Discuss David Hume’s argument for inductive scepticism in Section IV of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.
Focus on analysis.
What is Analysis?
In my writing advice (https://eclass.yorku.ca/mod/resource/view.php?id=2116616), I tell you that the goal of a philosophy paper is to argue for some thesis. This means that, in a philosophy paper, the goal isn’t just to explain or summarize the ideas or arguments that we’ve studied in the course. Instead, the goal of a philosophy paper is for you to make your own argument in response to what we’ve studied. So, in the final paper, you’ll be asked to demonstrate some philosophical creativity: I’ll be asking you to develop a thesis of your own and to argue for that thesis.
Given this general goal, there are two things that you’ll have to do in your final paper.
First, you’ll have to explain some ideas or arguments from the course. This is exposition, the skill that you practiced in the first writing assignment. When your final paper is graded for exposition, it will be evaluated primarily in terms of its accuracy. If you look at the rubric for the final paper, you can find the following list of questions that I use to evaluate exposition:
Does the answer fully address all aspects of the question? How well does the paper organize and explain the various ideas from the course that are relevant to the question? Does the paper contain any confusions or mistakes about material from the course? E.g. Does the paper misrepresent the views of one of the philosophers that we have been studying? If the paper does contain some confusions or mistakes, are they serious confusions or mistakes? Or are they only small inaccuracies about minor points? If the paper does contain some confusions or mistakes, how seriously do these confusions or mistakes compromise the writer’s overall argument? Do the confusions or mistakes concern the central ideas that are relevant to answering the question? Or are the confusions or mistakes limited to side-points or less central material?
Second, you’ll have to develop your own line of argument. This is what I’m calling analysis. Analysis is the part of your paper where you demonstrate your own philosophical creativity. When I ask you to provide analysis, I’m asking you to go beyond the ideas and arguments that we’ve studied in the course. The goal here isn’t just to rehearse material from the course. Instead, the goal is to come up with your own line of argument. When your final paper is graded for analysis, it will be evaluated primarily in terms of its creativity and persuasiveness. If you look at the rubric for the final paper, you can find the following list of questions that I use to evaluate analysis:
Does the answer merely rehearse ideas that we’ve studied in the course? Or does it go beyond the course materials in some way by offering some critical analysis (e.g. by evaluating an objection or argument, or by applying some idea to a new problem)? How sustained is the critical analysis? Is it just one or two sentences? Or is it one or two paragraphs? Does the writer merely state some opinion, or do they provide some argument or justification for their opinion? How insightful is the critical analysis? Does the critical analysis demonstrate serious reflection upon the course materials? Does the writer make their point in a convincing fashion? Or does their argument contain some significant confusion or oversight? Has the writer considered how an opponent might respond to their argument? Does the critical analysis contain some original insight that goes significantly beyond anything that we have discussed in the course?
While there are many different ways to do analysis, there is one tried-and-true method that I strongly recommend: raising objections and considering responses. Here’s how that method works (I describe the method in more detail in my writing advice):
Explain some idea or argument from the course. (This is exposition.)
Raise the strongest objection that you can come up with against that idea or argument. (This is part of your analysis.)
Consider how the philosopher to whom you’re objecting might respond to your objection. (This is also part of your analysis.)
Explain whether or not that response to your objection is successful, and why. (This is also part of your analysis.)
(Depending on space constraints, you may wish to repeat 2–4 in order to consider more than one objection. But, in general, it’s better to examine fewer objections in more detail than to examine more objections in less detail—you want your discussion to be deep, not superficial!)
If you’ve never written a philosophy paper (or even if you have!), I strongly recommend that you use something like this method. So, the goal of this second writing assignment is to practice the method of raising objections and considering responses.
Your task for the writing assignment is to use the method of raising objections and considering responses to provide an analysis of
B. David Hume’s argument for inductive scepticism in Section IV of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.
Your analysis should be approximately 500–750 words in length
Since the goal of this assignment is to focus only on analysis and not on exposition, I will provide you with a short expository paragraph for the prompt that you can use as the basis for your analysis:
Brief exposition of Hume’s argument for inductive scepticism.
In Section IV of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume argues for a view that has become known as inductive scepticism. Inductive scepticism is the view that inductive reasoning—that is, the kind of reasoning that we engage in when we form beliefs about what Hume calls “unobserved matters of fact,” that is, matters of fact whose truth or falsity we cannot establish either through present experience or through the memory of past experience—has no rational justification and is, therefore, irrational. Here is a very brief summary of Hume’s argument. Hume begins with the claim that all of our beliefs about unobserved matters of fact are based on a kind of reasoning about causes and effects in which we infer from an observed cause to an unobserved effect or from an observed effect to an unobserved cause. These inferences, Hume argues, are based entirely on past experience, because it is only through experience that we learn about causal relations—about what causes what. The trouble is that, when we draw upon our past experience in order to make predictions about unobserved matters of fact, we make a kind of logical leap: we assume that our past experience of observed matters of fact is a good guide as to what to expect in the future about unobserved matters of fact. We assume that, if something has regularly caused something else in the past, then it will continue to do so in the future. What Hume argues, however, is that we don’t have any good reason to make this assumption. We cannot prove a priori that the past is a good guide to the future simply by inspecting our own ideas, since it is at least conceivable that the future might be radically different from the past. And it would be circular to try to prove that the past is a good guide to the future by appealing to our past experience, because the whole question is whether we can justify such appeals to past experience in the first place. Hume’s conclusion is that we simply lack any rational argument or reasoning that would justify us in using our past experience to draw inferences about unobserved matters of fact. As a result, Hume thinks that all of our beliefs about unobserved matters of fact are, in an important sense, irrational. In other words, Hume thinks that what philosophers now call inductive reasoning just has no rational basis—this is Hume’s inductive scepticism.
These expository paragraphs are rather short. (Although the Hume paragraph is pretty dense–honestly, it’s probably too dense!) When you write your final paper, the expository section of your paper will almost certainly be longer than either of these short paragraphs. Nonetheless, for the purposes of the second writing assignment, I want you to write as if one of these two paragraphs that I’ve given above is the first paragraph of the body of your paper (after the introductory paragraph, which I’m not asking you to write for this assignment). If you want, you can even copy and paste one of these two paragraphs into your paper! (If you do choose to copy and paste one of these two paragraphs into your paper, the copied paragraph will not count towards the overall word count for the paper.)
So, in your assignment, here’s what I want you to do. Starting off from either of the expository paragraphs above (which you may copy and paste into your assignment if you wish, but don’t have to), you should develop an analysis by: (1) raising an objection against either Berkeley or Hume, (2) considering how Berkeley or Hume might respond to your objection, and (3) explaining whether or not that response to your objection is successful, and why. You can choose to structure your assignment in any way you wish, but one natural way of structuring the assignment might be to divide it into three paragraphs, devoting one paragraph to each of (1), (2), and (3).
Here’s some advice about analysis in general and about the method of raising objections and considering responses in particular.
Remember, the goal of analysis is for you to demonstrate your philosophical creativity by developing your own line of argument. So, the goal is to go above and beyond the ideas that we’ve studied in the course. Of course, you’re going to be responding to and discussing material from the course—you shouldn’t be straying too far from the course materials! But the goal is for you to develop your own line of thought.
Given this goal, here is some advice about strategies for how to go about demonstrating philosophical creativity:
When you’re planning your assignment (or final paper), you should try to come up with an objection and response that demonstrates your philosophical creativity as much as possible. This means, for example, that you want your objection to be as strong as possible. After all, if you raise a really weak objection, then it won’t demonstrate much philosophical creativity when you explain how Berkeley or Hume can respond to it! But it also means that, when you’re considering how Berkeley or Hume might respond to your objection, you want to make their response as strong as possible. After all, if you only offer a weak response on Berkeley’s or Hume’s behalf, then it won’t demonstrate much philosophical creativity when you explain why that response isn’t successful!
You may find that there is a trade-off between the strength of your objection and the strength of the response that you make on Berkeley’s or Hume’s behalf. Ideally, you want to come up with a super strong objection to Berkeley or Hume (your reader, upon reading your objection, should think: “Uh oh! Berkeley’s/Hume’s toast!”) and then offer a super strong response on Berkeley’s or Hume’s behalf (your reader, upon reading the response, should think: “Wow! I can’t believe Berkeley or Hume got out of that jam!”) But this can be tough to do. If you come up with a strong objection to Berkeley or Hume, you may find that you can only think of weak responses on their behalf—which isn’t ideal. You could, of course, think of a strong response on Berkeley’s or Hume’s behalf if you were to start off with a weak objection—but that isn’t ideal either! Unfortunately, I don’t have any general advice about what to do in this situation—you may find that you need to try to aim for an intermediate position, devising a moderately strong objection to which you are able to offer a moderately strong response on Berkeley’s or Hume’s behalf.
You might discover that I have actually raised certain objections against Berkeley and/or Hume in my lectures. You are welcome to use these objections in your assignment, if you wish. But, if you do, there is a danger that your assignment will demonstrate correspondingly less philosophical creativity. In some cases, this might be OK. For example, if I raise an objection in one of my lectures and you think that you can come up with a response that I didn’t consider, then that could make for a really great analysis! But, if all you do on your assignment is to rehearse an objection that I raised in my lecture and then to explain the response that I myself suggested, then that wouldn’t make for a very effective demonstration of your philosophical creativity.
How do you come up with a strong objection? This is a tough question. It’s kind of like asking a musician how they come up with their songs, or a poet how they come up with their poems. Remember, I’m asking you to demonstrate philosophical creativity. Sadly, there’s no magic recipe for how to be creative! (When I was a philosophy student, both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student, I always found that the most difficult part of writing a philosophy paper was finding that flash of philosophical creativity that could generate an interesting idea worth writing about.) That said, here’s one strategy that I often find helpful. If you want to raise an objection to Berkeley or Hume, try to explain their argument as slowly, carefully, and meticulously as you can. You might do this in writing, or you might do this out loud to yourself, or you might even try to explain the argument to a friend. Take your time and go slowly. Try to explain every single step in the argument as carefully as you can. As you go along, try to pay attention to where you find yourself struggling. Is there some idea or some step in the argument that you’re finding difficult to explain as clearly as you might like? If so, that might be a sign that you’re just not understanding something—which might itself be a valuable realization. But it also might be a sign that there’s a genuine problem in the argument—in which case you just might have found your objection!
After raising your objection and considering how Berkeley or Hume might respond, the last thing that you’ll have to do is to explain whether Berkeley’s or Hume’s response is successful, and why. Importantly, it doesn’t matter whether your answer to this question is yes or no. If you think that Berkeley or Hume does have a successful response to your objection, that’s fine! And if you think that Berkeley or Hume does not have a successful response to your objection, that’s fine too! What’s important isn’t the specific conclusion that you reach but rather how you get to that conclusion—whether your argument is persuasive and whether it demonstrates philosophical creativity.
Hume begins his argument by observing that inductive reasoning is based on the assumption that the future will resemble the past. We infer that the sun will rise tomorrow based on our past observations of it rising each day, for example. However, Hume argues that this assumption cannot be justified by reason alone. Rather, it is based on custom and habit. We have come to expect that the future will resemb
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Hume argues that this reliance on custom and habit is a problem for inductive reasoning, because it means that our inferences are not based on certain knowledge or demonstration. Instead, they are based on probabilities and conjectures. We can never be absolutely sure that the future will resemble the past, because there is always a possibility that something will change that we have not yet observed.
Moreover, Hume notes that the principle of induction is not itself based on observation, but is rather a product of the imagination. We imagine that the future will resemble the past, and this imagination is what allows us to make inductive inferences. But this means that inductive reasoning is not grounded in reason or evidence, but is rather a psychological habit that we have developed.
As a result, Hume argues that we cannot be certain that our inductive inferences are true. They are always open to doubt and revision, based on new evidence or the discovery of new phenomena that challenge our assumptions. This means that our knowledge of the world is always provisional, and subject to revision or rejection.
In conclusion, Hume’s argument for inductive skepticism challenges the reliability of inductive reasoning, and raises serious doubts about our ability to know the world with certainty. By showing that our inductive inferences are based on habit and imagination rather than reason and evidence, Hume highlights the limits of human knowledge and the need for caution in our claims about the world.