Against the “New Hume”

Is Hume, or is he not, a realist about what Galen Strawson calls “Causation” (with a capital “C”) and Simon Blackburn calls “thick connexions”, that is, necessary connexions between events that go beyond functional relations of regular succession? With this “New Hume” debate now in its third decade, one might feel entitled to wonder whether there is any determinate answer to be had. Both sides have found plenty of Humean quotations to throw at their opponents, passages which taken in isolation might appear to settle the question in their favour. At the same time, both sides have been able to construct plausible accounts of why their opponents’ favoured quotations lack the force that they initially appear to have, and some of these accounts have been not only plausible but philosophically illuminating, unearthing subtle complexities in Hume’s thought which promise – whatever the eventual outcome of the debate – to leave Hume scholarship much richer than had the debate never arisen. This might suggest that the appropriate response is to give up the quest for a definitive answer, to see partial truth on both sides, and to acknowledge that Hume’s thought contains an unresolved tension, with strains both of realism and antirealism about Causation.1 But such a reaction, though natural, would I believe be premature, for two related reasons, concerning respectively the importance to Hume of his theory of causation, and its intimate – but sometimes under-explored – relationships with other aspects of his thought.
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