Hume’s Pyrrhic Victory

In “An Abstract of the Treatise of Human Nature,” Hume “promises to draw no conclusions but where he is authorized by experience.” Put a bit more formally, this might read: “All true statements will be verified by experience” (logical positivism), or even, “All truth statements are (ultimately) empirical.” There’s at least one serious problem with this line of thought, though: the claim, “All true statements will be verified by experience” is neither itself verifiable by experience, nor empirical. Alas, Hume’s fundamental maxim is a generalization about ideas themselves, presumably arrived at inductively, by way of his argument that all our “ideas” are ultimately rooted in “impressions” derived from sense experience (cf. Inquiry, Sec. II, p. 27-28).  But given how far he goes to undermine the logical probity of induction in the Inquiry itself (cf. Inquiry, Sec. 4), it’s curious that he would expect us to trust so sweeping a metaphysical judgment. Like the Cretan Epimenides’ claim that all Cretans tell only lies, Hume’s maxim has the unfortunate property of being false if it’s true.

This entry was posted in David Hume, Empiricism, Epistemology, Foundationalism, Logical Positivism. Bookmark the permalink.

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