Hume's reflective return to the vulgar

British Journal for the History of Philosophy 4 (2):285 – 315 (1996)
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Each of the standard outlooks in the philosophy of perception --phenomenalism, direct realism, indirect realism, scepticism -- has thus been viewed as Hume's own considered position in the eyes of informed commentators. I argue that Hume does not ascribe univocally to any one of the traditional stances in the philosophy of perception, nor does he leave us only a schizophrenic or 'mood' scepticism. Hume attempted to resolve the traditional philosophical problem (or perhaps more accurately, to set it aside on principled grounds) by transforming the issue from one of theoretical consistency to one of pragmatic coherence. Hume's moderate scepticism and his systematic naturalism entail a reflective 'return' to the vulgar (cp. T 223), a qualified normative endorsement of the directly realist beliefs of common life. The interpretive challenge is to understand the subtle nature of that endorsement, and to explain how it arises out of genuinely Humean doctrines. The account offered here attempts both to capture Hume's own considered position and to explain the attractions and shortcomings of each of the competing interpretations. After laying out the elements of Hume's account of perceptual belief (section I), I proceed to examine in some detail two recent attempts to interpret Hume as a realist (sections II-III). I contend that these revisionary accounts ascribe unHumean doctrines to Hume. The interpretation of Hume as an irreducible 'mood' sceptic or as a phenomenalist are in that respect both closer to the mark, but Hume's reflective return to the vulgar has recast the nature of the problem and leaves us with a position that is not reflected in the more traditional interpretations (section IV).

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James O'Shea
University College Dublin


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