Hume and the Ideology of the Scientific Revolution

Hume and the Ideology of the Scientific Revolution

Tamás Demeter

Tamás Demeter's project was interpretive: a book-length attempt at understanding Hume’s metaphysics and epistemology in the context of the Scientific Revolution, and against the background of his anthropology. In it, Demeter read Enquiry as a piece in philosophy of science that reflects a specific worldview as emerging from the encounter of Hume’s anthropology with the success of the Newtonian methods of scientific inquiry. On this interpretation, Hume tries to reconcile the new methods of knowledge production with his “conservative” image of man.

The unity of the interpretation proposed here is provided by the idea of a “Scientific Revolution.” The Scientific Revolution is traditionally considered to be the 200-year period between Copernicus and Newton (from about 1500 to 1700 AD). In spite of the fact that the term itself is problematic in several respects, it is arguably as good a framework for interpretation as is the no less problematic “Enlightenment”—the context in which Hume is commonly read. Tamás Demeter showed that Hume’s interests in his Enquiry is not generally metaphysical or epistemological. Instead, these questions are relevant from the perspective of a philosophy of science that can be reconstructed as a kind of ideological summary of the consequences of the Scientific Revolution.

To put it more precisely: on the one hand, Hume wants to show that, from a human standpoint, the experimental method of the Scientific Revolution is the best cognitive method available to explain both natural and social phenomena. Hume’s argument here runs counter to the alternative ideals of cognition, like, for instance, the heritage of the Aristotelian view, the rationalist ideal of science, and the theories of religious cognition. On the other hand, Hume sees clearly that these methods have their own limits; as our cognition is human cognition it is subject to anthropological constraints. The acknowledgment of this fact lies behind Hume’s famous critiques of causation and induction.

The constraints Hume sees on human cognition are drawn on the basis of an anthropology that can be aptly characterized as “conservative.” And his attitude towards science reflects this anthropology. Here it may be sufficient merely to call to mind the relevance of “custom,” which plays a central role in both his epistemological and social theories. From this perspective Hume’s can be read as an attempt to synchronize the epistemic consequences of the Scientific Revolution with a conservative anthropology. The pieces of this anthropology are already present in his Treatise, and can be revealed in his Essays as well. Thus Hume’s relationship to the Enlightenment is at least problematic: although his work can be suitably placed in the context of the Scottish “conservative Enlightenment,” at the same time the rationalist anthropology of the mainstream Enlightenment on the Continent is certainly alien to him. This is still the context in which his main points, if read properly as insights in the philosophy of science, can be driven home.