Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

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Friday, September 30, 2011


Joe McGinnis's book about Sarah Palin arrived yesterday via, and I have now finished reading it. Since I think it is probable that very few of the people who check this blog will ever look at it, I will take a few moments to give my impressions of it.

McGinniss is an accomplished and lively writer, clearly much taken by Alaska's dramatic frontier scenery and by its people, whom he describes repeatedly as friendly, generous, and open. By an extraordinary stroke of fortune, he ended up living for several months literally next door to the Palins, a fact that sent her and her husband, Todd, into paroxysms of paranoid frenzy.

The book is based on a very large number of personal interviews with a wide range of Alaskans, as well as on a good deal of archival research. It traces Palin's entire career, from her college days [such as they were] to the furor surrounding her "blood libel" speech after the shooting of Gabby Giffords. [To keep this short, I am simply going to assume that folks know a good deal about Palin. It would take me forever to fill in the details. Thanks, by the way, to Prof. K. Brad Wray for correcting my error in referring to Rep. Giffords as "Kathy".] McGinnis succeeds in bringing Wasilla to life quite vividly, so that readers like me who have never been to Alaska can feel ourselves present in Palin's home town.

The first thing to note is that Wasilla is a very small town indeed -- perhaps six or seven thousand people. Thanks to the fact that multiple marriages seem to be the rule, the people McGinnis interviewed not only know one another, they frequently are related in some way or other. As McGinnis describes it, Wasillans are rather heavy drinkers and drug users, and of course they are all gun owners. A number of friendly people, concerned that McGinnis was putting himself in danger by choosing to live next to the Palins, generously offered him a choice of their five or six pistols, revolvers, shotguns, and automatic weapons, but he elected to go unarmed.

Leaving to one side the substantive political content of Palin's public life, with which I assume everyone has some familiarity, I come away from the book with four powerful impressions.

First, Palin is very, very deeply immersed in the end-times, young earth, Second Coming Dominionist movement in Evangelical Christianity. She came to it early, and although she has on occasion kept it from view for political reasons, has remained committed to it throughout her life. Some elements of this strain of Christianity are of course comical, like the belief that the earth was created six thousand years ago with people and dinosaurs on it -- the people survived, the dinosaurs did not. But there is nothing comical at all about her belief that America must be ruled by a Christian doctrine that leaves no room for dissent or unbelief. Palin professes to believe that the Second Coming, and with it the End Times foretold in Revelations, will occur in her lifetime. Perhaps this is why she has taken no steps to see that any of her children finish high school.

Second, Palin and her husband, Todd, give every evidence of being arrested emotionally at roughly the Middle School stage of psychological development. She is petty, vindictive, ruthless in her personal relationships, ambitious in roughly the way that a "mean girl" in the tenth grade would be ambitious -- desperate to be the Homecoming Queen and jealous of any girl who threatens her dominance of the schoolyard. It is really difficult to believe how mean-spirited she is about things that any normal adult, let alone a Mayor, Governor, and Vice-Presidential candidate would consider beneath her attention.

She is utterly uninterested in government, and apparently spent a good deal of her time as governor shopping at Nordstrom's. Her reading extends to People Magazine, and as she says when a librarian she was trying to force to censor books asked her to look at one of the books she was attempting to have removed from the Wasilla Library, "I don't read things that might change my mind."

Third, she is utterly without any "motherly" emotions or skills whatsoever. People who have spent time in her home say that she never changed diapers, never cooked a meal, never cared for her children in any of the customary ways. Even though Todd is a bully with an out-of-control temper, it is he, not she, who did what child-rearing actually took place in the Palin home. The marriage is described by many observers as a disaster, with Todd and Sarah constantly shouting at one another and threatening to get a divorce. More interestingly, considering the deliberately sexually provocative public persona she affects, there is very little sex in the marriage. As Todd is reported to have said at one time, "I guess I got laid four times. I have four kids." [This was before the arrival of Trig.] During his frequent times away from home to work in the oil fields on the North Slope, he apparently did a good deal of sleeping around, but no one is reported by McGinnis ever to suggest that Sarah did.

Finally, and this to me is the most interesting revelation in the book, Sarah Palin comes across as a profoundly psychologically troubled individual -- ambitious, to be sure, ruthless, no doubt, but not at all in any coherently rational fashion. She is clearly a psychopathic personality, but she also exhibits very strange eating disorders, sleeping disorders, and a level of narcissistic self-involvement that is way beyond what one would expect in a public political figure.

Never mind what it says about America that she came very close to being the sitting Vice President in an administration with a man in his seventies with a history of heart trouble.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


The tutorial on the philosophy of David Hume is the ninth such multi-part series I have written, including the book-length tutorial on the use and abuse of formal methods in political philosophy, most of them in the past nine months. That is a good many words to send shimmering into cyberspace. Judging from the 2,500 previews and downloads these and other materials have garnered on, there is some interest out there in reading what I have written, and for that I am very grateful.

I am not sure whether I shall attempt another tutorial, or what it might be on. For the moment, I am going to content myself with comments on the passing scene, and perhaps the odd book report. If anyone has an idea for another tutorial, I am always open to suggestions [it was, after all, a passing question in a comment that led to the tutorial on The Study of Society.]

As for the ceaseless Republican quest for a candidate, I cannot to better than to recommend Jon Stewart's hilarious treatment of the subject two nights ago. [I do not have the url, but you can all find it, if you have not already seen it.] I continue to hope for a third party split, although that will not, unfortunately, do much to overcome the enormous Republican majority in the House.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


By the end of Part IX, Hume has pretty well put paid to the two millennium long effort to prove the existence of an infinite, omniscient, perfect Being, call it God, Yahweh, Allah, or the Prime Mover, but Hume has a good bit more to say, and he says it with characteristic elegance. He signals a shift in tone and emphasis at the very beginning of Part X by allowing both Demea and Philo to disparage the efforts of philosophers to deal with a question that engages ordinary men and women at a more immediate and personal level. As Philo says, "I am indeed persuaded that the best and indeed the only method of bringing everyone to a due sense of religion is by just representations of the misery and wickedness of men."

But such "just representations" raise a difficulty that has bedeviled the devout since at least the time of Job. Philo draws not on the Old Testament but on the ancient Greeks [this is, after all, the Augustan Age].

"Epicurus' old questions are yet unanswered. Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?" Demea opines that no one has ever denied the reality of human misery, but Philo corrects him, noting that no less a philosophical luminary than Leibniz has done so. He is referring, of course, to Leibniz' Theodicy, in which that immortal genius, following the logic with impeccable rigor, concludes that, in the rendering by Voltaire's wonderfully satirical figure, Dr. Pangloss, "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds." [Personal aside: I have always been much taken by Leonard Bernstein's musical rendering of Candide. if readers of this blog are unfamiliar with it, I strongly recommend obtaining a recording and listening to it. The operatic aria, "All's for the best in this best of all possible worlds" is worth the price of the DVD.]

There is not a great deal to be said about the Problem of Evil. It is, I suppose, more than any other single thing, what permanently separates the believers from the unbelievers. I rather like Emily Dickenson's version of the problem. She points out that God has so arranged things that we must die to see His face, a fact that she finds incompatible with any conception of his Divine Mercy.

Demea does best, and really, his defense of God in the face of human misery is as good as any, but really, it is a hopeless undertaking. Philo's response is worth quoting, as a forceful statement of his larger theme:

"I will allow, that pain or misery in man is compatible with infinite power and goodness in the Deity, even in your sense of these attributes: What are you advanced by all these concessions? A mere possible compatibility is not sufficient. You must prove these pure, unmixed, and uncontrollable attributes from the present mixed and confused phenomena, and from these alone. A hopeful undertaking! Were the phenomena ever so pure and unmixed, yet being finite, they would be insufficient for that purpose. How much more, where they are also so jarring and discordant!"

Hume continues the discussion in the next Part, hammering home the point that even if we allow for the compatibility of God's infinite power and benevolence with the manifest misery of the human condition, still no one could possibly maintain that these attributes of God could be inferred from that misery. Here is Philo turning on its head the characterization of God as the Divine Architect of the world order:

"Did I show you a house or palace, where there was not one apartment convenient or agreeable; where the windows, doors, fires, passages, stairs, and the whole economy of the building, were the source of noise, confusion, fatigue, darkness, and the extremes of heat and cold; you would certainly blame the contrivance, without any further examination. The architect would in vain display his subtlety, and prove to you, that if this door or that window were altered, greater ills would ensue. What he says may be strictly true: The alteration of one particular, while the other parts of the building remain, may only augment the inconveniences. But still you would assert in general, that, if the architect had had skill and good intentions, he might have formed such a plan of the whole, and might have adjusted the parts in such a manner, as would have remedied all or most of these inconveniences. His ignorance, or even your own ignorance of such a plan, will never convince you of the impossibility of it. If you find any inconveniences and deformities in the building, you will always, without entering into any detail, condemn the architect."

Or, as I like to put it, If God is omnipotent, omniscient, and infinitely benevolent, could He not at least have managed a world without mosquitoes?

Philo carries on in this vein for some pages, driving home the utter unsustainability of Demea's position. At the end of Part XI, Pamphilus remarks, "Thus PHILO continued to the last his spirit of opposition, and his censure of established opinions. But I could observe that DEMEA did not at all relish the latter part of the discourse; and he took occasion soon after, on some pretence or other, to leave the company."

So Cleanthes and Philo are left to draw the discussion to a close. Hume does his very best to repair the damage that has been done in the previous eleven Parts to all received religious belief. He allows Philo to say, for example, "You, in particular, CLEANTHES, with whom I live in unreserved intimacy; you are sensible, that notwithstanding the freedom of my conversation, and my love of singular arguments, no one has a deeper sense of religion impressed on his mind, or pays more profound adoration to the Divine Being, as he discovers himself to reason, in the inexplicable contrivance and artifice of nature. A purpose, an intention, a design, strikes every where the most careless, the most stupid thinker; and no man can be so hardened in absurd systems, as at all times to reject it."

It takes no intelligence and only the most cursory attention to see that this statement is utterly in conflict with everything Philo has been saying for eighty pages! But Hume persists in his dissimulation, allowing first Cleanthes and then Philo to utter conventional endorsements of a deistic point of view that the arguments of the Dialogues have destroyed. Along the way, in this final Part, there are some nice digs at religious fanaticism, or "enthusiasm," as it was then called. Cleanthes offers the opinion that "[r]eligion, however corrupted, is still better than no religion at all," but Philo immediately responds: "How happens it them. if vulgar superstition be so salutary to society, that all history abounds so much with accounts of its pernicious consequences on public affairs?"

In the very last sentence of the Dialogues, Pamphilus offers his summary evaluation of the debate. "I confess, that, upon a serious review of the whole, I cannot but think, that PHILO's principles are more probable than DEMEA's; but that those of CLEANTHES approach still nearer to the truth."

Even such sophisticated and knowledgeable readers of the Dialogues as Kemp-Smith have accepted this as Hume's own evaluation of the matter, but that seems to me transparently false. Hume was, saving the presence of Kant, the smartest person of his time. The arguments he placed in the mouths of his characters were, after all, his arguments. One need merely compare those arguments with the arguments of the Treatise, all of which of course are presented in his own persona, to see which he truly endorsed.

There is, however, one final bit of biographical evidence we can bring to bear, in the form of a very famous and apparently true story about Hume's final days. James Boswell, the indefatigable biographer and general dogsbody of Samuel Johnson, was obsessed with fears of death. Hume's well-known atheism troubled him greatly, and when that good man was on his deathbed, Boswell hurried to see him. "Well, David," he himself reports that he said, "now that you are about to die, do you still hold to your scepticism about a Deity and an afterlife?" Hume was serene and calm in the face of his own death, and replied that he saw no new evidence that would cause him to come to a different conclusion. Boswell hurried away terribly upset. That night he had a dream in which Hume appeared and told him that he did indeed believe in the afterlife. Boswell was, he tells us, much comforted by this dream, and reassured by it.

And thus I end my tutorial on the Philosophy of David Hume. There is of course a great deal more that could be said, and many other writings we might examine, but this has gone on for well over twenty-seven thousand words, and it is time to bring it to a close and deposit it, along with all my other tutorials, on

Monday, September 26, 2011


Spurred by an audio review by Andrew Sullivan, I have one-clicked Amazon to send me Joe McGinnis' new book about Sarah Palin. If there is anything worth reading in it, I will let you know after I have plowed through it. David Hume he isn't, but we shall see.


Now I learn that Google, long a supporter of the Democratic Party, has started pouring money into Republican coffers and right wing think tanks. I think I am going to kill myself.


Having indulged himself for twenty-five pages in a hilarious series of send-ups of the hapless Argument from Design, Hume gets down to business in the very brief Part IX, and in two paragraphs dispatches both the Cosmological and the Ontological Arguments for the Existence of God. If you will allow me yet another irrelevant literary association, Hume's performance here reminds me of Cyrano de Bergerac in Rostand's wonderfully romantic play. You will recall that at the theater, Cyrano duels an aristocrat while composing a ballade, the last line of which, "I touch," is spoken as he skewers his opponent. That is how I imagine Hume -- playing with the various proofs until, when his ballade is done, he thrusts, and with one stroke dispatches them all. [Personal aside: As a very young man, not yet out of my teens, I had the great pleasure of attending Jose Ferrar's famous performance of Cyrano in the City Center revival of the play. The youngsters among you may have seen Steve Martin's rather sweet reprise of the story in the movie, Roxanne, co-starring Darryl Hannah.]

Once again, we see the literary flexibility that Hume achieves by the device of dividing his Dialogues among three speakers. Rather unexpectedly, in light of what has taken place in the previous eight parts, it is Demea who states the Cosmological Argument at the opening of Part IX. Here is his statement of it:

"The argument, replied Demea, which I would insist on, is the common one. Whatever exists must have a cause or reason of its existence; it being absolutely impossible for any thing to produce itself, or be the cause of its own existence. In mounting up, therefore, from effects to causes, we must either go on in tracing an infinite succession, without any ultimate cause at all; or must at last have recourse to some ultimate cause, that is necessarily existent: now, that the first supposition is absurd, may be thus proved. In the infinite chain or succession of causes and effects, each single effect is determined to exist by the power and efficacy of that cause which immediately preceded; but the whole eternal chain or succession, taken together, is not determined or caused by any thing; and yet it is evident that it requires a cause or reason, as much as any particular object which begins to exist in time. The question is still reasonable, why this particular succession of causes existed from eternity, and not any other succession, or no succession at all. If there be no necessarily existent being, any supposition which can be formed is equally possible; nor is there any more absurdity in Nothing's having existed from eternity, than there is in that succession of causes which constitutes the universe. What was it, then, which determined Something to exist rather than Nothing, and bestowed being on a particular possibility, exclusive of the rest? External causes, there are supposed to be none. Chance is a word without a meaning. Was it Nothing? But that can never produce any thing. We must, therefore, have recourse to a necessarily existent Being, who carries the REASON of his existence in himself, and who cannot be supposed not to exist, without an express contradiction. There is, consequently, such a Being; that is, there is a Deity."

There were, of course, many versions of this argument extant in the philosophical literature. St. Thomas offers five proofs for the existence of God, and the first three, from the necessity of a first mover, a first cause, and a non-contingent being on whose existence contingent beings rely for their existence, are simply versions of this same argument, all of them derived from Aristotle, to whom St. Thomas, in an expression of his respect, is wont to refer simply as "the Philosopher." By the way, St. Thomas does not include the Ontological Argument among the five. He was of course familiar with Anselm's statement of it, but Thomas thought it was sophistic, and rejected it. The Ontological Argument had its fifteen minutes of fame as a consequence of Descartes' embrace of it, but was quickly dispatched to the "ash heap of history" by the refutations of Hume and Kant. When I was young, it made an odd comeback in the writings of a number of logically sophisticated analytic philosophers of the Christian persuasion, including, if I am not mistaken, Alvin Plantinga.

Hume assigns to Cleanthes the task of refuting the argument, and Cleanthes does so in words that could have come directly out of Book I of the Treatise. Note, by the way, that in the course of refuting Demea's statement of the Cosmological Argument, Cleanthes also dispatches the Ontological Argument as well. First, the Cosmological Argument:

"I shall begin with observing, that there is an evident absurdity in pretending to demonstrate a matter of fact, or to prove it by any arguments a priori. Nothing is demonstrable, unless the contrary implies a contradiction. Nothing, that is distinctly conceivable, implies a contradiction. Whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent. There is no being, therefore, whose non- existence implies a contradiction. Consequently there is no being, whose existence is demonstrable. I propose this argument as entirely decisive, and am willing to rest the whole controversy upon it." And that is it. Part IX continues for two more pages, but it might as well have stopped right there. Nevertheless, Cleanthes continues in the next paragraph to dispose of the Ontological Argument, which he treats, interestingly, as a version of the Cosmological Argument.

"It is pretended that the Deity is a necessarily existent being; and this necessity of his existence is attempted to be explained by asserting, that if we knew his whole essence or nature, we should perceive it to be as impossible for him not to exist, as for twice two not to be four. But it is evident that this can never happen, while our faculties remain the same as at present. It will still be possible for us, at any time, to conceive the non-existence of what we formerly conceived to exist; nor can the mind ever lie under a necessity of supposing any object to remain always in being; in the same manner as we lie under a necessity of always conceiving twice two to be four. The words, therefore, necessary existence, have no meaning; or, which is the same thing, none that is consistent."

Since Hume's refutations of the proofs for the existence of God are so similar to those Kant offers in the Transcendental Dialectic of the Critique of Pure Reason, readers may wonder whether Kant was aware of Hume's Dialogues, which, you will recall, appeared in English only two years before the first edition of the Critique was published. Indeed he was. An interesting character named Johan Georg Hamaan did an abbreviated translation of the Dialogues in 1780 and showed it to Kant, who seized on it and read it carefully. Inasmuch as Hume's arguments reinforced rather than challenged those of Kant, Kant would not have had to make any alterations to the text of the Dialectic.

At this point, Hume is really done. There is nothing more to be said about the proofs for the existence of God. But Hume still has a number of interesting and useful things to say, and he actually manages to carry the discussion on for another 35 pages. He closes Part IX with a rather nice statement of what Gilbert Ryle, in his 1949 book The Concept of Mind, called a "category mistake." Returning to the version of the Cosmological Argument that argues for the existence of am first cause, Cleanthes offers this analysis:

"{I]n tracing an eternal succession of objects, it seems absurd to enquire for a general cause or first author. How can any thing, that exists from eternity, have a cause, since that relation implies a priority in time, and a beginning of existence? In such a chain, too, or succession of objects, each part is caused by that which preceded it, and causes that which succeeds it. Where then is the difficulty? But the WHOLE, you say, wants a cause. I answer, that the uniting of these parts into a whole, like the uniting of several distinct countries into one kingdom, or several distinct members into one body, is performed merely by an arbitrary act of the mind, and has no influence on the nature of things. Did I shew you the particular causes of each individual in a collection of twenty particles of matter, I should think it very unreasonable, should you afterwards ask me, what was the cause of the whole twenty. This is sufficiently explained in explaining the cause of the parts."

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Parts IV through VIII of the Dialogues, comprising a bit more than a quarter of the text, consist of a very deep attack on the ordinary religious beliefs of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam [none of which is named, of course], followed by a boisterous and increasingly uproarious send-up of the Argument from Design, the very last portion of which is, in a way, actually a quite brilliant anticipation of the theory of evolution.

Once again, Hume keeps things afloat by apportioning bits of his argument first to Cleanthes, then to Philo, and then even to Demea. The first question concerns the nature of God. The problem, to put it in a nutshell, is that if we want to describe God as infinite [in power, in knowledge, in length of existence, in degree of benevolence], then we cannot also claim that He is recognizably a person who loves, desires, cares, hopes, rages, forgives, damns, or saves, as the Revealed texts of the three Adamic religions teach. This was, of course, an old problem, long recognized by religious philosophers of the Western tradition, over which they struggled endlessly.

The easiest way to grasp the problem is to remind ourselves of Aristotle's analysis of purposive action as a movement from potentiality to actuality. Such a movement implies an initial lack or imperfection, inasmuch as potentiality is less real, less perfect, than actuality. But assuming the correctness of that analysis, as philosophers did for two millennia, it is obvious that God cannot act, in this sense of the term, for that would require that he be at some point less than perfectly actual, which is contrary to the claim that God is infinitely perfect [or, to put it somewhat differently, that God is infinite perfection.]

Thus, for example, God's omniscience entails that He knows, from all eternity, everything that is true, including what each individual person will do at each moment in his or her life. He cannot ever come to know something, for that implies the actualization of some potentiality, which is to say a movement from lesser to greater perfection [of knowledge.] It is this implication of the assertion of God's perfection that led Calvin and Luther to embrace the doctrine of Predestination [with the necessary corollary that nothing we do can ever earn salvation -- our actions at best reveal whether we have, from all eternity, been predestined for salvation. Hence the obsessive self-examination of the early Puritans, in their religious diaries.]

We see here once again the conflict between the Graeco-Roman philosophical tradition, deriving from Plato and Aristotle, which teaches that there is an impersonal Prime Mover or First Cause, required by the metaphysics of being, and the Adamic tradition, which preaches a personal God, a God of anger and of mercy, a God of salvation and damnation, a God with whom worshippers can have a personal relationship of reverent prayer. [I hope everyone understands the term "Adamic," which is used to describe Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all of which accept the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis, and the various consequences that flow from it.]

Hume puts the strongest statement of this argument in the mouth of Cleanthes, who is represented as arguing against Demea's ostensibly devout embrace of the unknowability of God. Here, as they say in the blogs, is the money quote. Cleanthes is speaking.

"A mind whose acts and sentiments and ideas are not distinct and successive, one that is wholly simple and totally immutable, is a mind which has no thought, no reason, no will, no sentiment, no love, no hatred; or, in a word, is no mind at all. It is an abuse of terms to give it that appellation, and we may as well speak of limited extension without figure, or of number without composition."

Hume keeps the discussion going for some while, allowing Philo to expand on the implications of what Cleanthes has said, but here, as elsewhere, the elaboration does not strengthen the argument so much as present it in many variations, so that the less alert reader will not make the mistake of supposing that a slight alteration in the statement of the religious position will somehow suffice to avoid the refutation.

Now Philo launches into an extended take-down of the Argument from Design. Although I cannot of course be certain, my guess is that the readers of this blog can for the most part be described as non-believers -- perhaps not insistent atheists, ever ready to launch an argument with the devout, but probably not regular church-goers. You may therefore not have spent endless hours listening to sermons, or reading religious literature, in which some version of the Argument from Design is articulated. Serious believers do really see evidences of God's handiwork in virtually every corner of the experienced world -- in the orderly progression of the planets about the sun, in the miracle of childbirth, in the beauty of a butterfly, in the majesty of a thunderstorm. These are not merely familiar literary tropes; they are the way in which believers experience the world.

All of these beliefs, Hume suggests, and the arguments put forward to express or sustain them, commit the same elementary mistake of assuming what is to proved, of begging the question, to use that oft-misused expression correctly. Every version of the Argument from Design begins with some example of the intentional fitting of ends to means, of the physical arrangement of a bit of matter to subserve some human purpose, then argues that some part of the natural order, or indeed of the entire universe, resembles these examples of intentional adaptations, and finally leaps to the conclusion that the cause of these observed adaptations is precisely the God preached in sermons and memorialized in Revealed Texts.

Over the course of four Parts, Hume pours out arguments with seemingly endless imagination, but they all have the same logical structure. Our causal inferences rest of our observations of repeated conjunctions of resembling instances. They are no more certain than the sets of observations on which they are based. Now, if we set to one side our already well established religious beliefs, which we have taken from divine texts or countless Sunday sermons, what do we in fact find?

Well, many of the most intricately designed objects that we encounter, such as watches or locomotive engines, are the product of the joint efforts of many purposive agents working together -- architects, or designers, or machine tool craftsmen, or jewelers, or glassmakers. So why may we not infer that the arrangements we see in nature are also the products of many gods working together? Most well-designed purposively arranged objects are the end products of long periods of experimentation, during which there are failures and partial successes before the artisans finally get it right. So, may we not conclude that this world is actually only the latest in a long series of failed attempts apprentice gods, working under the direction of master world builders? Quite the most miraculous examples of the fittingness of means to ends can be found in the internal arrangements of living things. An infant is a more remarkable assemblage of interacting parts than even the solar system. So perhaps this world emerged from the womb of a mother world, impregnated by a father world, who together gave birth to this world in which we live. And so on and on Hume goes, spinning ever more fanciful hypotheses, each of which, Philo insists, is as well supported by our observations and causal reasonings as the traditional Bible story.

In Part VIII, Hume advances a new and much more interesting argument, derived in part from the speculations of the ancient atomists, with whose teachings of course eighteenth century philosophers were quite familiar. "Instead of supposing matter infinite, as Epicurus did," Philo suggests, "let us suppose that it is finite. A finite number of particles is only susceptible of finite transpositions; and it must happen, in an eternal duration, that every possible order or position must be tried an infinite number of times. This world, therefore, must with all its events, even the most minute, has before been produced and destroyed, without any bounds or limitations. No one who has a conception of the powers of the infinite, in comparison to the finite, will ever scruple this determination." So there need have been no intelligence at work in the creation of this world. Mere chance will explain how such remarkable order, and fittingness of means to ends, should have come about.

What is more, Philo goes on, inasmuch as our present world exhibits what today physicists would call homeostasis, which is to say a tendency to maintain order once it is achieved, perhaps the universe went through a vast series of arrangements until, by sheer accident, an arrangement came about that had this tendency to sustain itself. This would be sufficient to explain the seeming stability of the world order as we observe it.

Finally, at the end of Part VIII, Philo puts forward an argument that strikes me as a fascinating anticipation of the theory of natural selection advanced a century later by Darwin and Wallace. Here is the passage:

"It is in vain, therefore, to insist upon the uses of the parts in animals or vegetables, and their curious adjustment to each other. I would fain know how an animal would subsist unless its parts were so adjusted? Do we not find that it immediately perishes whenever this adjustment ceases, and that its matter, corrupting, tries some new form? It happens indeed that the parts of the world are so well adjusted that some regular form to this corrupted matter; and if it were not so, could the world subsist? Must it not dissolve, as well as the animal, and pass through new positions and situations till in great but finite succession it fall, at last, into the present or some other order?

I am, of course, a great partisan of Hume, and am quick to find in his writings intimations of all manner of ideas that have subsequently gained favor, but I must say that I find here a hint of the so-called Anthropic Principle advanced by Stephen Hawking.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


On November 28, 2010, I posted a statement of my fundamental beliefs, a Credo. I recently re-read it, and realized that it still says exactly what I believe about our collective human condition. I have decided therefore to post it once again, in the hope that there are new readers of this blog who never saw it. Here it is, just as it appeared ten months ago:

The latest issue of the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS has an interesting piece by Mark Lilla on Glenn Beck, taking off from a review of five books by or about Beck. Lilla spends some time on the speech Beck gave at the rally he organized in Washington, pointing out some surprising passages in it. Here is the url.

The piece is enjoyable, full of shrewd and snarky comments, just the sort of stuff someone on the left would want to read about the terrible Beck. But then I began thinking: Suppose someone offered me the opportunity to address a big crowd on the Washington mall, and asked me to state, simply and clearly, what I believe -- not what I think is wrong with Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin or Sharon Angle or Mitch McConnell or any of the other Republican horrors, but positively, affirmatively, to say Credo -- this I believe. Could I do it? Or would I almost immediately descend into particular criticisms of this or that governmental policy? Would I be reduced to offering a laundry list of bills I want the next Congress to pass? What, in fact, do those of us on the left actually believe? It doesn't have to be original. Indeed, it would be much better if it were not. After all, as Kant responded when it was pointed out that the Categorical Imperative was little more than the Golden Rule, How could you possibly expect originality in the fundamental principle of morality? So, after turning the question over in my mind for a day or two, here is my first attempt at a statement of what I believe. It is short [uncharacteristic for me, I know], and has not a word in it that can be called original. But it really is what I believe. Whether anyone else in American believes it I leave to others to ascertain.

We human beings live in this world by thoughtfully, purposefully, intelligently transforming nature so that it will satisfy our needs and our desires. We call this activity of transforming nature "production," and it is always, everywhere, inescapably a collective human activity. Every moment that we are alive we are relying on what those before us have discovered or invented or devised. There is no technique, however primitive, that is the invention of one person alone. Like it or not, we are all in this life together. Even those giants of industry who think of themselves as self-made men are completely dependent for their empire building upon the collective knowledge and practice of the entire human species.

All of us eat grain we have not grown, fruit we have not planted, meat we have not killed or dressed. We wear clothes made of wool we have not combed and carded, spun or woven. We live in houses we have not built, take medicines we neither discovered nor produced, read books we have not written, sing songs we did not compose. Each of us is completely dependent on the inherited knowledge, skill, labor, and memory of all who have gone before us, and all who share the earth with us now.

We have a choice. We can acknowledge our interdependence, embracing it as the true human condition; or we can deny it, deluding ourselves into thinking that we are related to one another only as parties to a bargain entered into in a marketplace. We can recognize that we need one another, and owe to one another duties of generosity and loyalty. Or we can pretend to need no one save through the intermediation of the cash nexus.

I choose to embrace our interdependence. I choose to acknowledge that the food I eat, the clothes on my back, and the house in which I live are all collective human products, and that when any one of us has no food or clothing or shelter, I am diminished by that lack.

There are two images alive in America, competing for our allegiance. The first is the image of the lone horseman who rides across an empty plain, pausing only fleetingly when he comes to a settlement, a man apparently having no need of others, self-sufficient [so long as someone makes the shells he needs for his rifle or the cloth he needs for his blanket], refusing to acknowledge that he owes anything at all to the human race of which he is, nonetheless, a part.
The other is the image of the community that comes together for a barn-raising, working as a group on a task that no one man can do by himself, eating a communal meal when the day is done, returning to their homes knowing that the next time one of their number needs help, they will all turn out to provide it.

These images are simple, iconic, even primitive, but the choice they present us with remains today, when no one rides the plains any more, and only the Amish have barn-raisings. Today, as I write, there are tens of millions of Americans who cannot put a decent meal on the table in the evening for their families, scores of millions threatened with the loss of their homes. And yet, there are hundreds of thousands lavishing unneeded wealth on themselves, heedless of the suffering of their fellow Americans, on whose productivity, inventiveness, and labor they depend for the food they eat, the clothing they wear, the homes they live in, and also for the luxuries they clutch to their breasts.

The foundation of my politics is the recognition of our collective interdependence. In the complex world that we have inherited from our forebears, it is often difficult to see just how to translate that fundamental interdependence into laws or public policies, but we must always begin from the acknowledgement that we are a community of men and women who must care for one another, work with one another, and treat the needs of each as the concern of all.

If all of this must be rendered in a single expression, let it be: From each of us according to his or her ability; to each of us according to his or her need.

Friday, September 23, 2011


Part II opens with a series of seemingly pious utterances by the various participants, with Philo, the sceptic, agreeing with Demea, the fanatic, that no one can possibly doubt the existence of God. Indeed, it is Philo who gives a first summary of the Cosmological Argument: "Nothing exists without a cause; and the original cause of the universe (whatever it be) we call God, and piously ascribe to him every species of perfection. Whoever scruples this fundamental truth deserves every punishment which can be inflicted on philosophers, to wit, the greatest ridicule, contempt, and disapprobation." This is actually a complicatedly ironic thrust, directed, though it does not seem to be, at the religious true believer, Demea.

In the Middle Ages, there was a lively debate, stretching over many centuries, about the meaning of such terms as "powerful," "wise," and "good" when used to describe God. A number of religious philosophers in the Arabic, Jewish, and Christian traditions insisted that God is so fundamentally different from the created world and its inhabitants that these terms cannot possibly mean the same thing when applied to God and Man. "Infinite," they said, merely has the negative meaning of "not finite," and conveys nothing positive about God's nature. The same is therefore true of "omniscient," "omnipotent," and "infinitely benevolent." This view stands in opposition to the older Stoic doctrine that man's reason is a spark of the Divine Reason, and therefore of the same nature, though of course finite rather than infinite.

It was not lost on contemporary commentators that the exaggerated piety of those who deny any commonality between the attributes of God and Man is indistinguishable from the impious atheism of those who deny the existence of God. Hume, I am certain, is echoing this debate, and setting up both Demea and Cleanthes for Philo's later sceptical attacks. By way of demonstrating the utter incomparability of God and Man, to which Demea has just given pious expression, Philo continues: "Our ideas reach no further than our experience. We have no experience of divine attributes and operations. I need not conclude my syllogism, you can draw the inference yourself." But this is exactly the argument, drawn directly from Book I of the Treatise, that Philo will use later to refute the Cosmological Argument.

Cleanthes follows this brief sketch of what will be a devastating refutation of all God-talk by shifting to the Argument from Design. "Look round the world," he says, "contemplate the whole and every part of it: you will find it to be one great machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines, which again admit of subdivision to a degree beyond what human senses and faculties can trace and explain." You can supply the rest of the argument, which even today is a commonplace of religious literature. As a machine bespeaks a designer, so the world evidences a purposeful Creator. "By this argument a posteriori, and by this argument alone," Cleanthes concludes, "do we prove at once the existence of a Deity, and his similarity to human mind and intelligence."

Immediately, Philo gives a counterargument drawn straight from the pages of the Treatise, an argument, I venture to say, that is absolutely dispositive. [I shan't quote his response -- as you will see, I am having difficulty keeping myself from simply quoting long passages of the text, since Hume writes so much better than I do.] The problem with this argument, Philo notes, is that we have only one instance -- one world to examine. In the case of our ordinary causal judgments, we have countless instances of the conjunction of cause with effect. We have seen many houses designed by architects and built by workmen; we have countless times observed the conjunction of fire with heat. But having only one world to examine, and lacking any direct observation of its creator, we are left with appeals to weak and questionable analogies. Much later in the Dialogues, Hume will have a good deal of fun with alternative speculative hypotheses of the origin of the observable world.

As the Emperor in Amadeus is wont to say, "Well, there it is." We have scarcely got through Part II of twelve parts, and both the Cosmological Argument and the Argument from Design are destroyed. What is Hume to do to keep his conversation afloat? His answer, to which he returns many times in the course of the Dialogues, is simply not to allow his characters to recognize that they have been defeated. I am reminded of the famous duel scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in which a knight is progressively deprived of his arms, his legs, and even his torso, but still maintains that he is in the fight, threatening, when he has been reduced to nothing but a helmet-encased head, to bite his opponent's ankle.

A good example of this trope is to be found in the next Part, a relatively short passage entirely devoted to the Argument from Design. The locus classicus for this particular proof, by the way, is William Paley's extremely popular Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity collected from the Appearances of Nature, which was actually published in 1802, some twenty-three years after the appearance of Hume's Dialogues. Cleanthes launches into an impassioned statement of the Argument, even invoking that hoariest of examples, the human eye. "Consider," he says, "anatomize the eye, survey its structure and contrivance, and tell me, from your own feeling, if the idea of a contriver does not immediately flow in upon you with a force like that of sensation."

Now, after what Philo said in the previous Part, you would think, if Cleanthes were paying attention, he would recognize that this line of argument is a loser. And if this does not occur to Cleanthes, certainly it will to an alert reader. But it is way too early for anyone to concede defeat, so Hume has Hermippus step in [you will recall that he is telling Pamphilus about the conversation], and offer the following astonishing observation: "Here I could observe that Philo was a little embarrassed and confounded; but, while he hesitated in delivering an answer, luckily for him, Demea broke in upon the discourse and saved his countenance." Philo embarrassed and confounded? Thus far, he has had all the best lines!

If I may be allowed a second cultural reference, this one a trifle more respectable, Hume reminds me of Lenny in John Steinbeck's great novella, Of Mice and Men. Lenny, you will recall, is a great hulk of a man, enormously strong but rather simple-minded, and of a sweet, childlike demeanor. At one point, he is stroking a pet rabbit, and, not realizing his own strength, accidentally breaks its neck. I like to think of David Hume as a sweet, gentle man so smart that, without quite meaning to, he breaks the backs of age-old arguments when he was merely stroking them a bit.

Demea brings Part III to a close by reiterating the position of the utter unlikeness of the Divine and the Human. He concludes the Part by saying that "the infirmities of our nature do not permit us to reach any ideas which in the least correspond to the ineffable sublimity of the Divine attributes." Although this certainly sounds pious enough, it would, if taken seriously, consign all of Natural Religion to the ash heap. [If I may, like Tristram Shandy, digress once more, this is rather like an extraordinary outburst from Michele Bachmann in last night's debate among the Republican presidential hopefuls. Kept aloft by the divine afflatus of her own vacuous mind, Bachmann at one point delivered herself of the opinion that Americans should be able to keep every single dollar they earn, not quite realizing that this would result in the complete elimination of the office for which she was putting herself forward as a candidate.]

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Susie and I arrived home late last night, after a long and exhausting trip from Paris. In the old days, when I was twenty years younger, I could drive from Western Massachusetts to New York, fly non-stop from JFK to Johannesburg, and get off the plane ready to go to work after an eighteen hour flight. Now, the much shorter trip from Paris to Atlanta leaves me catatonic. One of the many changes that come with age.

It will be a few days before I resume the Hume tutorial. There is a good deal to catch up with, including enough mail to fill two large white Post Office baskets. I told the postal clerk who gave me my mail that I was very distressed about reports that the Post Office is about to go belly up, but he said they had been cautioned not to talk about it, and offered to refer me to a "supervisor." I mean, really!!

We returned to the United States just about when the State of Georgia was executing a man almost certainly not guilty of the crimes of which he was convicted. No, it is not irrelevant that he was Black. This is, in many ways, a hateful country.

This got me thinking about the effort of the Palestinians to win acceptance by the UN, and the fact that Obama, who clearly supports that effort, could do so publicly only by declaring himself a one-term President. The Republicans have taken the position that Israel can do no wrong, and Rick Perry is encouraging the vilest Fundamentalist Christian fantasies about the re-establishment of Greater Israel as the necessary prelude to the End Times.

Israel has become a pariah state in the world, and seems not really to understand that fact. This is a difficult subject to discuss these days in America, much more difficult than abortion, same sex marriage, or single payer health systems. As I think I have made clear, I do not much like the abusive, hysterical tone of anonymous diatribes on the internet. I think it is cowardly and the enemy of reason. I am well aware that be writing about Israel, I invite that sort of response. So be it.

Since I am no sort of expert at all on Middle Eastern matters, as I have observed before, perhaps what I can bring to this discussion is some personal experiences that may shed light on one of the puzzling aspects of the Arab/Israeli conflict. Those who know Israel well, and whose judgment I trust, tell me that Israel is a lively, open, vibrant democratic state, in which opinions harsher than any I might express regularly are voiced in the public media and in academic and other circles. Israelis, they tell me, have a much higher regard than Americans, by and large, for the life of the mind and for the fine arts. They are cultivated, sophisticated, and charming. I do not doubt their descriptions of Israel and its people. And yet, Israel is, if I am not mistaken, the only remaining Colonial occupier and oppressor in the world [leaving to one side the United States, which is currently occupying Afghanistan and is winding down its occupation of Iraq.]. How is this possible?

Well, when I first visited South Africa, the Nationalist Party was still in power and apartheid was the law of the land. And yet, South Africa was then an open, lively, intellectually exciting place with at least one newspaper [The Mail and Guardian] that was better written and expressed more progressive views than any in the United States. The academics I met were quite open in their opposition to apartheid. They were also, many of them, serious students of Marx and of movements in the communist world. All of this was completely compatible with the rigors, the brutalities, the massive injustices of the apartheid system. Contrary to the simplistic view we tend to have about the relationship between state oppression and personal freedom, it is perfectly possible for a country engaged in unconscionable acts of opppression and aggression to give every appearance of being open, free, and democratic. The United States is a good example.

There is a long history in the United States of politicians playing to the sentimental attachments of their constituents to the lands from which their families came. People tend to forget about Joe McCarthy, if they even recall who he was, that he got his start representing German-Americans who were deeply ambivalent about America's involvement in the Second World War. Irish-Americans, Polish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Cuban-Americans all have at one time or another exhibited divided loyalties and have sought to influence American foreign policy in ways supportive of their native countries. The behavior of American Jews with regard to Israel follows a long established political tradition.

Still and all, the death grip in which supporters of Greater Israel fantasies hold American foreign policy is unusual, to say the least. The only comparable example is the veto power that Cuban-Americans exercise over any sort of rational American Caribbean foreign policy.

And I have not even mentioned Joe McGinnis' new book on Palin. A lot happened while I was away.

Monday, September 19, 2011


Since we leave for home the day after tomorrow, we have been using up what is in the refrigerator. Today, there was nothing left for lunch, so we walked across two bridges to the Right Bank and had lunch at the Cafe Louis Phillippe, a lovely old institution on the Quai de l'Hotel de Ville [i.e., city hall]. It is a sparkling early Fall day, with bright sunshine, crisp, cool breezes, and puffy white clouds scudding by overhead. Susie had quennelles, I ordered hareng pommes de terre a l'huile and a dozen snails. Each of us drank half a bottle of wine, I a red, Susie a white. Then we staggered home, fell on our bed, and slept for two hours. I am, I fear, in no shape to write a post about the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, so that shall have to wait for tomorrow. Life doesn't get much better than this.

High Arka asks how reading Hume will make one a better person. I must confess that I am not really sure what makes one a good person. Pretty clearly, education does not. I know too many superbly education swine. Nor does a comfortable and protected childhood. Adversity seems to make some people better and some worse. The same is true for religion. Perhaps a multiple regression analysis would reveal some unsuspected factor, but I rather doubt it. Part of the problem, of course, is that opinions differ considerably about just who is a good or bad person. It is hard to do a scientific study of gravity when there is no agreement on what is up and what is down!

I can, however, suggest some other benefits that it seems to me we can derive from a close reading of Hume. The first is an appreciation for compact, powerful arguments stated simply but forcefully. A second is a recognition of the weakness of the grounds for a rational belief in a divine being. One can also gain some insight into the origins of the modern discipline of Psychology. And of course there is the sheer pleasure in the elegance and succinctness of Hume's use of English, something I very much wish more of my students over the years had managed to emulate.

None of these will make one a better person, I am sure, but they might make one a more interesting person with whom to have a conversation.


Eternal Return: The theory that the universe endlessly repeats its entire history, cycling through infinitely many iterations of the present sequence of cosmological events.

Thirty-eight years ago, little Patrick Wolff asked his father to teach him how to play chess. Pretty soon, he was totally obsessed with the game, arising early to study Bobby Fischer's MY SIXTY GREATEST GAMES, and begging his father [me] to play with him. By the time he was seven, I could not hold my own against him, and passed him off to others with greater skill in the game. Eventually, he became a famous International Grandmaster, twice the United States Chess Champion, a widely read chess commentator, and a regular on the international professional circuit.

This morning, I received an email message from my daughter-in-law, Diana, Patrick's wonderful wife. She reports that five year old Samuel, my grandson, has become obsessed with chess and wants his daddy to play with him morning and night. I imagine it will take Samuel a bit longer to beat his father regularly than it took Patrick to beat me.


The NY TIMES reports that yesterday, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former International Monetary Fund head and favorite for the Socialist Party nomination for President of France in the forthcoming elections, gave a very carefully scripted television interview about the events in the New York hotal room that led to his arrest on charges of attempted rape, among other things. Speaking to a popular tv interviewer who is one of his wife's best friends, DSK made a great show of confessing to a "moral failing" and expressed great regret at having let down his wife, his children, and the French people [apparently there are forms and conventions for such events that transcend national boundaries - he might just as well have been Jon Edwards.]

As I assumed he would, he claimed, without any detail whatsoever, that the sex was consensual. I have already indicated why I consider that extremely implausible. [See the post for August 24th of this year]. I am very pleased that large parts of the French public don't seem to be buying his "explanations." By the way, the TIMES mentioned one wrinkle in the story that was new to me. Apparently the hotel security cameras captured an assignation that Strauss-Kahn had the night before with a different woman, so I think we can set aside the excuse that he was just a little horny.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


The Dialogues can be compared to a classic musical trio, in which first one instrument and then another states a theme or offers a variation. This use of three equal speakers gives Hume a certain flexibility that is lacking from Plato’s Dialogues, where Socrates is always one of the interlocutors, and there can be no question who speaks for the author. The entire set of Dialogues, or Parts, is introduced by two characters, Pamphilus and Hermippus, who report on the conversation but take no part in it. Pamphilus does his best to shape our understanding of the debate, in a way that is fundamentally and deliberately misleading, by speaking, in the last paragraph of the Introduction, of “the accurate philosophical turn of Cleanthes,” the “careless skepticism of Philo,” and the “rigid inflexible orthodoxy of Demea.” Thus the reader is encouraged to view Cleanthes as the sensible medium betwixt the extreme skepticism of Philo and the equally extreme dogmatism of Demea.

This thematic characterization is continued as the First Part opens, with Cleanthes saying to Philo, “Whether your skepticism be as absolute and sincere as you pretend, we shall learn by and by, when the company breaks up; we shall see then whether you go out at the door or the window, and whether you really doubt if your body has gravity or can be injured by its fall, according to popular opinion derived from our fallacious senses and more fallacious experience.”

It is interesting to examine this jibe in the context of Hume’s arguments in the Treatise, which we have just finished examining. Hume, you will recall, first demonstrates that our belief in causal inference cannot be sustained by Reason, but almost immediately acknowledges that we are so constituted as to be led ineluctably, by our human nature, to associate together constantly conjoined resembling instances, and then to convey some measure of the vivacity of the impressions to the associated ideas, which is to say, to believe them. Thus, for all purposes beyond the sceptical critique of rational justifications of causal inference, Hume is prepared to accept and rely upon our beliefs in causal connections. Shortly after the sardonic jibe from Cleanthes that I have quoted, Hume has Philo say “To whatever length any one may push his speculative principles of skepticism, he must act, I own, and live, and converse, like other men, and for this conduct he is not obliged to give any other reason than the absolute necessity [ed. The psychological necessity, that is] he lies under of so doing.” Here Philo is echoing Cleanthes, not disagreeing with him, once again leaving us uncertain who is voicing Hume’s own views.

But now Philo continues in this apparently agreeable fashion to indicate the limits of such appeals to causation. “So long as we confine our speculations to trade, or morals, or politics, or criticism, we make appeals, every moment, to common sense and experience, which strengthen our philosophical conclusions and remove, at least in part, the suspicion which we so justly entertain with regard to every reasoning that is very subtile and refined.”

As the Dialogues proceed, we shall see Philo, and sometimes Cleanthes, demonstrating that every attempt to extend our causal inferences beyond the sphere of experience to the existence and nature of an infinite deity is precisely the sort of “subtile and refined” reasoning that cannot be justified. This is in fact the central sceptical move that Hume makes in response to each attempt to prove the existence or discern the nature of a Divine Being.

What I want you to see here is the skill with which Hume parcels out his arguments to Philo and Cleanthes so that he can conceal from view the fact that it is Philo’s unrelenting skepticism that expresses Hume’s true convictions.

There is really nothing more of important to say about Part I, which is purely introductory, but I cannot resist quoting one passage that seems to be directed not at eighteenth century fanatics but at their contemporary American counterparts. Cleanthes speaks of “brutish and ignorant skepticism … which gives the vulgar a general prejudice against what they do not easily understand, and makes them reject every principle which requires elaborate reasoning to prove and establish it.” Such people, Cleanthes goes on, “firmly believe in witches, though they will not believe nor attend to the most simple propositions of Euclid.” With a few minor editorial adjustments, this could be a perfect description of the current field of Republican presidential hopefuls and their rabid supporters. You will see why Hume has always been perhaps my favorite philosopher.


For reasons that are utterly beyond me, when I am here in Paris, Google will not allow me to post a comment on my own blog, telling me that the adminstrator of the blog [me!] does not allow anonymous comments -- even though I have just signed in to the Blog Dashboard, using my password. But rather than curse the darkness, I will light a candle. Since the same computer program that does not recognize me as a legitimate commentator accepts me as the author of the blog and allows me to post new material, I shall take a moment to reply to a few of your comments in a blog post rather than with a comment.

High Arka is waiting for the "punchline" to my Hume series. I have not a clue what he/she/they mean by this, so I shall pass.

What do I think of Cicero's dialogue? I must have read it at some time before the Viet Nam War, but I confess I have no recollection of it. Since I was totally unimpressed with the Cicero I read during the Spring of 1958, I have not gone back to his writings. I do not know Latin, but I assume that he was a great stylist of that language, which perhaps explains why he was held in such high regard over so many centuries.

I would love to launch a series of posts on food and restaurants, but I am a complete amateur in the kitchen, and even though I spent my entire career teaching things I had never studied, there are limits. However, if anyone wants to send in an exciting recipe, I will be happy to post it for the delectation of all.

Now I must spend some time re-reading Hume's Dialogues before beginning detailed comments on them. On Tuesday, Joe McGinnis' new book about Sarah Palin is officially released. I gather it is snark central, and should be good for a deliciously unhealthy bout of schadenfreude.

Saturday, September 17, 2011


Akrasia = weakness of the will. I thought I would not make coquilles St. Jacques or rabbit this trip, but when I went to the market today to get dinner for this evening and tomorrow, the Coquilles St Jacques looked so fresh and enticing that I bought 400 grams and made them this evening. A very simple meal: the coquilles, some tiny French stringbeans, fresh tomatoes, and a nice wine, all eaten to the strains of some seventeenth century music. Tomorrow evening I shall encrust rabbit in noisettes and serve it with sauteed courgettes and mushrooms. Sigh. Life is short, but on evenings like this, it seems worth the effort.


Ever since Plato gave the world his immortal dialogues, philosophers in the western tradition have been tempted by the genre. Would you believe that Aristotle wrote several dialogues? Fortunately for students, only fragments survive. [I have this on the authority of the great classical scholar Werner Jaeger, who was in his last years at Harvard when I was a student, although I was too stupid to seize the opportunity to attend his lectures.] Berkeley wrote some dialogues, of course, as have many others. The results, by and large, have not been a success, consisting for the most part of painfully wooden exercises in which cardboard characters mouth arguments that would better have been set forth in the customary expository style. Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, in my judgment, are actually a signal success, even though they do not rise to the literary heights achieved by Plato.

Oddly enough, what makes the Dialogues a success is Hume’s effort to conceal his real views from sight. [You will understand that I am now venturing into the realm of interpretation, and there are plenty of distinguished scholars who disagree with me, including, I think, Norman Kemp-Smith, for whom I have the very greatest respect.] The twelve dialogues are an extended conversation among three persons: Philo, Cleanthes, and Demea [all of whom, unlike Plato’s characters, are entirely fictional.] Philo is presented as a sceptic, Cleanthes as a deist who frequently deploys arguments taken directly from Hume’s Treatise, and Demea as something of a religious fanatic. From a causal reading of the text, one might naturally conclude that it is Cleanthes who gives voice to Hume’s considered opinions about matters of religion, but as I shall suggest, it is really Philo who is speaking for the author.

The subject, as the title indicates, is Natural Religion, and although the meaning of that phrase would have been immediately apparent to an eighteenth century reader, it might be well for me to take a moment to explain. [I have the vague sense that I have gone through this somewhere else on this blog, but having written so much so fast over the last year and a half, I cannot now recall where I might have done that. My apologies to my constant readers if I am repeating myself.] Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all teach that the Old Testament is the revealed word of God. Christianity in addition claims that the New Testament is the revealed word of God, while Islam teaches that the Qur’an is the final revelation of God [or Allah, which is the Arabic word for God.] Thus, these three religions ground their beliefs in Revelation, and are correctly described as Revealed Religions.

The centrally important fact about revealed religions is that their truths are available only to those persons who have access to the revelation. No one who has not read the Old Testament or heard its teachings expounded can possibly guess that the Lord gave to someone named Moses a set of Commandments that Man is commanded to obey. Nor can anyone who has not read the New Testament or heard its teachings expounded possibly guess that God gave his only begotten Son to save Mankind from eternal damnation. Hence the missionary efforts of generations of Christians and Muslims [but not Jews – that is another matter] to bring the Word of God to those who have not yet heard it.

But there is another religious tradition, older than Christianity and Islam and fully as old as Judaism, according to which Reason alone is sufficient to tell us of the existence of a Divine Being, a Creator, a First Cause, a Prime Mover, a Necessary Being, on whom the world depends for its existence and its orderly obedience to universal laws. As I have observed elsewhere on this blog, a good deal of philosophy in the first millennium and more of the Common Era is the story of the efforts of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim metaphysicians to sort out the relationship between these two religious traditions.

A variety or terms have been used to name these traditions. In Hume’s day, the distinction was sometimes marked by the terms “Theism” and “Deism.” But just as often, the two traditions were called “Revealed Religion” and “Natural Religion.” The subject of Hume’s dialogues, as the title indicates, is the rationalist tradition of Deism or Natural Religion. What, if anything, can reason tell us about the existence of a deity and the relationship of that deity to the world and specifically to human beings? By Hume’s day these questions had been under debate for over two thousand years, and a number of questions had crystallized into set topics. Perhaps best known and most widely debated were the various proofs that philosophers had come up with for the existence of a deity: The Cosmological Argument, the infamous Ontological Argument, and – most popular but least seriously regarded by philosophers – the Argument from Design. A second question much puzzled over by the devout was how an infinitely powerful, omniscient, and totally benevolent God could create a world afflicted with so much natural and man-made suffering. There were also a flood of subordinate questions about the nature of God, the meaning of terms like “omnipotent” and “omniscient” when applied to God, and whether there was a conflict – resolvable or irresoluble – between the teachings of Revelation and the conclusions of Rational Theology. Much of this constitutes the subject matter of Hume’s twelve dialogues.

In the composition of the Dialogues, Hume faced two problems. The first, as I have indicated, was his desire to conceal from the reader the fact that he embraces completely the sceptical position taken by Philo. The second problem is somewhat different. Hume’s arguments against any form of Natural Religion are so powerful, and he states them with such extraordinary economy, that strictly speaking he needs no more than a handful of pages to dispatch his opponents. It takes him little more than a paragraph to destroy all of the many versions of the Cosmological Argument, far and away the argument most favored by the serious philosophical tradition. The Ontological Argument costs him a paragraph. And the Argument from Design, which most philosophers do not credit at all, but which was a great favorite with the unwashed masses and the ordained ministers, serves merely as the butt of a series of wildly fanciful and comic turns by Hume. How to keep his Dialogues afloat sufficiently long to allow him to make all the points he has in mind? Hume exhibits great literary skill in making it appear that the defenders of Natural Religion are still upright and in the fight, long after they have actually been flattened, and should by any reasonable estimate have been out for the count. As we go through the twelve Parts, as Hume calls them, we shall see how he accomplishes this.

Friday, September 16, 2011


This has been a brief and unadventurous Paris visit, gastronomically speaking. I have cooked dorade royale [a nice white fish], paupiettes provencales [prepared by the local boulangerie], and a very nice mushroom and ham omelet. I even tried lieu noir, which turned out to be Pollock, and not anything special. Tomorrow evening I shall prepare my signature hazelnut encrusted rabbit, always a success. But no boeuf bourguignonne, no cuisses de canard, not even some coquilles St. Jacques. We had a lovely meal at Rotisserie du Beaujolais, enlivened by the presence of the resident cat, Beaujolais, to whom we fed tiny bits of our shoulder of lamb en brochette [for two]. This evening, we shall walk to the 6th arrondissement for a dinner at a restaurant recommended by one of the many people who have stayed in our apartment -- Restaurant Allard. The menu looked enticing when we walked by several days ago. For lunch, we tried a charming little tea room called The Tea Caddy which sits opposite l'eglise St. Julien le Pauvre and the oldest tree in Paris, propped up but still alive in Square Viviani, just next to Shakespeare and Company [a famous English language bookstore that I first visited in 1955, when it was called Le Mistral.]

Although the internet brings every corner of the world to me instantly, still coming here distances me from America, and the moral ugliness and willful ignorance that seems to dominate it. When I return next Wednesday, I shall have to find some way to write about what I see without utterly despairing.


This is as much as I need to say about the Treatise, I think. As I so often remark, there is a wealth of interesting materials in the work that await those who are willing to take it up and read it straight through. Hume is, among other things, a shrewd observer of la comedie humaine, and almost three centuries later, his anatomization of human foibles and follies is worth reading. Since many who are following this tutorial will, I imagine, have read Locke’s Second Treatise [it is, with Rousseau’s Of the Social Contract, surely the most often assigned classical text of political philosophy in college courses], I might close by quoting a passage from Section iii of Hume’s discussion of justice that will both affront modern readers and also illuminate a familiar passage in the Locke. Writing of the various ways in which the idea of property arises and is deployed, Hume says:

“We acquire the property of objects by accession, when they are connected in an intimate manner with objects that are already our property, and at the same time are inferior to them. Thus the fruits of our garden, the offspring of our cattle, and the work of our slaves, are all of them esteem’d our property, even before possession.”

Compare this with the following passage from Locke’s famous Chapter Five, “Of Property”, of which Bob Nozick, for example, makes such heavy use [“The Lockean Proviso”] in Anarchy, State, and Utopia:

“Thus the grass my horse has bit; the turfs my servant has cut; and the ore I have digged in any place, where I have a right to them in common with others, become my property, without the assignation or consent of any body. The labour that was mine, removing them out of that common state they were in, hath fixed my property in them.”

Modern readers often do not realize that “servant” in this context means “slave.” Hume makes explicit what seventeenth century readers would have understood, but that is often missed by Randian libertarians today. Since I own the slave, his [or her] labor belongs to me. Lest anyone dismiss this as a regrettable but no longer operative proviso, I would simply point out that exactly the same process of reasoning underlies the central tenet of capitalism, which is that the product of the labor of my employees [“wage slaves,” as they were once known] belongs to me as the capitalist, and is mine to dispose of as I wish, without regard to the needs or desires of those who actually produced it.

Tomorrow, I shall turn my attention to the very last of Hume’s works to be published, the posthumous Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.