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08/30/2016

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Dan Kervick

Eric, I agree that Hume's account of space and ideas of space is in part aimed at Newton's conception of absolute space. But it is equally aimed at the Cartesians and Descartes's evacuated chamber argument for a substantive plenum. Hume thinks he is devising a clever relationist middle way way between Newtonianism and Cartesianism with respect to space and extension. And I agree that Hume is critical of Newton and Newtonianism in important additional ways - especially, as you have argued, in his general appraisal of the ultimate utility of Newtonian natural philosophy, at least in comparison with moral science. Nevertheless, I continue to think that Hume does see himself as carrying Newton's method into the moral sciences, and believes the wide general acclaim for that method (at least insofar as he understands it) is entirely justified. He believes he is out-Newtoning Newton, though, in (i) not making Newton's "mistake" of adopting absolute space, which Hume mistakenly thinks is an extraneous metaphysical hypothesis unsupported by empirical proofs, and thus itself a violation of Newtonian method; and (ii) not wasting his time on natural philosophy, which Hume seems to think - now we would have to say thinks somewhat sadly, laughably - is a cultural ornament lacking in practical utility.

Eric Schliesser

Dan, undoubtedly we disagree about some non-trivial details on the Hume/Newton relationship, including the ways his empirical methods are Newtonian or out-Newtoning Newton. But here I would just note that your (ii) is key to what the revisionary literature on Hume aimed to show; and if recognition of your (ii) becomes common sense in scholarship I would be very pleased.

Dan Kervick

I actually don't think we disagree on very much Eric. I agree that there are some real problems with seeing Hume's methods as "Newtonian." For one thing, I think Hume thought a proper method for moral science as theory was to establish and be guided by "general rules" or "maxims" that might be retained and employed even after being found to be subject to some exceptions.

But I nevertheless think it is important that Hume tended to *think* his methods were Newtonian. So as for that part of the traditional view that saw Hume as aspiring to be the second Newton of the moral sciences, I think we can say that part is still intact.

The role of (ii) above is very interesting. I'm not sure we can say it is a revision, per se, to the previous interpretations - but only because those previous interpretations don't seem to have taken much interest in the question of what Hume thought natural philosophy was (or was not) good for. Nevertheless, your work pointed me toward looking at that question, and it was rather startling for me to realize how little appreciation Hume seems to have had of the developing interrelationships between natural science and technological progress, a burgeoning intellectual industry that was already in his time on the cusp of producing revolutionary change in the material conditions of life.

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