Monday, May 31, 2010

Hume's Inaccurate Predictions

In the introductory section of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume contrasts two ways of doing philosophy. While I don't want to try and sort out the interpretive issues of how, precisely, he means to distinguish the two categories here, his discussion includes a set of (retrospectively) bizarre predictions about the longterm popularity of practitioners of the different styles. He says:
This also must be confessed, that the most durable, as well as justest fame, has been acquired by the easy philosophy, and that abstract reasoners seem hitherto to have enjoyed only a momentary reputation, from the caprice or ignorance of their own age, but have not been able to support their renown with more equitable posterity. It is easy for a profound philosopher to commit a mistake in his subtile reasonings; and one mistake is the necessary parent of another, while he pushes on his consequences, and is not deterred from embracing any conclusion, by its unusual appearance, or its contradiction to popular opinion. But a philosopher, who purposes only to represent the common sense of mankind in more beautiful and more engaging colours, if by accident he falls into error, goes no farther; but renewing his appeal to common sense, and the natural sentiments of the mind, returns into the right path, and secures himself from any dangerous illusions. The fame of Cicero flourishes at present; but that of Aristotle is utterly decayed. La Bruyere passes the seas, and still maintains his reputation: but the glory of Malebranche is confined to his own nation, and to his own age. And Addison, perhaps, will be read with pleasure, when Locke shall be entirely forgotten. (source)

From the perspective of contemporary academic philosophy in the United States, at least, these predictions are exactly backwards. I've had a decent amount of exposure to Aristotle's actual views, while the main thing I know about Cicero is that he also went by "Tully", and is thus a convenient example for illustrating Frege's Puzzle. While Malebranch wasn't a major focus of my early modern studies, he certainly got more attention that La Bruyere, and it is pretty clear that Locke has not been "entirely forgotten".

While I don't know how these figures reputations turned out outside of academia, or even outside of philosophy departments (and it is also possible that my experiences are not really representative), I always find this paragraph somewhat jarring as I settle in to read the Enquiry.

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