The Hume paradox: how great philosophy leads to dismal politics

Julian Baggini in Prospect:

How did one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived get so much wrong? David Hume certainly deserves his place in the philosophers’ pantheon, but when it comes to politics, he erred time and again. The 18th-century giant of the Scottish Enlightenment was sceptical of democracy and—despite his reputation as “the great infidel”—in favour of an established church. He was iffy on the equality of women and notoriously racist. He took part in a pointless military raid on France without publicly questioning its legitimacy.

In unravelling the Hume paradox, what we find is that the very qualities that made Hume such a brilliant philosopher also made him a flawed political thinker. There are implications here for contemporary academic philosophy—whose much-vaunted “transferable critical skills” turn out not to transfer so well after all. Styles of thinking that work brilliantly in some domains fail miserably in others: indeed, some of our biggest mistakes arise when we transfer a way of thinking apt for one domain to another where it just doesn’t fit. There are consequences, too, for day-to-day and working life: Hume shows that the smartest person in the room isn’t necessarily the smartest choice for the job. And then there are general implications for the way in which a healthy intellectual scepticism, the essential precondition for rational enquiry in science and much else, can easily become a fatalistic cynicism about the prospects for building a better society.

More here.