Perhaps the cultural situation of the West is sufficiently insecure, like that of Athens after the war with Sparta, for us to need the same defenses against the skeptical quote marks that were provided by Socrates and Plato.They taught us that we can respond to an eternal independent beacon, the heavenly structures of reason itself. The idea that down in our foundations there lie grubby creatures like desires, or passions, or needs, or culture, is like some nightmarish madwoman in the attic, and induces the same kind of reaction that met Darwin when he too drew attention to our proximity to animals rather than to angels. Surely we, the creatures of reason, are not in bondage to the horrible contingencies that go with being an animal? From their professorial eyries the mandarins fight back, reassuring each other that the Holy Grail is there to be seen, spilling into tomes and journals and conferences, e-mails, blogs and tweets, the torrents of what Wittgenstein nicely called the “slightly hysterical style of university talk.”
The pragmatist slogan that “meaning is use” directs us to look at the actual functioning of language. We then come at the nature of our thinking by understanding the ways we express ourselves. Meaning is important, as analytical philosophy always held. But it is a house with many mansions. It is not monolithically and myopically concerned with recording the passing show, as if all we can do is make public whichever aspect of reality has just beamed upon us. We are agents in our world, constantly doing things — so much so that perception, like reason, is itself an adaptation whose function is not to pick out the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but only to foreground what is salient in the service of our goals and needs. Meaning, therefore, needs to look two ways: back to the environment within which our mental lives are situated, but also forward to the changes in that environment that our desires and goals determine. Fortunately these ideas have percolated widely into areas outside philosophy: it is widely understood, for instance, that animal signals are more like injunctions telling other animals what to do, than simple registrations of elements in the environment.
Hume was able to use his pragmatism and his pluralism about the many functions of the mind to avoid metaphysics. About that he was famously a pyromaniac, advocating that we commit to the flames most of what has passed as philosophy from Parmenides to Berkeley. But people need philosophy: we need defenses against the corrosive drips of skepticism. This need surely motivates the apostles of reason to persevere at metaphysics, exploring the world of being and becoming, delineating the true and ultimate nature of reality, finding what is truly there behind the superficial appearances of things. And combined with this image of what we should be doing there comes the inability to read or appreciate anyone who is doing something entirely different. So the stark, $64,000 question in much contemporary interpretation of Hume is whether he was a “realist” or not about values and causes, or even persons and ordinary things — questions that should actually be nowhere on the agenda, since it imports precisely the way of looking at things that Hume commits to the flames. Hume’s road is subtle, and too few philosophers dare take it. Yet the whirligig of time may bring in its revenges, as a new generation of pragmatists look at much contemporary writing with the same horror as Hume directed at Spinoza, Nietzsche at Kant, or Russell at Hegel. Meanwhile one soldiers on, hoping, as Hume himself did, for the downfall of some of the prevailing systems of superstition.
SIMON BLACKBURN:Of Hume and Bondage