Hume, David

Hume, David
  ---- by Cliff Stagoll
  David Hume was a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist and religious theorist, and perhaps the best known of the philosophers commonly designated 'empiricists'. Although Hume's grouping with such thinkers as John Locke and George Berkeley is questionable, mid- to late-twentiethcentury histories of philosophy placed them together routinely. In a chapter on Hume, typically one either encounters a naturalist extending and radicalising the work of Locke and/or Berkeley (or René Descartes and Nicolas Malebranche), or a sceptic whose contributions to philosophy are largely or wholly critical. Perhaps his best-known philosophical theory is that ideas not clearly originating from sense impressions ought to be 'committed to flames'. Only in the late 1960s and early 1970s did the focus of Anglo-American Hume studies move away from such strident epistemological assertions towards his analysis of the passions, principles of association, and such features of the mind as instinct, propensity, belief, imagination, feeling and sympathy. Deleuze had adopted this emphasis in 1952 and 1953, focusing mainly upon the naturalism evident in Hume's principles of human nature.
  Deleuze's shift in emphasis extended further. Whereas it is commonly held that Hume, finding himself unable to counter his sceptical epistemological conclusions, turned to history, sociology, religion and economics out of frustration, Deleuze considers Hume's entire corpus to comprise various stages in the development of a 'science of human nature'. Just as human life involves ethical, epistemological and aesthetic dimensions, so too it involves economic, religious and historical ones. For Deleuze, one cannot properly understand Hume's philosophy without referring to his work in other disciplines.
  In his published works and interviews, Deleuze returns time and again to Hume's empiricism. His most detailed and sustained account of it is Empiricism and Subjectivity, his first full book. Deleuze focuses on three aspects of Hume's philosophy in particular. The first is Hume's commitment to a philosophy founded upon direct experience, a position that reappears as a key tenet of Deleuze's 'transcendental empiricism'. On Deleuze's reading, Hume begins his philosophical investigations with straightforward observations about the world: humans see objects, posit the existence of gods, make ethical judgements, plan work to meet economic imperatives, and remain aware of themselves in some sense. Deleuze argues that, because Hume is unable initially to find in thought any element of 'constancy or universality' to which he might refer a psychology per se, he develops instead a 'psychology of the mind's affections', a theory about the regular 'movement' of the mind according to observable social and passional circumstances. Rather than building some philosophical edifice, however, Hume reads the concepts needed to explain such dynamics from out of the reality of experience, treating them as contingent explanatory tools that can always be replaced or supplemented.
  The second of Deleuze's emphases is upon Hume's 'atomism'. Hume conceives of the mind as a set of singular ideas, each with a distinct origin or set of origins in experience. Rather than arguing that the mind precedes ideas so that experience is given to the mind, Hume holds that the mind just is these radically disparate ideas. On this reading, nothing transcends the ideas of the mind, and so the connections between them are in no sense 'pre-programmed'.
  Deleuze's third emphasis is upon Hume's 'associationism'. Since ideas are not inherently structured, there are any number of ways that they can be brought together to generate new patterns of understanding, new behaviours and so on. For Deleuze, Hume discounts the possibility of any universal principle or capacity to govern such connections. Rather, such creative potential is realised under the influence of the life of practice (that is, pressures arising from economic and legal structures, family, language patterns, physical requirements and so on). The tendencies evident in human responses to such influences might be called 'general rules', but rather than 'rules' in the usual sense, these are contingent and impermanent.
  The epiphenomenon arising from such complex, contingent and changing relationships and tendencies is the human subject, that we call 'I'. This Humean subject is understood by Deleuze as a fiction, sufficiently stable to have identity posited of it and to exist in a social realm, but 'containing' elements of dynamism with the capacity to transcend hierarchical thinking of a human being in favour of rhizomatic thinking of non-human becoming. Whilst portions of the model become targets for Deleuze's subsequent attacks on the ontology of identity and being, others provide him with means of escape to a radical metaphysics of becoming.
  Although Deleuze is usually faithful to Hume's writings, his readings are idiosyncratic and go well beyond the original texts. His focus upon general rules, artifice, habit and stabilising fictions carry an inordinate weight in Deleuze's early theorisation of the human individual. Nonetheless, whilst his interpretation of Hume is unusual, it is far less radical than his versions of Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz and Friedrich Nietzsche.

The Deleuze dictionary. . 2010.

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