Scepticism with regard to reason

David Owen

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

4 Scopus citations


Until recently, philosophical scholarship has not been kind to Hume’s arguments in “Of scepticism with regard to reason” (A Treatise of Human Nature 1.4.1). Thomas Reid gives the negative arguments a pretty rough ride, though in the end he agrees with Hume’s conclusion that reason cannot be defended by reason. D. C. Stove’s comment that the argument is “not merely defective, but one of the worst arguments ever to impose itself on a man of genius” (1973: 131–32), while extreme, is not atypical. Many important books on Hume (e.g., Stroud 1977) simply ignore it, though this may be because it is difficult to find any trace of the arguments in An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. Furthermore, when attention is paid to the arguments, it is devoted mainly to the second of the two negative arguments Hume puts forward, and that argument is held to contain an elementary mistake concerning beliefs about beliefs (MacNabb 1951). Robert Fogelin’s important work on Hume’s scepticism shows the role that “Of scepticism with regard to reason” must play in any assessment of Hume’s scepticism, but he is hardly friendly to the arguments of T 1.4.1 themselves. A more sympathetic account of Hume’s argument is presented in William Edward Morris’s important 1989 article. Morris argues that the issue concerns the level of confidence we have in our beliefs and, furthermore, that the negative arguments are directed not at reason in general, but at a certain “formalist” conception of reason, a conception that Hume replaces with his own. Annette Baier (1991) follows Morris concerning this latter point. While agreeing with Morris’s sympathetic rendering of the arguments, in Owen 1994 I argue that its target is not limited, but quite general. Fogelin (1993, following his 1985 and 1983) also argues that Hume’s target is relatively general and concludes that Hume never entirely rejects the sceptical consequences of the negative arguments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to Hume's Treatise
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages34
ISBN (Electronic)9781139016100
ISBN (Print)9780521821674
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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