vanishes and becomes absolutely insignificant on the religious theory: the one sex has an equal task to perform as the other; their powers of reason and resolution ought also to have been equal, and both of them infinitely greater than at present. (Essay on the Immortality of the Soul)

Talk about one man's modus ponens being another man's (or woman's!) modus tollens! There has recently been some interesting work by feminist philosophers on the history of philosophy, in which it is critically examined whether the absurd remarks about women made by so many male philosophers is dependent on or consistent with their philosophical principles, and (simultaneously) how those principles are actually or potentially conducive to women's equality and serious thought about women's issues. It's been very uneven; in some cases, as in Augustine or Aquinas, it has been rather poor. Things have been attributed to Augustine, for instance, that he explicitly opposes. Nonetheless, it is an important and valuable sort of work; and I look forward to it continuing. One philosopher who has certainly not yet had his comeuppance, with regard to both his sexism and his racism (I think it can be shown that neither are inconsistent with his moral principles), is Hume. There also needs to be some reclamation of egalitarians, like the unfortunate Beattie, who, despite his adamant insistence on fundamental racial and sexual equality (and severe and extensive criticisms of Hume on the former), has gone down in philosophical history as "that bigot fellow, Beattie." Why? Because that's what he was called once by Hume.


  1. Isn't this basically, in reverse, Wollstonecraft's egalitarian argument from the immortality of the soul in the Vindication?

  2. branemrys3:37 PM

    I think you are quite right. It would be interesting if there were a way to determine whether there would be any connection between the two. Hume's essay would have been available at the time Wollstonecraft wrote. We know that she did read Hume -- she knew his History fairly well, and quotes "A Dialogue" in Vindication. But it's a simple enough argument that there needn't be, either.

  3. Looking over the relevant chapter of Wollstonecraft and the Hume essay, I can see no obvious indication of a direct connection.

    I think absence of evidence might here be evidence of absence: it seems odd she wouldn't cite him if she were responding directly to his argument, especially given that she quotes him on another point in the very same chapter. But that's just a bit of off-the-cuff amateur analysis; maybe there's good evidence elsewhere she had Hume in mind.

  4. branemrys7:43 PM

    That's certainly the most likely conclusion, although we have to be careful about assuming what people would and wouldn't cite -- very different citation practices in the period (and indirect attacks on arguments are quite common, e.g., Hume usually attacks Samuel Clarke's arguments without explicitly mentioning that they are Clarke's, etc.). But, barring any other evidence, it would make it much less likely.


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