Feser on Stroud on the Humean Ghost

Anyone familiar with modern skepticism, whether it relates to skepticism about causation, induction, the objectivity of morality, and the like, will be familiar with the place of Hume in this pantheon, and the shadow he casts, even among philosophers that do not accept his conclusions. But as Feser and Stroud point out, the theories of perception  and cognition the various skeptical arguments depend upon are hardly accepted by any contemporary philosopher:

In his book Engagement and Metaphysical Dissatisfaction: Modality and Value, Stroud raises a similar complaint.  Contemporary philosophers take Hume’s doubts about causality as a feature of mind-independent reality very seriously.  Yet they do not accept either the account of perception that these doubts rest on, or some of the other conclusions Hume draws from that account.  And it is not clear how they can consistently take the one without the others.  Stroud writes:


Many philosophers of more recent times remain in a broad sense followers of Hume on the status of causation without accepting such a severely restricted conception of the scope of perception.  They appear to hold that we can perceive and thereby have a conception of physical objects and other enduring things and states of affairs even though the idea of causal dependence between such things in the independent world remains problematic or metaphysically dubious.  The source of their doubts is not easy to determine.  One possible source is the assumption that we never perceive instances of causal connection or dependence.  A different but related possibility is that causal dependence is thought to be unperceivable because of the doubtful intelligibility of the idea of such a connection.  In any case, it certainly is still widely believed that we never perceive causal connections between things.  By now the view is hardly ever argued for.  The most that is usually offered in its support is a reverential bow in the direction of Hume, but with no acknowledgment of the restrictive theory of perception that Hume’s own denial rests on. (p. 23)

Further, having pointed out a major problem with these philosophical positions, Feser via Stroud turns his attention on those contemporary philosophers that have no problem accepting mind-independent physical objects but who remain skeptical of their having real causal powers:

Nor in Stroud’s view is it just the common Humean foundation of these two kinds of skepticism that makes this combination of attitudes problematic.  That is to say, the problem is not just that Hume himself based his skepticism about causation and his skepticism about physical objects on the same flawed account of perception and cognition.  It’s also that, even apart from that, it is hard to see how one could consistently believe in mind-independent physical objects without also attributing to them real causal powers.  Stroud writes:


This raises a general question about how or whether a person could think about and understand the objects this view admits that we do see.  Could we have a conception of a world of visible, enduring objects at all if we could never see what any of those objects do, or see them doing it?  Hume’s actual view does not face this difficulty.  He thinks not only that we never see a stone break a window, but that we never see a stone or a window either.  Hume acknowledges the need to explain how we get even so much as the idea of an enduring object from the fleeting perceptions we receive, and how we come to think of such things as perceivable.  But for those who think we can see an object and know what it is and where it is and what will happen if certain other things happen, but that we neversee the object doing or undergoing any of the things it does, there is a special problem. (p. 24)


What Stroud is appealing to here is the thesis – common to (though spelled out in very different ways by) both Kant-inspired writers like P. F. Strawson and contemporary neo-Aristotelians and Thomists – that we cannot make sense of the notion of a world of independently existing substances except as causally related in various ways.  (Think of the Scholastic thesis agere sequitur esse or “action follows being” – that is to say, that how a thing acts reflects what it is.  If a thing does nothing, then it cannot be said to have being at all; and if it does have being, then it must be capable of doing something, which entails causal power.)

The implication being that realism about objects involves realism about causation, and not an anemic ‘regularity’ mind you, and that they stand or fall together. RTWT.

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