Monday, April 07, 2008

Hume Didn't Discover the Problem of Induction

I noticed that Hume's insight into the problem of induction was not so original as philosophers like to claim when I took Ancient Philosophy. Good to see that the philosophical literature has raised the point as well. The same applies to just about all philosophical literature, I imagine -- which makes me wonder whether philosophy has been just a distraction from real knowledge all along. The Greeks set not only the foundation -- they may have built a good sturdy building, as well, and instead of letting it lie and giving it its due recognition, we tear it out down out of a need to publish. Adding more words to a world which is already drowning in them seems like a problem to me.

4 comments:

ADHR said...

Meh. I'm not convinced. ;) A lot of scholarship in ancient philosophy strikes me as creative reconstruction rather than simply translation and reportage. It's not necessarily bad -- far from it -- but I suspect that Hume's problem can be read back into the ancient tradition because those who read the ancients are familiar with Hume. Much as, say, Plato (and Hume himself, for that matter) can be seen as the source of so-called "belief-desire" psychology, an idea which really seems to have been articulated by Davidson in the '60's.

The ancients asked a lot of good questions. It strikes me, though, that most of their answers are ones we've improved on. (Aristotle's theory of vision being a good example.)

undergroundman said...

Did you actually read the paper? I had access to it through JSTOR, so I'm betting you do too.

ADHR said...

Yeah. Why? She does what I said she does. She, rather tendentiously, tries to find Hume's problem in Sextus Empiricus' problem of the criterion. (Which I suspect is itself probably a reading into Empiricus of Chisholm's precise rendering of the problem.) I don't think Empiricus, as she cites him, is nearly clear enough to be actually saying what she claims he's saying. To my eye, he's advancing an argument from disagreement against reasoning generally.

She also, I now notice, seems to be misreading Hume as arguing that induction is not justified because all we can rely upon is further induction. That's not what he says. What he actually says is that induction is just a habit of thought, not something which gives us access to a world of truths or genuine knowledge. The issue actually has nothing to do with justification, which is clearly what Empiricus is talking about; it has to do with whether a psychological habit is good enough to be a means of accessing truth. The business about induction only being justified by further induction is only supposed to establish that induction is a common habit of thought.

undergroundman said...

It all comes down to whether Hume's argument was an application of the criterion argument. To me, they seem fairly similar; you disagree.

The issue actually has nothing to do with justification, which is clearly what Empiricus is talking about; it has to do with whether a psychological habit is good enough to be a means of accessing truth. The business about induction only being justified by further induction is only supposed to establish that induction is a common habit of thought.

That's only a relatively minor addition to the fundamental argument that induction is unreliable.

Certainly you can't deny that the problem of induction (as well as the problem of deduction) has its root in ancient Greece -- and really, we haven't made a ton of progress since then, if you ask me.