Which philosopher had the strongest arguments?
- David Hume was one of the most genial men of his day and was well loved, despite courting scandal for the frankness of his philosophy and his irreligiosity.
- Hume's work critiquing the traditional arguments for God, his "problem of induction," and his metaethics are still considered some of the most brilliant and devastating pieces of philosophy of all time.
- Hume's works are readable and powerful in their simplicity.
No philosopher is completely right about anything. Even if we can say someone’s ideas turned out to be popular or backed up by science or got picked up by later philosophers, that doesn’t actually mean they were right about what they said. In fact, it is hard to see what “right” in philosophy would mean (not least because, “What does ‘right’ mean?” is itself a philosophical question). For every argument a philosopher can make, there is bound to be some dissenting voice.
And so, perhaps the best way to approach the question of “strongest philosopher” is to consider instead: Who was the least wrong? This is different, of course, from who had the most influence. Because, as we saw with Marx, being right or wrong (or at least inaccurate), does not necessarily diminish your impact.
So, to consider which philosopher had the strongest arguments, a good way might be to see whose arguments have not yet been beaten — that is, the philosopher who left us with insurmountable problems, who made observations that are hard to deny, and who provided the landscape into which so much modern philosophy works. If these are the criteria, then one answer comes jumping out: David Hume.
A Hume-orous and genial man
David Hume is generally considered to be one of the nicest men of 18th century Britain. Like Benjamin Franklin, he was thought to be personable, witty, and generous and was known in France as “le bon David” or “Saint David” in his native Scotland. He was close friends with James Boswell and Adam Smith and even took in Jean-Jacques Rousseau after his flight from France. (Rousseau eventually went mad with paranoia and accused Hume of leading an international conspiracy to defame him.)
Hume made his money from his colossal History of England (which runs at over 3,000 pages, even with today’s printers). Even though he was denied a professorship for his irreligiosity, and was ostracized by the church, he had the means and money by which to live a comfortable life. Nor did his friends particularly mind the scandal he courted, as Hume would regularly entertain the literati and intellectuals of his day. Although he died one of the most painful deaths possible (from bowel cancer), he treated even this with ebullience and stoicism, writing that dying at 65 wasn’t so bad as it “cuts off only a few years of infirmities.”
But, more than anything, Hume was a fantastic philosopher.
The Great Infidel
Hume’s critique of the traditional arguments for God in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion are widely considered to be the ones to beat. Although Hume was publicly known to be anti-religion most of his life (he was nicknamed “The Great Infidel” by Boswell), he hid this behind mysticism and third-party dialogues. His great attack on religion in the Dialogues was even delayed in publication until after he died (on the suggestion of his friend, Adam Smith).
But their content is pretty devastating. The likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris owe a lot of their “New Atheism” to Hume, at times lifting his arguments almost blow for blow. While it is too far to say the cosmological and teleological arguments for God are dead in the water, Hume definitely offered a substantial challenge.
The sun’ll come out, tomorrow!
Second, Hume’s “problem of induction” is still one of the most brilliant and intractable issues in the philosophy of science. This asks how it is that we can guarantee the future will resemble the past, or put another way, it wonders if any amount of previous observation can absolutely prove what will happen in the future. Just because the sun has risen every day in human history does not mean it has to happen tomorrow. There is no way of knowing what might happen in the future.
The problem is still with us, and it seemingly points to a limitation of inductive reasoning — that is, the collection of data to make generalized conclusions — in that it will never, no matter the strength and volume of data, lead to certainty. One of the best ways to address Hume’s problem is to adopt a theory of “falsification” (from Karl Popper, particularly), in which nothing can ever be proven, per se, but rather not shown to be false… yet. But the problem of induction remains.
You can’t tell me what to do
Finally, Hume wrote extensively on ethics, and he called out one of the biggest logical errors that philosophers are often guilty of: the “naturalistic fallacy,” sometimes called the “is-ought” problem. This states that we can never come to a moral imperative, like “You should do X,” on the basis of a fact about the world, such as, “X produces pleasure.” There is always a gap between the fact (the “is”) and the moral command (the “ought”), which asks, “Why does producing pleasure mean that it is right?” Another example: There is nothing inherent in the sentence, “That bomb will kill a child,” which also means, “You should not drop the bomb.” The two are not, at least philosophically, connected.
Hume was almost excommunicated for his ethical (as well as his religious) writings, as he ended up being something of an “emotivist.” This means that he believed that right and wrong, good and bad, vice and virtue, were not innate, God-given things but were merely expressions of sentiment. To say, “This is wrong,” is really only a statement about your value judgements. Hume was one of the first to say publicly that he thought ethics, and actions more generally, had very little to do with logic or reason alone. Hume insisted that we consider the huge importance of emotion or passion in driving and motivating action — a bold position in the heart of the reason-loving Enlightenment.
These “metaethical” positions are hugely popular today, not least because Hume introduces them with a common sense psychology that was far ahead of his time.
A gentle genius
This is philosophy, after all, and I would be pilloried if I were to suggest Hume is the final word on anything. But his ideas do take some chewing. He threw down at least three of the biggest questions in philosophy today — for science, ethics, and religion — and so many journal articles are spent trying to untangle him.
But, from a personal point of view, what impresses me most is the clarity and simple purpose of Hume’s writing. He had no need to make up words (as the Germans often did), he did not resort to wallowing in esoteric and inaccessible terminology (as post-modernists like Kristeva or Deleuze are often guilty of), and he did not resort to using God or revelation or mystery to make his case.
Hume lets his arguments speak for themselves, and we still hear them loudly and clearly, today.
Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular Instagram account called Mini Philosophy (@philosophyminis). His first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.