Prescription, Description, and Hume's Experimental Method

British Journal for the History of Philosophy 2 (24):279-301 (2016)
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There seems a potential tension between Hume’s naturalistic project and his normative ambitions. Hume adopts what I call a methodological naturalism: that is, the methodology of providing explanations for various phenomena based on natural properties and causes. This methodology takes the form of introducing ‘the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects’, as stated in the subtitle of the Treatise; this ‘experimental method’ seems a paradigmatically descriptive one, and it remains unclear how Hume derives genuinely normative prescriptions from this methodology. In resolving this problem, I will argue that Hume’s naturalistic methodology – that is, his ‘experimental philosophy’ (THN Intro 7), or what has come to be known as his experimental method – consists of the systematisation of phenomena pertaining to human nature. In applying his experimental method to normative subjects, Hume systematises our normative judgments, deriving general principles of normative justification; he then reflexively applies these principles to the pre-philosophical judgments from which they derive, dismissing and/or correcting those that do not accord with his systematised account. I will argue that Hume’s experimental method, far from being wholly descriptive, is in fact thoroughly infused with normativity; furthermore, the very application of this methodology to our normative judgments reveals Hume’s normative ambitions.

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Hsueh Qu
National University of Singapore


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