Hume’s Conservatism

In unravelling the Hume paradox, what we find is that the very qualities that made Hume such a brilliant philosopher also made him a flawed political thinker. There are implications here for contemporary academic philosophy—whose much-vaunted “transferable critical skills” turn out not to transfer so well after all. Styles of thinking that work brilliantly in some domains fail miserably in others: indeed, some of our biggest mistakes arise when we transfer a way of thinking apt for one domain to another where it just doesn’t fit. There are consequences, too, for day-to-day and working life: Hume shows that the smartest person in the room isn’t necessarily the smartest choice for the job. And then there are general implications for the way in which a healthy intellectual scepticism, the essential precondition for rational enquiry in science and much else, can easily become a fatalistic cynicism about the prospects for building a better society.

One reason why the conservative Hume can remain such a hero to philosophers today—despite the profession being overwhelmingly liberal—is that, in the long run, his empirical approach erodes prejudice and exposes the folly of outmoded conventions. Hume today would take the settled evidence against scientific racism to be overwhelming and recant his bigoted views at a stroke. Likewise, he would see the proven benefits of democracy, the equal abilities of women and the benefits of wealth redistribution. His objections to reform were never fundamentally dogmatic but based on what he often wrongly assumed to be established evidence.

The Hume paradox: how great philosophy leads to dismal politics

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