Skepticism and the Promise of Philosophy: An Essay on David Hume's Pyrrhonism

Dissertation, Emory University (1992)

This dissertation presents a reinterpretation of Hume's philosophical work by rooting it in a tradition of ancient and modern skepticism, most notably that strain of skepticism called "Pyrrhonism." Among the claims advanced here is the notion that the very most central terms of Hume's philosophical thought as well as the moral ends of his work are best read not simply as reformulations of the modern "way of ideas" and its immediate antecedents but, rather, as heavily laden with the senses of ancient skepticism's vision of genuine thinking and the character of humanity's engagement with its world. The central point of connection between Hume's thought and that of ancient skeptical thought is found in an appraisal of "common life," and reflections upon "common life" are revealed to orient the entirety of Hume's work. Donald W. Livingston's and Richard Popkin's work informs this assessment. Early chapters of the dissertation articulate relevant themes in ancient skepticism, most notably the way in which skeptics embrace alternative modes of discourse and practice in advancing their philosophical program and the range of application of the skeptical epoche or suspension of judgment. Hume's inheritance from Cicero and Sextus Empiricus is explored, and it is shown how Hume's usage of dialogue, many voices, equipollent arguments, as well as his thoughts on natural religion, his moral program, his understanding of the relationship between philosophy and other modes of literature, and his criticism of metaphysics derive from these sources. The influence of Addison, Steele, and British society culture is also briefly addressed. Other topics taken up include the peculiar notion of necessity explored by skepticism, skepticism's project of philosophical education, and concerns with unity and difference relevant to post-modernism. The work of Stanley Cavell is drawn upon heavily in assessing the nature and capacities of skeptical thought
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