Discursive and Non-Discursive Philosophy

In his very kind and generous response to my post Eric is right that in the passages I cite from the Treatise and the Enquiry I do “not remark upon” Hume’s claims that “custom and practice…have settled the just value of everything.” My concerns in this post were to sketch the manner in which a Deleuzian metaphysics of multiplicity offers a rapprochement of Spinozist monism and a Humean affirmation of multiplicity. But since Eric is correct to point out that Hume’s comment occurs both in one of the passages I cite and yet again in his dissertation on the passions, it’s worth exploring the implications of Hume’s comments.

What Eric finds surprising in Hume’s claim is that, contrary to what Hume says, it appears that “custom and practice” will not always “produce just values in philosophy” Eric offers an example from early on in the Treatise where Hume claims that in his opinion there has arisen a “common prejudice against metaphysical reasonings of all kinds,” an opinion that can be justified only by “the most determined skepticism, along with a great degree of indolence.” For Hume this prejudice is not justified, and this is for the reason, Hume will conclude a few passages later, because “‘Tis evident, that all the sciences have a relation, greater or less, to human, nature.”

It is this relation that I’ll turn to in order to uncover what gives rise to the apparently conflicting claims that Eric finds surprising.

In the bulk of his post, Eric offers a helpful discussion of Smith and shows that Smith develops some ideas that “may well be latent in Hume’s thought.” I’d argue that in the Hume’s theory of taste these ideas are not as latent as they may at first appear, and if we turn to discuss the relation of the sciences and taste to human nature I think this latency becomes explicit. In doing this we can also, along the way, address Eric’s surprise regarding Hume’s apparent inconsistency.

Where Eric claims Smith develops an idea that “may well only be latent in Hume’s thought” is with his notion of sound judgment, where such judgments “consist in having the right kind of habits, that is, one’s expectations match the world’s natural order.” But let us look at what Hume says in his canonical essay, “Of the Standard of Taste.” In this essay Hume challenges both the view that the “various sentiments” are incapable of being placed in subordination to any rules that are applied in our judgments of taste, and Hume challenges the view that taste can be subordinate to a universal rule. Hume’s effort to avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of these two positions charts the path of human nature, and thus both the sciences and the arts, Hume argues, “have a relation, greater or less, to human nature.”

What is this relation? On the one hand, Hume argues that “the general rules of art are founded only on experience, and on the observation of the common sentiments of human nature,” and these common sentiments lead Hume to the conclusion that a properly functioning set of organs, a person delicacy of taste, will become habituated to formulate judgments of taste that mirror both the order of human nature and the long-term common sentiments of others. As Hume puts it, “amidst all the variety and caprice of taste, there are certain general principles of approbation or blame, whose influence a careful eye may trace in all operations of the mind…[for] Some particular forms or qualities, from the original structure of the internal fabric are calculated to please, and others to displease.” General rules are thus possible because of our shared, common human nature, and yet, and this is the other point to be stressed, this infrequently happens for there is often “some apparent defect or imperfection in the organ,” or there may be a cultural prejudice such as a reliance upon authority, a temporary fad, etc., that leads to the failure of one’s artistic expectations and judgments to “match the world’s natural order.” Returning to what Eric found surprising in Hume, then, we could say that while a properly functioning mind should, through “custom and practice,” settle the “just value of everything,” in the short term our judgments and customs are susceptible to variations of influence that may wander from this “just value.” As Eric recognizes and as the title of his post makes clear, for Hume delusion and madness is always a possibility.

In extending Hume’s argument I want to make a brief comment in anticipation of a move that Deleuze will make with respect to Hume. Early in his “Of the Standard of Taste” essay, Hume claims that the variety of taste, obvious as it is to everyone, is actually “greater in reality than in appearance.” What gives the appearance of variety is that people will use “certain terms,” which, “in every language…import blame, and others praise.” We will find a great variety of circumstances where one imports blame and another praise to one and the same object. Under the hood, however, there is even greater variety, for while the “discourse is the same,” the “seeming unanimity” of what the terms of the of the discourse means vanishes once we “come to the particulars [and find] that they had affixed a very different meaning to their expressions.” Two people may both use the same terms to praise a given work, but as we come to uncover the varied particular sentiments and emotions—the qualitative feel of their response, etc.—we find that their discursive agreement dissipates into a multiplicity of different sentiments. The case is the opposite when it comes to the sciences. For Hume differences in the sciences are “there oftener found to lie in generals than in particulars.” Scientists will thus agree on the particulars of the case but not on the general terms used to categorize and account for these particulars. What then happens in the sciences, then, Hume argues, is that an “explanation of terms commonly ends the controversy.”

Let us call a philosophy a discursive philosophy, following Hume, if it seeks to resolve controversies and problems by coming to a clearer explanation of the terms that are being used. Much of Anglo-American philosophy can be understood to be a form of discursive philosophy in that it seeks to use various discursive tools (logical analysis, set theory, etc.) to clarify terms and resolve problems and controversies. Hume, however, points out the limitations of a discursive approach when it comes to understanding taste. What may be necessary at this point, therefore, would be a non-discursive philosophy, or a philosophy that prioritizes the non-discursive as the condition or principle of sufficient reason for the discursive. For Deleuze this is philosophy, properly so-called, and it is for this reason that philosophical taste will become an essential concept in Deleuze and Guattari’s What is Philosophy? In a radical extension of Hume’s project, therefore, Deleuze and Guattari will come to the conclusion that discursive philosophy is merely an aspiring science, or a complement (handmaiden) to science. It is time, they would argue, to do a philosophy that is independent of and irreducible to science.


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