Reading Questions #13
Note: for your convenience, questions will reference paragraph numbers of the treatise found in the margins of
Book II, Part III, Section III
What is the context that Hume expresses as the background to the thesis he will argue
for? What theses does he take himself to be responding to and what theses does he say
he will argue for? (¶1)
He takes as his context moral philosophy up to that point, ancient and
modern. The main theses that he aims to counter is that reason is primary
over the passions, that it is greater and to be obeyed rather than the passions.
He says he will argue for two theses: (1) that reason alone cannot bring about
action and (2) that reason alone cannot oppose action.
What two powers or operations does the understanding have? Try to give an example of
each. Why do neither one of these involve a
of any action? Hume says, “Abstract
or demonstrative reasoning, therefore, never influences any of our actions, but only as
directs our judgment concerning causes and effects, which leads to the second operation
of the understanding.” Explain. (¶2)
The understanding has two powers. (1) to make judgments of fact from
demonstrations or probabilities and (2) to make judgments about the relations
of ideas or the objects about which we have information. Both powers of the
operation are merely informational—they regard only ‘the world of ideas’ and
it is the will that places us in the ‘realities.’ We might desire to know some
cause or effect, but the power of the understanding is merely to judge about
facts or notice the relations of things, so as to accurately inform us of facts
about causes and effects.
According to Hume, what is the source of impulse, and what is the role of reason in
The impulses are emotions of attraction and aversion we find within
ourselves, which extend to objects. The role of reason is just to discover and
represent the relations between things which already affect us by being
objects of attraction or aversion.
Hume says (famously), “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and
can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” What does he mean
and how does he arrive at this conclusion? (¶4)
Reason cannot cause any sort of attraction or aversion, but these exist
independent of reason. Reason can, however, supply the judgments about how
to satisfy our attractions or aversions. Therefore, reason serves the passions,
and can do nothing else.