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A Cultivated Reason: An Essay on Hume and Humeanism.

By CHRISTOPHER WILLIAMS. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999. Pp. x, 190.

The main aim of Christopher Williams's book is to develop and advocate a Humean account of what it is to be a "reasonable" person. The project is motivated by the fact that Hume depicts reason paradoxically as both a source of skepticism and as a source of belief, as both enslaved to the passions and as important to establishing which passions are morally significant. In his preface, Williams tell us that genre matters to philosophy; how it matters, he says, "is another question" (vii). He sees his project in the genre of an essay, although he acknowledges that a book, with sustained arguments over several chapters, can't ideally cultivate the "casual, unsystematic air that is the cachet of the great essayists `attempts'" (vii). However, even in Hume, the master essayist, structure has its purpose, and Williams's discussion could benefit from more of it, especially since he has some sophisticated insights into Hume and Humean positions that can get lost, ironically, on the casual reader. Whatever Williams's intent to communicate by the manner of presentation, the approach often obscures the content.

Williams undertakes his project with five chapters and a retrospect. Chapter 1 sketches the Humean nonrationalism Williams himself wants to defend. Whether the details of the nonrationalism Williams advocates are exactly Hume's is not so clear, and Williams himself admits in the Retrospect: "I have mainly wished to situate a seminal figure from the past, within the frame of a present concern, to make him a partner in a conversation" (177). One of Williams's chief theses is that, Hume's famous metaphor of reason as slave to the passions notwithstanding, the Humean view is one of cooperation: "pure intellect is unreliable" and feeling has to "inform" our sense of what is reasonable (2). Furthermore, Williams wants to show later that Hume's rejection of rationalism is not an adoption of irrationalism, the view "that the guidance of reason should be rejected" (6). Another key theme introduced here is the nature of philosophical seriousness, which Williams connects somehow to a notion of "responsibility." The line is that because Hume responds to impractical positions developed on purely intellectual grounds (like Berkeley's) by suggesting that we cannot argue with them, but must respond by simply leaving the antagonist alone (or, perhaps, by laughter), Hume is open to charges of frivolity. Williams wants to show by the end of his book that a nonrational response is not thereby a frivolous one, and that Hume has much in common with Nietzsche, Derrida, Rorty, and other postmoderns on these matters.

The problems in the opposition, rationalism, are developed throughout chapters 2 and 3. The view, from Plato, Descartes, and Leibniz, is typified by the theme that the mental contents of the mind, derived from the mind itself, exhibit logical relationships; these relationships are normative. The chief problem with rationalism, says Williams, is what he calls its "false heroism." Williams describes this malady as "a self-conception according to which we are able, potentially, by means of various belief- and value-purification exercises to invest our beliefs and values with a magnificent global order or tidiness" (176). Accordingly, Williams depicts the rationalist as deriving rules or imperatives: For instance, Descartes's imperative is that I ought to let clear and distinct ideas guide my beliefs. Such false heroism is unhealthy, Williams maintains, because it leads either to overconfidence in our powers of knowing or to undue insecurity about them.

In the chapter 2 critique of rationalism, Williams offers a reconstruction of Hume's argument concerning the self-defeating effect of reason when it is used to support belief in the external world (from Treatise bk. 1, pt. 4). This argument leads to what Williams calls "malign skepticism," a state in which the mind cannot reflectively commit itself to its own beliefs about objects and we are left regarding ourselves as disembodied persons. Benign skepticism, on the other hand, is an attitude we take on through sentiment and habit, in which we are selectively doubtful about beliefs. Chapter 3 examines the rationalist attempt to re-order our sentiments and the moral practices and evaluations connected to them, following lines of thought in Hume's essay "The Skeptic." Williams concludes that such ethical theorizing would be harmful if it worked, since it would extinguish both good and bad passions, but that it is ineffective because it is too removed from our particular circumstances. Using a striking analogy, he likens taking the rationalist point of view to our possessing the hypothetical "microscopial" eyes to which Locke refers: An experience in which we could see the minute parts that constitute objects would be so radically different from present experience that the two would be incomparable. So, too, for a moral stance that has us abstract from our experience of particular human beings to seeing them only as rational minds.

Chapter 4 is Williams's argument that Hume's nonrationalism is not irrationalism. Hume regards certain reflection as naturally normative. On Williams's account, when we feel the psychological pressure to retain some perceptions among all those we entertain, we assume a more general point of view, settling on a perspective we regard as normative or corrective. Although the individual alone does not provide the standard of selection, an interpersonal, transgenerational view does. Thus, over time, we regard certain perceptions as definitive of causal connections and certain passions as underpinning our morality.

The fifth chapter defends Williams's Humean view that persons and artwork are objects of aesthetic value and appreciation, in contrast to the Kantian notion that rejects any spectator-driven valuation of persons.

Insofar as Williams's project offers an interpretation of Hume, one has to ask, "With whom he is arguing? Which critics insist on aligning Humeanism with irrationalism?" Williams tells us that Hume's mixing of reason and propensity is "frightening" to some readers, and that there is a tendency among philosophers to react adversely to Hume's account because in it they do not hear a "good Hume" speaking, a constructive philosopher who (say) shows us how to answer the fools who deny morality in their hearts. Instead, they hear a "bad Hume' whose motivation is literary fame, or a Hume who irresponsibly leaves the skeptic "just when the discussion is getting serious") to dine and play (3).

But surely this is a caricature of Hume's critics. We are not told who these philosophers are, and the references to secondary sources in Williams's work are scant. Much careful scholarship on Hume acknowledges his nuanced views on reason and sentiment, and while there is much debate over whether Hume is a skeptic or a naturalist, it is atypical to find any reader on the skeptical side charging Hume with irresponsibility or bad motivation. Perhaps Williams justifies the exaggeration by its necessity to the dialectic he is trying to represent, but we should be warned of this.

Williams's book is at its strongest in its critiques of rationalism. While the diagnosis of "false heroism" is figurative and imprecise, Williams makes an incisive observation when he says that Hume, unlike the rationalists, understands the limitations of rules--that although the mind relies on them, we cannot formulate rules that tell us which ones we ought to rely on (16). And in his rich discussion of the value of persons in his last chapter, Williams argues that an aesthetic perspective on the person is superior to a Kantian theory of intrinsic value in providing moral grounds. Williams contends that allowing that persons be regarded as objects of appreciation provides for an explanation of entitlements in terms of our sympathies with those with whom we bear greatest resemblance; enslaving humans is wrong and keeping cats as pets is permissible because of our horrified response to the former practice in light of our common humanity. "There is a difference between justice and humanity, and the purview of humanity is more expansive than that of justice" (136). The traditional Kantian will need to consider this discussion seriously.

I have not tried to engage with Williams's arguments here. This is chiefly because Williams's book offers a broad-stroked depiction of Humeanism that those already committed (this reader included) will find attractive. This depiction is the product of mature reflection, but the detailed analysis of texts and arguments necessary to persuade the rationalist in her own analytic terms have still to be offered.
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Author:Radcliffe, Elizabeth S.
Publication:The Philosophical Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 2001
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