Hume on Theoretical Simplicity

Philosophers' Imprint 23 (1) (2023)
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Abstract

Hume often praises and appeals to the theoretical virtue of simplicity in his philosophy. Yet there has been relatively little scholarship done on Hume’s conception of theoretical simplicity. This paper will look to rectify this lacuna in the literature. In particular, it will look to answer three questions as they relate to Hume’s philosophy. First, what is theoretical simplicity? Second, why should we favour simpler theories over more complex ones? Third, can a theory be too simple, and if so, how?The paper will argue that for Hume, theoretical simplicity concerns the causal explanation of phenomena in terms of the fewest possible causes. Second, simplicity has both epistemic and aesthetic value for Hume. While he does not follow his contemporaries in appealing to God to justify the truth-conduciveness of theoretical simplicity, some of his discussions of this virtue include elements suggestive of a meta-inductive justification of it. In addition, Hume also sees theoretical simplicity as having an intrinsic aesthetic value over and above its epistemic merit. Third, Hume recognises that there are both epistemic and aesthetic tradeoffs involved with theoretica lsimplicity, which might rule against an overly simple theory.

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Hsueh Qu
National University of Singapore

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