Concerning methodology of social science, Hume makes one particularly striking claim: the human sciences are in a sense easier than natural sciences. A more common argument – due to Comte, perhaps, though my memory fails me – is that physics is simpler than chemistry, which is simpler than biology, then again simpler than psychology, and then social sciences, because each builds upon the other. I understand how particles work, hence understand physics, but I need to know how they interact to understand chemistry, how molecules affect lifeforms for biology, how the brain operates to understand psychology, and how brains and bodies interact with each other and history to understand social science. Hume flips this around entirely. He is an empiricist, and notes that to the extent we know anything, it is through our perceptions, and our own accounts as well as those of other humans are biased and distorted. To interpret perceptions of the natural world, we must first generalize about the human mind: “the science of man is the only solid foundation.” Concerning the social world, we are able to observe the actions and accounts of many people during our lives, so if we are to use induction (and this is Hume, so of course we are wary here), we have many examples from which to draw.
Saturday, March 3
Tuesday, June 16
When a man denies the sincerity of all public spirit or affection to a country and community, I am at a loss what to think of him. Perhaps he never felt this passion in so clear a distinct a manner as to remove all his doubts concerning its force and reality. But when he proceeds afterwards to reject all private friendship, if no interest or self-love intermix itself; I am then confident that he abuses terms, and confounds the ideas of things; since it is impossible for any one to be so selfish, or rather so stupid, as to make no difference between one man and another, and give no preference to qualities, which engage his approbation and esteem.
David Hume, Of the Dignity or Meanness of Human Nature. This is a remarkable defense of human nature. In effect Hume is appealing to our sentiments towards those with whom we commonly interact — human beings in particular rather than in general. The whole essay is worth reading, and it’s not too long.