Monday, June 15, 2009

Merely Verbal Disputes and the Origin of Ideas

Re-reading Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding for the umpteenth time, I am struck (again) by just how many perennial disputes in philosophy are dismissed by Hume as merely verbal disputes. Once we get clear on what we mean by our words, we can swat away pesky problems like the compatibility of liberty and necessity or the nature of causation. Other than Wittgenstein, has any other philosopher been so dismissive of so many "classic" problems in philosophy?

I think it should be noted, though, that Hume's rhetoric is a bit loftier than his (usually very careful) arguments. As he is quite clear to say, when not in high-literary mode, his principle that every idea comes from a corresponding impression plays a large role in dismissing these debates. When pressed with an alleged idea in metaphysics that must be accounted for, Hume presses us to consider the origin of this idea, and if the original impression cannot be produced, the idea is discarded. When dealing with philosophy problems, this (controversial) strategy helps clear the field quite quickly.

I have to admit to being almost completely unmotivated by this line of argument that occurs so regularly in Hume. For even if I were to grant Hume's controversial premise that every idea comes from a corresponding impression ("the Copy Principle"), I see absolutely no reason why I should have to provide that impression whenever someone questions the legitimacy of one of my ideas. Of course, it may help to get clear on an idea to ferret out the original impression, but that I must provide some sort of Certificate of Authenticity for each and every one of my ideas strikes me as an unhelpful and counterproductive test. I'm not one to think I have a great deal of insight into my own soul or my own ideas, but I do think that I can sometimes have a particular idea without being able to say where this idea originated. And I think I am fully within my philosophical rights (were there such a thing) to cling to an idea for which I cannot produce the original impression, even if I were to accept Hume's claim that every idea comes from an impression.

Even if one accepts the Copy Principle, that does not seem like enough to motivate the test of authenticity that Hume wields throughout the Enquiry (and Treatise). But at least it gives us some reason to think that many of our disputes might be dissolved by getting clear on our terms. Which is more than motivates most claims of verbal disputes. One of the most irritating expressions tossed about by students and other would-be disputants is that a problem is really "just semantics." Besides denigrating the worthy field of semantics, it is often misused for problems that are not really about the meaning of words but about concepts. And, most frustratingly, it seems motivated by the twin evils of carelessness (in the use of terms) and laziness (in working through an issue under debate). I've said many times that if I could pass one requirement for students receiving a B.A. it would be that they never, ever dismiss a problem as "just semantics."

Okay, end of grumpy old-man rant.

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