Middle Way Thinkers 1: David Hume

This is the start of a new blog series on Middle Way Thinkers (the meditation series will continue, but with more varied contributors and less frequently). What I mean by a ‘Middle Way Thinker’ is a well known person of the past or present who has made a major contribution to our thinking about the Middle Way. There is already a page on the Buddha on this site but not much on anyone else. I’m going to offer a bit of background and a summary of some key ideas of each figure, and try to distinguish their ideas that support the Middle Way from those I think less helpful. It’s not going to be restricted to philosophers, but may include all kinds of thinkers from different cultures and times.hume1

I’m going to start with David Hume (1711-1776) because I have such a soft spot for him, and he made such a creative contribution to philosophy, despite his mistakes and imperfections. Hume was born to a family of minor gentry in the borders of Scotland and attended university in Edinburgh at the age of 12 (normal in the eighteenth century!). He was given to philosophical reflection from an early age, but also inspired by the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ that was taking off during his life. He lived at various times in London, France and Edinburgh, but his major work A Treatise on Human Nature, was composed while he was on a kind of study retreat at a rural French college called La Fleche. He poured his amazingly new ideas into the Treatise, but it fell ‘still-born from the press’, as Hume put it, gaining few readers. Although he then tried to present his ideas in new forms (his two Enquiries), he eventually got so disillusioned with the lack of public response to his philosophy that he turned to writing history instead.

What’s so thoroughly important to the Middle Way in Hume is his emphasis on experience as the basis of our judgements. Although there were empiricists (such as Aristotle and Locke) before Hume, they were not nearly as thorough and rigorous in their allegiance to experience as Hume was. Unlike his predecessors, Hume applied the criterion of experience to areas like the self, causality, ethics and religious belief. Where his predecessors had been patchy in their allegiance to experience, sometimes falling back on dogma when the going got tough, Hume followed it through all the way.

For example, Hume recognised that you cannot actually experience a cause – all you experience are two events that you generally assume are linked because they occur so frequently in succession. One billiard ball hits another and apparently causes it to move, but we only have the frequency of their interaction as the basis to call this a ’cause’. Similarly, Hume recognised that when we look inside our experience we don’t actually find a self, just a lot of experiences of thoughts, feelings etc. that we tend to assume are ‘ours’. The ‘me’ label that we apply to these is just a label, as we don’t find a separate ‘me’ amongst the thoughts and feelings.2-tined fork

But perhaps Hume’s biggest achievement, in my view, is what is often known as ‘Hume’s Fork’. You can imagine Hume’s fork as a binary choice, like a fork in the road, and it applies to claims. Either, he said, a claim tells us something relevant to experience, or it tells us something about the relationships between ideas. We can’t accept that claims about relationships between ideas tell us anything relevant to experience. Here is the blistering way he puts this in the rousing finale of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning of quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matters of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

I think this is the first attack on metaphysics in Western philosophy. He was basically pointing out that a claim that is only concerned with the ultimate and abstract zone beyond experience (what philosophers call the a priori) can do not more than tell us about the conventions that we apply when trying to understand the universe. It tells us nothing about the universe itself, or for that matter about ourselves or our values. To assert that it does is deluded in a very basic way that confuses the sign with the reality. In this sense he was independently revisiting some of the insights of the Buddha.

However, as with every other philosopher, there are also ways that I think Hume veered significantly from the Middle Way. I think his biggest mistake was the fact-value distinction, which he virtually invented. Hume assumed that because we need to justify our beliefs in terms of experience, we have to confine our beliefs to factual ones that can be justified through scientific observation. A justifiable ethics for him would also have to be based on factual observation about acceptable moral attitudes in society. This popularised the regrettable assumption, that haunts a lot of Western thinking to this day, that ethics is inherently subjective – in contrast to ‘facts’ which can be absolutely objective. This is a false dichotomy for which we have paid with much confusion.

Nevertheless, on the whole I tend to find Hume an inspiring figure. He was a courageous figure prepared to think things through, defy the establishment, and trenchantly reject dogma wherever he found it. But despite his free-thinking, he was no dour Scottish puritan – rather an imperfect human figure who liked a good dinner and enjoyed the pleasures of friendship.

Some web links on Hume:

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

3 thoughts on “Middle Way Thinkers 1: David Hume

  1. Hi Robert,
    I for one am going to enjoy the ‘great thinkers’ blog I think.
    During an online course I am listening to, Robert Wright, the lecturer, thinks that David Hume may possibly have been in touch with scholars from the East as his approach is very Buddhist in nature, do you know if this is so? Or, is his work not influenced by previous thinkers, but unique in the West at that time?

  2. Hi Norma,
    I’ve read a biography of Hume, and there was certainly no mention there of contact with scholars from the East. That’s hardly surprising, since the British were only still in the process of taking over India, and the great Orientalist scholars only really got going in the nineteenth century. My guess is that any apparent ‘Buddhist’ overtones in Hume’s work were either developed independently by him, or were the result of the influence of classical scepticism. Pyrrho of Elis, the founder of the classical sceptics, was said to have visited India with Alexander’s armies, and Hume was in a large measure responding to the sceptical arguments that the classical sceptics left behind them, and which were rediscovered in the seventeenth century.

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