Hume, Father of Postmodernism and Anti-rationalism—Part 1

Postmodernism, according to the Public Broadcasting System, is:

A general and wide-ranging term which is applied to literature, art, philosophy, architecture, fiction, and cultural and literary criticism, among others. Postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality. In essence, it stems from a recognition that reality is not simply mirrored in human understanding of it, but rather, is constructed as the mind tries to understand its own particular and personal reality. For this reason, postmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person. In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually. Postmodernism relies on concrete experience over abstract principles, knowing always that the outcome of one's own experience will necessarily be fallible and relative, rather than certain and universal.

Postmodernism is "post" because it is denies the existence of any ultimate principles, and it lacks the optimism of there being a scientific, philosophical, or religious truth which will explain everything for everybody - a characterisitic of the so-called "modern" mind. The paradox of the postmodern position is that, in placing all principles under the scrutiny of its skepticism, it must realize that even its own principles are not beyond questioning. As the philospher Richard Tarnas states, postmodernism "cannot on its own principles ultimately justify itself any more than can the various metaphysical overviews against which the postmodern mind has defined itself."

I chose this description of postmodernism from PBS, because it is obviously embraced by whoever wrote it. If I had presented a description of post modernism by someone critical of it, the description could easily be put down as an exaggeration or an absurdity no one could believe. For any rational objective person, what postmodernism really promotes must seem like something out of Alice in Wonderland. I also chose this description because it contains most of the concepts that have their origin in David Hume, either directly or consequently.

The purpose of this series of articles on the anti-civilizing revolution of the West is to explain where the destructive ideas that are the basis of that revolution originated and how they have been propagated into every facet of todays culture and society. In the previous article I listed the six streams (or threads) by which those destructive ideas were transmitted and promoted as: 1. Cultural Marxism; 2. Post Modernism; 3. Psychology; 4. Sociology; 5. Education; and 6. Humanism, pointing out that all of these have their source in Hume.

The purpose of this article is simply to demonstrate that all of the corrupting, anti-intellectual, anti-Western Civilization ideas in all these streams were already in Hume. Subsequent articles will demonstrate how those ideas came to influence those responsible for developing and promoting those ideas and their effects of today's society and culture.

Except where noted, these comments are based on material from a single work of Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding [1739].

Hume's Anti-knowledge Anti-philosophy

The meanings of some words in 1700s, when Hume wrote them, were somewhat different from their meaning today. Philosophy, for example, had a much broader meaning in Hume's day, and included almost all major disciplines of study, which was much closer to the etymology of the word: from the Greek philosophos, lover of wisdom; that is philo-, love + sophi, knowledge. It still had that meaning in the early 1900s according to the 1913 Edition of Webster's Revised Unabridged, which included the following in its very long definition:

"... When applied to any particular department of knowledge, philosophy denotes the general laws or principles under which all the subordinate phenomena or facts relating to that subject are comprehended. Thus philosophy, when applied to God and the divine government, is called theology; when applied to material objects, it is called physics; when it treats of man, it is called anthropology and psychology, with which are connected logic and ethics; when it treats of the necessary conceptions and relations by which philosophy is possible, it is called metaphysics..."

It was philosophy, in that sense, that was the heart of "modernism," or "the Western mind," which was dominated by a belief in general laws and principles by which all of reality could be comprehended and the absolute value of pursuing that kind of knowledge—and it is philosophy in that sense that Hume set out to demolish.

From the very beginning, Hume subtly hammers away at any idea suggesting certainty, abstract knowledge, principles, or absolutes. Hume writes in, "Section I—Of the Different Species of Philosophy:"

"Man is a reasonable being; and as such, receives from science his proper food and nourishment: But so narrow are the bounds of human understanding, that little satisfaction can be hoped for in this particular, either from the extent of security or his acquisitions. Man is a sociable, no less than a reasonable being: but neither can he always enjoy company agreeable and amusing, or preserve the proper relish for them. Man is also an active being; and from that disposition, as well as from the various necessities of human life, must submit to business and occupation: but the mind requires some relaxation, and cannot always support its bent to care and industry. It seems, then, that nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable to the human race, and secretly admonished them to allow none of these biases to draw too much, so as to incapacitate them for other occupations and entertainments. Indulge your passion for science, says she, but let your science be human, and such as may have a direct reference to action and society. Abstruse thought and profound researches I prohibit, and will severely punish, by the pensive melancholy which they introduce, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you, and by the cold reception which your pretended discoveries shall meet with, when communicated. Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man."

In my article, "Three Books—An Atheist's Defence of Christianity," under "The Road to Nihilism," I quoted Ayn Rand:

"Most people lack [the capacity for] reverence and "taking things seriously. "They do not hold anything to be very serious or profound. There is nothing that is sacred or immensely important to them. There is nothing—no idea, object, work, or person—that can inspire them with a profound, intense, and all-absorbing passion that reaches to the roots of their souls. ... They cannot give themselves entirely to anything." [Journals - Part 1: Early Projects, "The Hollywood Years," circa February 1928, ... her first attempt in English to plan a novel. The working title was "The Little Street."]

These words of Rand leapt immediately to mind while reading again Hume's opening paragraph, and the contrast illustrated better than anything I know what vile ideas Hume intended to foist on the world. "Have your science (but don't expect too much from it), your work (but don't make work your life), your philosophy (but too much will make you sick, foster doubts and uncertainty, and will make you unpopular, because you'll be "so serious." What did Hume think a man is? All of this is directed against the one thing that distinguishes him from all other creatures, his mind. Have a look again at all men accomplished between 1785 and 1958 and be forever grateful those men, who gave themselves wholly to what they believed and aspired to, were not influenced by Hume.

I must mention one other thing from this first section of Hume's Inquiry. Near the end of the section, Hume indulges one of his many digressions, which are mostly unimportant, but this one is significant.

He writes, "Astronomers had long contented themselves with proving, from the phaenomena, the true motions, order, and magnitude of the heavenly bodies: till a philosopher, at last, arose, who seems, from the happiest reasoning, to have also determined the laws and forces, by which the revolutions of the planets are governed and directed." The "philosopher" Hume had in mind was obviously Newton, but it was not physics Hume is interested in here. Hume's point was this: "And shall we esteem it worthy the labour of a philosopher to give us a true system of the planets, and adjust the position and order of those remote bodies; while we affect to overlook those, who, with so much success, delineate the parts of the mind, in which we are so intimately concerned?" Hume is promoting a science of the "mind" that would be as certain as Newton's physics, a pseudoscience we today refer to as psychology. Here, also, are two contradictions, first in extolling Newton, who obviously gave himself totally to what he believed, contrary to Hume's opening paragraphs, and another that we are yet to discover, which is Hume's total repudiation of abstract ideas and principles, without which there can be no science, real or otherwise.

An Absurd Epistemology

Some of Hume's concepts (if they can be called that) are so primitive, that one is tempted to say, it cannot be what he really meant. The heart of a proper philosophy is epistemology, the study of knowledge. Hume has no truck with such abstract thoughts, but nevertheless is able to say with complete assurance exactly what "ideas" are. In one sense what Hume means by ideas is what you and I mean, they are what we think with and think about. But Hume's notion of what ideas (or concepts) actually consist of is that of a child or uncivilized savage.

Hume surprisingly understands that there is only one kind of consciousness, perceptual consciousness (although how he knows this is never explained). He begins the second section, "Of the Origin of Ideas," with these words: , "... there is a considerable difference between the perceptions of the mind, when a man feels the pain of excessive heat, or the pleasure of moderate warmth, and when he afterwards recalls to his memory this sensation, or anticipates it by his imagination. ... These faculties may mimic or copy the perceptions of the senses; but they never can entirely reach the force and vivacity of the original ... therefore we may divide all the perceptions of the mind into two classes or species, which are distinguished by their different degrees of force and vivacity. The less forcible and lively are commonly denominated Thoughts or Ideas." Hume labels the original direct percepts "of the senses" "impressions. "... impressions are distinguished from ideas, which are the less lively perceptions, of which we are conscious" [By "lively," Hume means what we mean by "vivid," which he interchanges with "lively".]

For Hume, "ideas" are like fuzzy pictures or representations of what we directly experience. The idea "dog" or "table" is just an incomplete "picture" of a dog or table recalled from memory. This is the epistemology of a child or a brute, not that of philosopher. Perhaps you think, as I suggested, this cannot be what Hume means.

In Hume's footnote to his final section, "Section XII—Of the Academical Or Sceptical Philosophy," he makes his view explicit: "Thus when the term Horse is pronounced, we immediately figure [picture] to ourselves the idea of a black or a white animal, of a particular size or figure: But as that term is also usually applied to animals of other colours, figures and sizes, these ideas, though not actually present to the imagination, are easily recalled; and our reasoning and conclusion proceed in the same way, as if they were actually present."

If you've ever heard someone say, "our ideas can never be as perfect as real things," or "our ideas of things are always incomplete," they are expressing Hume's notion of ideas, which is, at best, pre-Aristotelian. This particular Humean infection is so intrenched in academia and every intellectual field today, that the Aristotelian understanding of what concepts (ideas) actually are has almost been lost.

An idea or concept is not a "picture" or "representation" of anything. A concept is the identification of an existent (entity or idea) or a class of existents (entities or other ideas). A concept for a single entity is called "particular;" a concept for a class of existents is called "universal."

The meaning of a concept is the entity or entities it identifies, with all their qualities, attributes, and relationships, whether those qualities, attributes, and relationships (beyond those necessary for their identification) are known or not. The concept designated by the word "dog," for example, means every dog there is, ever was, ever will be, or can be imagined. When used particularly, "that dog is my dog," it means the identified dog with all its qualities, attributes, history, and relationships, and when used universally, "a dog is man's best friend," it means all dogs with all the attributes shared by all dogs and all the attributes possible to individual dogs.

When we think, "dog," it may or may not be accompanied by a more or less vivid image of a dog, but with or without it, the concept and it's meaning are the same. A boy may know a lot about his own dog, but certainly will not know as much as a veterinarian knows about dogs, yet when either says, "dog," the concept is identical and means the same thing. As the boy leans more about dogs, his concept of dog does not change, only his knowledge about what that concept identifies changes.

Far from being incomplete or imperfect representations of reality as it is perceived, concepts are the means by which we learn infinitely more about the things we perceive than we could ever know by direct perception alone. Ironically, a word, as the symbol for a concept, is worth a thousand pictures, and actually represents an infinite number of them.

One's epistemology is the foundation of all one's thinking. Hume's absurdly primitive epistemology made clear reason nearly impossible. All the rest of his philosophy is the result of this corrupt foundation.

Making Reason Impossible

Hume explicitly denies abstract concepts in the same footnote mentioned above, "it seems to be not impossible to avoid these absurdities and contradictions, if it be admitted, that there is no such thing as abstract or general ideas, properly speaking; but that all general ideas are, in reality, particular ones, attached to a general term, which recalls, upon occasion, other particular ones, that resemble, in certain circumstances, the idea, present to the mind." It is this section on the origin of ideas that he sets up the groundwork for that denial based squarely on his absurd view of ideas.

In discussing the formation of "abstract" ideas, Hume explains, "all this creative power of the mind amounts to no more than the faculty of compounding, transposing, augmenting, or diminishing the materials afforded us by the senses and experience. [What the "faculty" is or how Hume knows this, he does not explain, and all the philosophers following who swallowed his nonsense never bothered to ask.] "When we think of a golden mountain," he continues, "we only join two consistent ideas, gold, and mountain, with which we were formerly acquainted. A virtuous horse we can conceive; because, from our own feeling, we can conceive virtue; and this we may unite to the figure and shape of a horse, which is an animal familiar to us. In short, all the materials of thinking are derived either from our outward or inward sentiment: the mixture and composition of these belongs alone to the mind and will. Or, to express myself in philosophical language, all our ideas or more feeble perceptions are copies of our impressions or more lively ones.

I'll ignore the obvious subjectivism of, "from our own feeling, we can conceive virtue," to point out the important and obvious horror of this paragraph. According to Hume, ideas are nothing but a mish-mash of vague impressions put together in no particular order or for any particular reason—which is supposed to be a description of how ideas are formed but sounds much more like the description of the consciousness of a psychotic.

Though Hume repeatedly uses and recommends "reasoning" throughout his work, how one reasons without abstract concepts or with concepts that are nothing but, "little confused fuzzy pictures," is not explained. In truth, Hume's work is full of abstract concepts of the very kind he denies. In the paragraph just quoted, Hume uses: creative; power; mind; faculty; compounding; transposing; augmenting; diminishing; materials; afforded; consistent; ideas; formerly; acquainted; virtuous; conceive; unite; shape; familiar; outward; inward; sentiment; mixture; composition; alone; philosophical; language; feeble; lively. Ayn Rand rightly called this dishonest or ignorant use of concepts one denies exist, "stolen concepts."