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Friday, April 26, 2013

The Philosophical Skeptic

David Hume (1711-1784) was born on this date in Edinburgh, a date worth celebrating because he framed the most penetrating and influential philosophical skepticism. That is, he questioned the conventional theories of knowledge and judgment, effectively demonstrating that what we seem to know about the "outside world" is in fact constructed by our minds and feelings. For example, "Beauty," he pointed out, "is not in things but added to our experience of them by our preferences." It's not that we cannot articulate standards for beauty, just as we can for measurement, meaning, and morality. (Kant would go on to demonstrate the nature of these standards some fifty years later.) It's just that all such standards are generated by the operations of consciousness. There is, in other words, nothing fixed or absolute about the contents of knowledge or experience. Our brains create "reality." The revolutionary conceptions of experience--from Darwin through Einstein to the present--that are still reforming human understanding began with Hume. Old concepts tend to persist because they're embedded in our languages, but eventually they will be replaced. In the course of this process, people who sense the loss of familiar "meaning" react with rage. Look around you, or maybe in the mirror...

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