David Hume – A Treatise on Human Nature (1739-40)

Page numbers refer to Penguin (1985)

Book 2, Part 3: Of the will and direct passions

Hume divides all perceptions into ideas and impressions. Impressions are divided into originary and secondary–or sensational and reflective. Sensational  impressions are sensual and bodily, pains and pleasures, etc. The reflective impressions that result from combinations of the originals are the passions and other emotions. Books 2 (of 3) focuses on the passions. I’m interested primarily in the direct passions, which are those things like pity, fear, hope, desire, aversion, and grief that arise directly from good and evil (or pleasure and pain). To open the section, Hume talks about what will become Kant’s third antinomy–liberty bs. necessity–and claims that we must think of the human passions, his decision to act in such and such away according to a certain  desire, as conforming to the law of necessity. This is because the passions (rooted in the senses) are controlled by necessity, and in turn the will and reason are slaves of the passions. Volition cannot act counter to the passions. The same mechanics that govern external objects (“cause and effect” perceived by the repeated union of our senses and our reason) also govern the will. However, Hume is clear that this is not a degradation of the human, but rather an exaltation of the material world. Indeed, liberty itself becomes synonymous chance, the very thing volition is supposed to guard against. 

In short, Hume is curious because (like Schiller and Hegel) he can be construed as attempting to theorize the affects associated with freedom (desire, etc.) as deriving from the mechanics of nature–they “set the example,” so to speak.

Also, Hume begins to develop theories of distance that will become more explicit in the aesthetic theory (Burke, Kant, Adorno, Bourdieu, etc.). In short, the humans seems strangely divided. The mind more easily concerns and comprehends things that are close in time and space, but the mind is strengthened when things are further away, more distant. Indeed, opposition proves to be vitally linked to pleasure and growth of the mental faculty (cf. Hegel). For example, the difficult of imagining the past (as opposed to the future), increases our admiration for our ancestors, and conceive of them receding up a great ascent (mental scaling the ascent associated with the difficulty of memory as opposed to the easy descent of fantasy). Interesting correlation with Darwin (Descent of Man, etc.). Also, Kant will more rigorously explicate this internal division (between the desire for the easy and the desire for the difficult) in terms of the sublime and beautiful.

Finally, Hume begins to develop a notion of play (cf. Schiller and Gadamer), by arguing that humans (especially hunters and philosophers) are not satisfied by ends, so much as by the relationship one has to that end. This of course connects to Kant’s aesthetic, where the origin of the “feeling” is always the relationship between subject and object–not something inherent to the object–and also to the whole discourse of indirection that gets theorized by JS Mill first, and Lacan and Peter Brooks later on. Hume, however, will use the example of a game, that offers a brief respite from the tiresome scene of humanity. That Hume frequents salons and parlors is clear at this point. One could perhaps think about Bourdieu as also critiquing Hume here…what social status is necessary for these theories to arise, etc.

Hume is important because he manages to create all the problems for which Taste will in many ways become the solution. But as we can see from his essay on Taste, he’s unwilling to grant it any special status. Rather, taste is merely the product of inherited convention, which we learn from the Treatise, is very similar to instinct as such. Does my project mark out a return to Hume in some way?


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