Why Should We Be Wise?

Hume Studies 31 (1):3-20 (2005)
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There is a tension in Hume’s theory of belief. He tells us that beliefs are ideas that, as a result of certain natural mechanisms of the mind, become particularly lively and vivacious. Such an account seems to allow us little control over which beliefs we acquire, maintain or eschew. It seems I could not avoid feeling the strength of such ideas any more than I could avoid feeling the strength of the sun when exposed to it. Yet much of Hume’s writings on belief reveal that he thinks we do have quite a lot of control in the area of belief maintenance and that we can be blameworthy for holding some beliefs and not others. For example, he says that beliefs that are a result of prejudice, namely beliefs formed on the basis of “general rules contrary to present observation and experience,” are “errors.” It is similarly an error if I believe x rather than y simply because x occurred more recently and is thus conceived by my mind in a more lively manner. The man who trembles when looking at the precipice below him, despite the complete security afforded by the iron cage he is in, ought not to believe he is in danger. Hume says we “ought to regulate our judgment concerning causes and effect” with rules that are formed in the understanding. These rules teach us to “distinguish accidental circumstances from the effacacious causes”. In the first Enquiry, Hume says, “A wise man … proportions his belief to the evidence.”



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Miriam Schleifer McCormick
University of Richmond

Citations of this work

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