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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Reason and sympathy in Hume’s Treatise Dixon, John Edward


In his Treatise of Human Nature, published in 1739, David Hume set out to scientifically comprehend human understanding, action, and personality in terms of the "experimental method of reasoning." He presented a naturalistic portrait of man which represented him as fundamentally determined to avoid pain and embrace pleasure. In this portrait a substantial place is provided for reason, but only as the "servant" of the passions. Only the passions were considered by Hume to be practical; they alone are the effective source of every impulse to act. Reason is merely theoretical; it is solely concerned with the provision of information for the passions. Hume recognized that his account of human nature must face two related problems. First, there is the matter of the common belief that reasoning is a practical activity; a belief not in keeping with Hume's conception of reason as merely theoretical. Second, the fact that persons' actions are influenced by moral ponsiderations implies that they often act in ways not designed to gratify their personal passions. Thus, moral phenomena seem to pose a threat to the hedonistic basis of Hume's theory of human nature. These two problems are related insofar as it is precisely in the case of moral actions that the common notion of practical reason traditionally operates. Hume sought to preserve the essential impracticality of reason in morals with the provision of a complex notion of "sympathy." l£ is the central purpose of this thesis to show that Hume's concept of "sympathy" fails to resolve the problems that it is addressed to. SECTION I: HUME'S THEORY OF ACTION IN THE TREATISE This section provides a sympathetic reading of Hume's account of the role of the passions and reason in the determination of human action. Two difficulties in this account—the concept of a "promptive" function of reason, and the notion of a "calm passion"—are critically considered and found to cohere with the general theory of the faculties in the Treatise. SECTION II: NATURALISM, DETERMINISM, AND VOLITION The naturalism of Hume's account of action has direct reference to the philosophical problems which cluster around the question of the freedom of the will. This section considers the implications of Hume's psychological determinism with a view to understanding more perfectly the detail of his theory of the faculties and action. Close attention is paid here to Hume's view that actions are "artificial," and it is concluded that he allowed a large and influential role for reason without directly threatening the purely theoretical function of the understanding. SECTION III: NATURALISM AND MORALS Hume regarded his theory of morals in the third book of the Treatise as a test and confirmation of his theory of action developed in the first two books. This section explicates Hume's view that moral judgments are affective perceptions rather than conclusions of reason. It is shown that the principle of "sympathy" operates at the center of the process of moral judgment. SECTION IV: SYMPATHY Hume designed the principle of sympathy to explain, in a manner consistent with his general theory of action, how persons can be naturally concerned for the interests of others with whom they have no prior affective connection. The central claim made is that persons are attuned to one another in such a way that there is an easy communication of passion between them. Thus, what is commonly interpreted as a moral "judgment" is really a peculiar feeling precipitated by a sympathy with the passions of others. It is this special feeling which issues from a process of sympathy which Hume identified as moral praise or blame. This final section of the thesis provides an extensive analysis of Hume's concept of "sympathy," and presents an argument aimed at demonstrating the failure of the concept to fulfill its intended role. It is suggested, in conclusion, that Hume fails to show that moral judgments and actions could be possible without the practical involvement of reason.

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