Misunderstanding Hume
Misunderstanding Hume
Rudolf Lüthe

George Davie pointed out that just at the same time - the seventies of the last century - when Edinburgh's leading role in Britain's philosophical and scientific life came to an end, the Scottish Enlightenment experienced a renaissance in the Austrian empire. There are two different philosophical movements, starting in Austria that took up the Scottish and, especially, the Humean tradition: Phenomenology and Logical Positivism. One of the reasons why, within the German speaking countries, it was Austria that revived Hume's philosophy, and why in Austria there is a genuine tradition of reception to British (?) philosophy is surely the fact that here Kantianism and Kant's misinterpretation of Hume's role in the history of philosophy never took root. Austrian philosophy therefore retained an openness to English and Scottish influences that was destroyed in Germany by Kant and Hegelian Idealism. It seems that there is a complementary openness also on the British side: both to Wittgenstein and Popper, who gained world - wide respect, or at least a certain notoriety, while teaching in England, are Austrians by birth and reputation.

Now I am sorry that I must spoil this image of harmony between British and Austrian philosophy but I think it is necessary to point out that the positivistic interpretation of Hume's philosophy too is not without misunderstandings. Popper adopted Russell's crude misunderstandings of Hume's role in intellectual history. In the first essay of 'Objective Knowledge' he quotes Russell's motto: "The growth of unreason throughout the nineteenth century and what has passed of the twentieth is a natural sequence to Hume's destruction of empiricism". While Popper suspects Hume to be one of the fathers of an irrationalism which in its final consequence, produced the ideology of German National Socialism. Other representatives of Logical Positivism, although sharing the interpretation of Hume's philosophy as sceptical, point out that this scepticism cannot be regarded as the source of any kind of irrationalism because it was not unlimited. Thus it did not include logical and mathematical knowledge. These kinds of knowledge were to be regarded as certain. Of course the intention behind this Viennese interpretation of Hume is the attempt to establish some kind of superiority of the logical and mathematical sciences over other sciences. Now here can be no doubt that Hume, like nearly all 18th century philosophers, was deeply impressed by the new natural sciences, governed by mathematics. But nevertheless he never forgot that these sciences were empirical and therefore could only attain probability in their judgments, Therefore he developed his own theory of probability. The positivists could, I think, accept this correction without forgoing the general tendency of their own understanding of Hume's thought. But then, I have to draw attention to a very obvious fact, which seems to be overlooked by the positivistic philosophers: Hume admired Newton but did not want to repeat his doctrines. What he wanted was to apply the principles of Newtonian natural science to the moral sciences, to the science of man. He wanted to become a Newton of the Human Sciences.

Rudolf Lüthe, in V.Hope (ed.), Philosophers of The Scottish Enlightenment, EUP 1984, p.112.
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