Hume and Sex

There are many Humes out there. There is Hume the epistemologist, or more exactly the epistemologist, according to many in the analytic tradition, whose project failed because he lacked the philosophical resources of the twentieth century—namely, either a Fregean or (late) Wittgensteinian theory of meaning and language. There is Hume the skeptic. Then there is the Hume who is held up as the darling of free market, laissez-faire capitalism. I prefer to think of Hume as a realist, or, and this may express it better, a hyper-realist. Yes Hume is a skeptic, but why is he a skeptic? It doesn’t seem to me that skepticism leads to an anti-realist position. Granted that for Hume habit and custom are integral to what it is possible for us to know. Recall how lost, for Hume, one would be if they were ‘of a sudden transported’ to our world with no established habits or expectations. On my first trip to England I quickly gave up trying to follow the action in a cricket match. Without established habits and customs, which is Hume’s point, one would be lost. But does this mean that all that is real is that which can be identified by habit and custom?  I think not. The experimental approach was very important to Hume, by which he meant the approach that sought to bring about surprises, the unforeseen and unexpected. The very subtitle of Hume’s Treatise tells it all: “Being an Attempt to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into Moral Subjects.” It’s for this reason as well that I’m not inclined to simply label Hume a realist; rather, reality always exceeds what we know, always entails an implied multiplicity that may further support or undermine what we know. This is one of the reasons why I think Hume was unbothered by the missing shade of blue—to identify blue as a real, identifiable color entails a multiplicity that exceeds this identification, a nondenumerable reality inseparable from the denumerable, identifiable reality—hence hyper-realism.

We can get a further sense of Hume’s hyper-realism from an unlikely source—his analysis of sexual passion. As with the other passions, sexual passion also entails a double relation of impressions and ideas. For example, when I feel the passion of pride when my daughter performs brilliantly at a piano recital, the passion is inseparable from the object or idea that is its cause—my daughter’s performance—and the fact that this object is related to the idea of myself, another object—it is my daughter’s performance. At the same time these objects are ‘related to the sensation of the passion’, namely, the pleasure of hearing her perform so well. With sexual passion we have the same double relation. There is the object or idea that is the cause of the pleasing sensation; however, there are two important differences. First, Hume argues that sexual or amorous passion is comprised of three distinct impressions or passions: there is 1) the pleasing sensation arising from beauty, 2) the bodily appetite for generation, and 3) a generous kindness of good-will. Hume points out that the second and third are not easily reconciled. The bodily appetite for generation can easily become the violence of sexual assault, or, less seriously but just as tellingly, it can and frequently does become the basis for the insults one hurls at one another (Hey you motherf…er; shut the f..k up!, etc…). Because the ‘bodily appetite for generation’ is not easily reconciled with kindness and good-will we have the need, Hume stresses, for the pleasing sensation of beauty to function as the ‘medium betwixt kindness and generation.’(Treatise, p. 395). This point is important precisely because the bodily appetite for generation is largely unconcerned for the object that is the source of this pleasure, and hence is unconcerned with its potential demise (a sort of black widow approach if you will). At the other extreme kindness does have concern and care for the object that is the source of pleasure, but it lacks the passion and forcefulness to overcome, on its own, our powerful bodily desires (just note the difficulty in treating sexual offenders and their propensity to recidivism). What is needed to reconcile the two is a composed identity, what Deleuze will call an assemblage or larval subject, that manages to function as the ‘medium betwixt kindness and generation.’ And for Hume beauty is well-equipped for this role since it is an assemblage, a ‘construction of parts’:

If we consider all the hypotheses, which have been form’d either by philosophy or common reason, to explain the difference betwixt beauty and deformity, we shall find that all of them resolve into this, that beauty is such an order and construction of parts, as either by the primary constitution of our nature, by custom, or by caprice, is fitted to give a pleasure and satisfaction to the soul. (Treatise, 299)

This brings us to the second important point concerning sexuality—namely, it is its own object. Hume is clear on this point:

Sex is not only the object, but also the cause of the appetite. We not only turn our view to it, when actuated by that appetite; but the reflecting on it suffices to excite the appetite. But as this cause loses its force by too great frequency, ‘tis necessary it should be quicken’d by some new impulse; and that impulse we find to arise from the beauty of the person; that is, from a double relation of impressions and ideas. (Treatise, 396).

Once again beauty plays a prominent role in Hume’s understanding of sexual passion. Since the sexual passion may be excited merely by reflecting upon the appetite itself, this actuated passion is hence less attached to any specific objects or ideas and can instead become attached to an indeterminate number of objects. In fact, as Hume points out, the sexual passion will lose its force if it is not able to be attached to some new impulse, to some new object, and hence there arises the potential proliferation of sexualized objects and fetishes as well as the possibility of a serial offender. For Hume, however, this consequence will be avoided if our sexual passions are mediated by the composed and  constructed standards of beauty, by custom and habit; and yet, as stated above, the hyper-real implications of the sexual passions are readily apparent: the realities of our sexual lives and passions presuppose an excess that custom and habit constrains without eliminating. Our sexuality is a source of much that is surprising.

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