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An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding


Section VIII, Part 1

Summary Section VIII, Part 1

Hume reconciles free will and determinism by drawing on his deflation of causal necessity that has dominated the Enquiry. This section could be read as a display of the force to which he can put the arguments he has previously set out. If there is no necessary connection, but only constant conjunction, between physical events, then physical events are on a level with human behavior. In both cases we observe certain regularities, make predictions regarding future outcomes, and act according to those predictions. The more our predictions prove correct, the more confident we become in making predictions in that domain. Thus, the difference between our certainty that fire will burn and that liars will deceive is only a matter of degree as to how regular our past observations of fire and liars have been. Fundamentally, our predictions concerning the one are the same kind as our predictions concerning the other.

Hume's conception of human nature, while not necessarily mistaken, is unmistakably rooted in the environment of eighteenth-century Enlightenment thought. Enlightenment thinkers believed firmly in the uniformity and universality of human reason, that all people fundamentally are the same and think the same. Thus, correct reasoning should be universally applicable and heeded. Postmodern thinking tends to hold a far more skeptical and relativistic position toward human reason, suggesting that what might be true for me might not be true for someone else. Hume's assertion that all human behavior follows from the same motives and causes might be held to closer scrutiny today than it was in his day. The relative merits and defects of the Enlightenment view versus the Postmodern view is beyond the scope of this commentary, but can make for some very lively debate between friends.

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