Alison Gopnik suggests that David Hume was inspired by Buddhist ideas; she means well, but what atrocious nonsense! Hume is among the most important of Western philosophers and deserves to be widely appreciated, but if you wanted to strike a really damaging blow at popular understanding of what he says you could hardly do better than tangle him up with Buddha. Alas, the damage is probably done; the bogus linkage of the sceptical British empiricist with world-rejecting mysticism is probably lodged at the back of many minds.
Gopnik’s piece here (the same ideas are set out in a paper here) suggests that Hume got an important idea – that the self is an illusion – from Buddhist thought. Her focus is narrow, with relatively little about the philosophy. Nearly all of her account is directed towards establishing the historical possibility of a particular route by which Hume could have come to hear of Buddhist doctrine, from Jesuits at La Flèche. She spends a lot of time on the details and parades the results as a success, but actually finds no evidence for anything more than the bare possibility that Hume might have, could have discussed Buddhism with someone who might have picked up a knowledge from someone else who had produced unpublished translations of certain texts and who had been at La Flèche some years earlier.
If Gopnik had found proof that Hume showed an interest in Buddhism or that it was ever mentioned to him at La Flèche her research might be of some value. As it is it’s irrelevant, I think, because it’s not all that unlikely that Hume could have found out about Buddhism anyway, from other sources, if he were at all interested. There is, of course, a vast historical chasm between could have and did. As one of the West’s leading sceptics and the author of some of the most slyly biting sarcasm about religious beliefs it isn’t particularly likely Hume would have sought to learn from Eastern religions, but let it pass; for the sake of argument we can grant that he might have heard the gist of Buddhist doctrine.
Was that the only place Hume could have got sceptical beliefs about the self? Well, no: there’s a far more likely place. It was, after all, Descartes’ most celebrated claim – then as now, one of the best-known theses of Western philosophy – that the existence of the self was the most certain thing we knew, and that it could be established simply by thinking about it. All we need do is negate that – and negating other people’s claims is, after all, what philosophers do – and we’re pretty much there. Descartes rests his whole system on his perception of the self; Hume comes along and says, when I think about it I find nothing there. Surely Hume, the commonsensical British empiricist, is inverting the celebrated foundation of the Frenchman’s continental-style a priori reasoning?
Ah, but he could still have been influenced, couldn’t he? Gopnik floats the idea that Hume could have forgotten about Buddhist ideas consciously while still having them working away in his subconscious mind. Such things do happen, and if the influence were subconscious it would handily acquit Hume, the most honest and modest of men, from dishonesty or culpable silence over his sources.
The trouble is, Hume’s source was explicitly his own mind, and it matters. He presents his view of the self, not as an interesting argument he heard somewhere that might be true, but as the direct result of his own inner observation. He was simply reporting how things looked to him. Was he wrong? What are we to say, that his introspections were systematically determined by his prior beliefs? That his unremembered conversation about Buddhism somehow rendered him incapable of seeing actual key features of his own mental landscape? Or that these same forgotten words enabled him to perceive an absence which his mind would otherwise have filled with a confabulated construct? Gopnik talks as though she supports Hume, but to discredit his introspection so radically would invalidate the grounds he is claiming; it would be a vigorous attack on Hume. It seems far simpler all round to believe that he was telling the simple truth: he looked into his mind and found no self there.
That is the real killer for me; Hume did not, in fact, say that the self was an illusion; he saw nothing. On this he may well be unique; he is surely original. Buddhists, and some modern philosophers, contend that the self is actually an illusion; a powerful one which it is hard to shake off, but one which is ultimately misleading. Hume, on the contrary, just saw no self.
The distinction may not seem important, but it is; let me offer an analogy. Suppose we live near the great Nemonic Desert. Priests warn us that the fabled city of Nemonia, in the middle of the desert, is an hallucination. We will be tempted to stop and drink from its fountains, eat from the generous hospitality provided, and perhaps even stay; if we do we shall die, because the food and water are delusions and we’ll die of thirst. Modern scientists have offered theories which explain how the mind constructs the delusion of the Nemonian city and why we should stop sending expeditions to look for it. In certain conditions our cognitive apparatus just constructs an encouraging but false perception for us, they say.
David Hume, on the other hand, tells us he walked across the desert keeping his eyes open and never saw anything but sand. Maybe it looks different to other people, he says, I can’t argue with them about that; but to me there’s just nothing there, simple as that.
To say then, that Hume got his disbelief in the city from listening to the priests is a dreadful error, a confusing misrepresentation, and really a bit of a slight against a man whose originality and honesty deserves better.