[hist-analytic] Hume's Fork

Roger Bishop Jones rbj at rbjones.com
Wed Mar 11 12:46:50 EDT 2009

A while back J.L. Speranza questioned whether "the fork"
really was Hume's.

On Monday 23 February 2009 14:05:00 Jlsperanza at aol.com wrote:

>I am fascinated by the 'fork' in that I think Ayers was mistaken, and
>mistakes others in the history of philosophy. One google hit for "Hume's
> fork" read, with indignation:
>"No, of course Hume's fork did _Not_ spawn  empiricism; Empiricism goes back
>to Aristotle!"

>As Bishop has edited the Locke Essay, one indeed may think that the fork
>Hume borrowed from Locke but never returned. There was a reference to the
> Hume Fork in a Locke bibliography, online -- by an author with a German
> surname. So possibly Ayers (who wrote on Locke) is aware that much of this
> is Locke's fork.

I don't know whether Flew intended to attribute the fork to Hume
or not, he could just have been writing about Hume and thought a
name for this central feature of his philosophy would be a good
idea whether or not it originated with Hume.

Anyway, since I propose to make "Hume's Fork" into a fulcrum
around which the historical part of my monograph will
turn, I thought it might be a good idea to say why I think
Hume's account of the dichotomies is important enough to
be given prime place (in my historical narrative).

The short version of this explanations is that:

1.  I think Hume was the first to get it right.
2.  It seems to be more important in Hume's
    philosophy than it is anywhere else I know of.
    Hume's philosophy seems to me to hang around the dichotomy.
    Especially if you accept Hume's view of what was most
    important in his philosophy when he came up with the "Enquiry".
    (though the fork is not a central thesis, it is a starting
    point rather than a conclusion)

By contrast, for example, Locke is an empiricist and the
analytic side for him is trivial, so the fork not so important.

The reference back to Aristotle may be closer to the mark, and
we find Aristotle in pole position in Hume's account,
where the analytic side is:

   "every affirmation which is either intuitively
   or demonstratively certain"

which is Aristotelian terminology.

However, in Aristotle, the notion of "intuitively certain"
is the point at which his essentialism operates (we intuit
the essential properties of things), whereas Hume has
already edged towards a conventionalist position by describing
the subject matter as "Relations of Ideas", making the
dichotomy semantic in character rather than metaphysical.
The characterisation of the dichotomy in terms of its
subject matter may remind us of Plato's distinction
between that true knowledge which we may have of Platonic
forms, and the unreliable opinions which we may have
of the shadowy sensible world. But again the Platonic
view is metaphysical, for Plato thinks the world of
Platonic forms is the true reality, not just a place
to play with ideas.

Most ideas, when you look closely, can be traced back a
very long way, and this is true of the dichotomies, but
it is nevertheless sometimes helpful to distinguish the
evolution of ideas from that of "precursors".
One relevant place where this happens is in Kolakowski's
"Positivist Philosophy" in which he choses Hume as the
first true positivist (despite Comte having coined the
term). Possibly the single most important feature of
this conception of positivism is its anti-essentialism,
and this is manifest in Hume's sensational
call for the burning of metaphysical texts.

Before Hume we see pre-cursors of the (fundamental
triple) dichotomy, after Hume we see controversy about
and refinement of it.

The slightly longer story that I hope to develop in the
monograph involves making the "triple-dichotomy" a
resolution of three long standing historical dialectics:

1.   That between scepticism and dogmatism
2.   That between rationalism and empiricism
3.   That between essentialism and nominalism

All of which can be traced back close to the beginnings
of philosophy.  

The first two are resolved by Hume in the synthesis
embodied in the triple-dichotomy.

The dialectic between sceptics who claim that nothing
can be known, and dogmatists who know all, is synthesised
by Hume into the distinction between those things which
can and those which cannot be known with certainty.

The dialectic between rationalists who believe that
all knowledge comes from reason (or trivialise that
obtainable through the senses) and empiricists who
believe that all knowledge comes through the senses
(or trivialise that obtainable by reason) is synthesised
by Hume into a second aspect of the same dichotomy,
the division between those things which can be known
by deductive reason, and those things of which the
senses alone provide evidence, however inconclusive.

In these two Hume finds a middle ground marked by
a line which I believe to be fundamental and objective,
and the subsequent history may be seen as transformed
by Hume into a dialectic between those who dislike
the narrow scope which he allows for reason
and seek to dismantle his synthesis, (Kant, Kripke)
and those who defend and refine his position (Frege, Carnap).

In the last dialectic, Hume does not find a moderating
synthesis.  His fork takes him straight to the dismissal
of metaphysics, the anti-essentialist view that all
necessity lies in language (in relations between ideas).
There is here no middle ground.

So, in this longer story, the history of the dichotomy
falls into two phases, before and after Hume.
Before Hume we have a dialectic leading to Hume's
After Hume that synthesis is dominant and is a mainstay
of posivism, the dialectic being between those
who re-affirm and refine his position
and those who challenge it.

Is this a plausible story or a fantasy?

Roger Jones

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