Hume’s Political Theory (Part 3 of 3)


At the end of the previous post I claimed that understanding language as a fundamental convention helps us to understand Davidson’s controversial conclusion that language does not exist. More precisely, language as ordinary convention does not exist but language as a fundamental convention, I argued, does exist. This does not appear, however, to be Sabl’s claim. Sabl’s concern, as he states from the beginning (and as cited above), is to show how Hume’s History can be understood as a continuous meditation on ‘how conventions of political authority arise, change, improve by various measures, and die.’ (HP 7). Language tends to be treated as a convention, but as ‘equilibrium case’ that is ‘relatively static’ (6). As Sabl puts it, ‘In some of life and a great deal of politics, the right thing for each person to do is that which he or she has reason to think others will do: speak the same language, meet at the same rendezvous, use the same measurements, accept the same authority for choosing officers and making laws.’ (ibid.) The philosophers such as David Lewis and others who focus upon language as a convention, or the game theorists who accept that the identities and expectations of the relevant actors is already known, are each beginning with a static convention as the basis for their explanations. Sabl, however, turns to the challenges that arise in times of historical crisis when we do not have reason to think what it is others will do. It is in times like this when one turns to the focal points – the prominent, obvious markers that one can use to orient oneself (following Schelling as discussed in the previous post). Sabl argues that these are temporary, however, for as the fundamental convention that constitutes the political authority of government comes into being, these focal points increasingly become ignored and unnecessary. But it is this process that we seek to understand, and I think the account offered in the previous post concerning Davidson’s rejection of language is illuminating, even if the fundamental conventions that concerned Sabl were those concerning political authority and not language (he may even reject the very idea that language is a fundamental convention and follow Lewis and others and accept that it is an ordinary convention).

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Hume’s Political Theory (Part 2 of 3)

Continuing from part 1, we turn now to the role of focal points play in solving coordination problems. Focal points emerge as a crucial piece in Andrew Sabl’s account of how Hume’s History should be read. Focal points, in other words, are integral to the solution of coordination problems and are essential, therefore, as Sabl will argue, to understanding Hume’s account of ‘how [fundamental] conventions of political authority arise, change, improve by various measures, and die’ (HP 7). The concept of focal points Sabl borrows from Thomas Schelling’s classic work, The Strategy of Conflict (1960), where Schelling addresses the problem of how two or more people are to coordinate, as they desire to, when they do not know where the other is and cannot communicate with them. If two parachutists need to meet up with each other after landing, but they don’t know where the other lands nor can they communicate with them, but they do each have a copy of the same map (as in the figure above which is from Schelling’s 1960 book), then the question is whether or not the parachutists will be able to coordinate their actions and meet. Schelling argues that they would, and that in many cases people resolve such coordination problems all the time. Schelling offers another example, of ‘a man who loses his wife in a department store,’ and Schelling argues husband and wife will likely ‘think of some obvious place to meet, so obvious that each will be sure that the other is sure that it is “obvious” to both of them.’ (Schelling, 54) Similarly in the case of the parachutists, each will likely think of an obvious place to meet, and as experiments have shown the most common place people pick, when asked what they would do if they were one of the parachutists, is the bridge. It is the most unique, prominent, and obvious place on the map. Such obvious places are focal points. ‘Most situations,’ Schelling argues, ‘provide some clue for coordinating behavior, some focal point for each person’s expectation of what the other expects him to expect to be expected to do,’ and the ‘prime characteristic’ of these focal points, Schelling continues, ‘is some kind of prominence or conspicuousness.’ (ibid. 57)

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Hume’s Political Theory (part 1 of 3)

Few would deny that Hume regards both private and public law as matters of convention; Hume repeatedly uses the word himself. But few have recognized that he regards certain conventions as fundamental; immune to alteration (except in the extremely long term, at least generations and more likely centuries) by the usual methods of political power and social change. The claim that Hume does believe in fundamental conventions, that he rests a distinctive form of constitutionalism on the foundations of custom and mutual advantage. It finds little support in Hume’s philosophical works, only in the less familiar History…The development of fundamental conventions…could be seen as the central story of the History of England. These conventions are both below and above ordinary laws. Below, because their fundamental status can never be codified as such. Above, because they limit, at least arguably, the authority of the lawmaking body, whose own right to enact positive law itself derives from fundamental conventions. (Andrew Sabl, Hume’s Politics [hereafter, HP], 121-2)

In his book, Hume’s Politics, Andrew Sabl provides a fresh look at Hume’s History that not only makes a strong case for reconsidering the importance of Hume’s political theory but also, and perhaps more importantly, he offers a critique of a many of the presuppositions of contemporary political theory. Central to doing all of this is Sabl’s reading of Hume as one who develops a concept of fundamental conventions to address the coordination problem associated with who ought to have political authority, and thus government, as a fundamental convention, is an answer to a coordination problem.

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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.

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“fourfold root” of representation

Since much of the impetus for Deleuze’s approach to the PSR stems from a critique of representation, I thought it would be good to post a quick summary of this critique. In short, Deleuze argues that for representational modes of thought difference is always mediated by an already presupposed identity, when it is precisely the conditions for the possibility of identity itself that most concerns Deleuze. The mediation of representation by identity occurs in four ways, what Deleuze calls the “fourfold root” (see DR 29): namely, identity, analogy, opposition, and resemblance.

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Strange Encounters II

As I concluded the previous post, I argued that the Deleuzian extension of Hume’s project entailed both the affirmation of monism (Spinoza) and multiplicity (Hume). This point is made crystal clear in A Thousand Plateaus when Deleuze and Guattari announce that “pluralism = monism” (ATP, p. 2; see this earlier post where I discuss this theme in the context of William James’ radical empiricism). This effort to bring Hume and Spinoza together, however, is fraught with difficulty, or at least apparently so, in a philosophical landscape that has been forever altered by Kant’s project. Since Kant was woken from his dogmatic slumber, Hume and Spinoza have come to be rethought, if rethought at all, in the context of the conditions for the possibility of experience. In the case of Hume, this has largely led his philosophy to be read as a project in epistemology. Hume comes to be seen as a precursor of a Bayesian epistemology whereby knowledge comes to be constituted through a process of induction that constitutes degrees of belief. Spinoza, at worst, is thrown into the refuse pile of philosophical dogmatists, one of the philosophers who accepted, without question, that guarantees of our knowledge. Spinoza, in fact, goes much further than either Descartes and Leibniz in that while they accept God as the unquestioned guarantor of our knowledge of the world (Descartes) as well as the harmony of the world itself (Leibniz), God remains inaccessible and unknowable; Spinoza, by contrast, argues in the last half of Part 5 of the Ethics that even God can be known.

To state the contrast between Spinoza the dogmatist and Hume the skeptic, one could say that Spinoza presupposes the identity that grounds knowledge while Hume argues that this identity comes to be constituted. Husserl remarked upon this aspect of Hume’s thought, and it is for this reason that I have argued for a Humean phenomenology (see this). So how then can one bring Hume and Spinoza together? Put simply, through a rethinking of the principle of sufficient reason (PSR). And this brings me back to the issue that in part spawned the New Hume debate – to wit, Hume’s claim that the “particular powers, by which all natural operations are performed” are powers that provide the reason for the regularities of nature but these powers “never appear to the senses.” What are these powers? The simple answer to this question is that these are the laws of nature that are the subject of natural science, and it is precisely the nature of these powers that are revealed, over time, through the process of scientific enquiry. We could say that this is a scientific explanation of facts. That which appears to the senses, therefore, would bring in our mental faculties and the epistemological problems of how we come to know the “particular powers” of nature. With this we have an epistemological explanation, and form here we are not too far from the Bayesian epistemology mentioned above.

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Strange Encounters

One of my favorite passages from Hume actually occurs twice – in the Treatise and the Enquiry. This is the passage where Hume offers up the example of the man with normally functioning faculties who is suddenly placed into a strange, unfamiliar environment. This is the lesson Hume draws from this thought experiment:

For ‘tis evident, that if a person full-grown, and of the same nature with ourselves, were on a sudden transported into our world, he wou’d be very much embarrass’d with every object, and would not readily find what degree of love or hatred, pride or humility, or any other passion he ought to attribute to it. The passions are often vary’d by very inconsiderable principles; and these do not always play with a perfect regularity, especially on the first trial. But as custom and practice have brought to light all these principles, and have settled the just value of every thing; this must certainly contribute to the easy production of the passions, and guide us, by means of general establish’d maxims, in the proportions we ought to observe in preferring one object to another. (T 2.1.6, 293-4)

In the Enquiry Hume slightly modifies the example:

Suppose a person, though endowed with the strongest faculties of reason and reflection, to be brought on a sudden into this world; he would, indeed, immediately observe a continual succession of objects, and one event following another, but he would not be able to discover any thing farther. He would not, at first, by any reasoning, be able to reach the idea of cause and effect; since the particular powers, by which all natural operations are performed, never appear to the senses; nor is it reasonable to conclude, merely because one event, in one instance, precedes another, that therefore the one is the cause, the other the effect. Their conjunction may be arbitrary and casual. There may be no reason to infer the existence of one from the appearance of the other. And in a word, such a person, without more experience, could never employ his conjecture or reasoning concerning any matter of fact, or be assured of any thing beyond what was immediately present to his memory and senses. (EHU 36).

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coining concepts

Eric Schliesser has a nice post up at the New Apps blog about the importance of creating concepts. What came as a surprise to me in this post was the relevance of creating concepts to the analytic tradition. As Schliesser puts it, with respect to analytic philosophy we tend to think of Frege as the father of the tradition, but actually, Schliesser claims, “Frege’s logic would be the tool” of this tradition, “but it is Schlick that developed the program of the free play in conceptual invention.” This reminds me of the distinction Deleuze makes in the essay “Mediators” between “inventors” and “imitators.” The former produce the innovations while the later provide the tools and efficiencies to carry through on the promise of these inventions, often outdoing the inventor themselves in the process. Deleuze had sports in mind here and referred to McEnroe as an inventor, but one who can get ‘beaten by a quantitative champion’, namely an imitator or technician (Deleuze likely had Ivan Lendl in mind here, although he does not say). Now I’m not implying that Frege is an imitator. Far from it. However, within the history of analytic philosophy, if I understand Schliesser’s point correctly, Frege’s logic has become the technical tool that has enabled analytic philosophers to carry through on the promise Schlick’s conceptual inventions made possible. I am actually at work on a project about conceptual invention and Schlick was nowhere on my radar screen, while Frege was. In graduate school I wrote a paper on Carnap and may have looked through Schlick’s General Theory of Knowledge at the time while studying the Vienna Circle, but if I did I don’t remember. I’ll be interested to learn more about this ‘program of the free play in conceptual invention.’ Schliesser, by the way, has done some great work on Hume, especially on Hume’s critical stance toward Newton, disabusing those who may be tempted by the very common notion that Hume’s attempt, as he put it in the subtitle to his Treatise, ‘to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects’ was simply the application of Newton’s experimental method. Schliesser argues that it would be more accurate to see Hume as following in the footsteps of Boyle. Schliesser also kindly refers to Martin Bell’s very nice Hume Studies review of my Deleuze’s Hume book.

Parrots and Concepts

In one of his favorite examples, Robert Brandom points out that while a parrot may very well respond differentially to colors, and even say “red” when presented with a red swatch, the parrot is nonetheless responding much as a thermometer does when it detects temperature changes and responds appropriately by turning on the heater. What is missing in both cases, according to Brandom, is the ‘practical mastery of the inferential articulation in which grasp of conceptual content consists.’ (Articulating Reasons 162). In other words, although the parrot can identify the swatch as red she cannot then go on and use this as a reason for inferring that it is colored, that it is not green, a squirrel, etc. A parrot cannot participate in the game of giving and asking for reasons, and thus they lack the use of concepts.

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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.