With University College’s special role as the oldest and founding college of the University of Toronto, it is not surprising that members of the UC community take history seriously. In a recent survey of UC alumni, our readers requested more coverage of the College and its history. Thus in this issue of the magazine, UC faculty and alumni explore the evolution of the College’s physical structure (Jane Wolff, an architecture professor and a UC member, who writes about the main UC Quad), its diverse student body (Frank Bialystok, a lecturer in the Canadian Studies program, who examines how Jewish students were the vanguard for a truly pluralistic UC), and the College’s relation to the idea of history itself (Francesco Galassi, a UC alumnus and historian).
As a philosophy professor, I too take history seriously, in my case, the history of philosophy. Ever since I first started studying the field, I have been interested in how we have come to think of some problems as pressing, and how the concepts we use to understand our situation carry with them certain assumptions that often pass us by. The task of the historian of philosophy is, among other things, to excavate what remains hidden in our intellectual heritage.
To that end, I have recently completed a book on the philosophy of the great eighteenth-century Scottish empiricist and sceptic, David Hume (1711-1776). In Hume’s True Scepticism (Oxford University Press, 2015), I explore Hume’s use of sceptical challenges to reason and to sensory belief in the service of his account of the mind as dominated by fundamentally non-rational processes of association.
I became interested in Hume because of his naturalistic focus on humans as complex animals, whose instincts lead us to understand the world around us in our distinctively human ways. But he also argues that there is no guarantee that our minds get the world right. Unlike theistic philosophers like Descartes or Locke, Hume does not believe in a God that ratifies our capacities to know. Indeed, it is because of this limitation that the sceptical arguments Hume explores have their grip. But, despite their plausibility, he shows that they ultimately fail to persuade us. When we attempt to follow them, their reliance on the very capacities they investigate means that they undermine their own structures. They cause confusion, not conviction.
Hume illustrates his point in the climax to his investigation of scepticism, when he narrates for the reader a mounting sense of dread, and ultimately a complete paralysis. He takes himself to be “in the most deplorable condition imaginable, inviron’d with the deepest darkness.” He says he suffers from a “philosophical melancholy and delirium,” the only escape from which is to dine with friends, engage in conversation, or play a game of backgammon. He then learns that he does not need philosophical vindication of his cognitive capacities in order to sense and to reason as well as is humanly possible.
My book opens with the statement that “Hume is an ambivalent philosopher.” On the one hand, he thinks that philosophy improves our understanding of our situation. On the other hand, philosophy holds dangers, either the nervous collapse he illustrates for us in his exploration of scepticism or a dangerous self-deceit, where philosophers dogmatically assume that they have what he takes to be an impossible insight into the deep structure of nature. But Hume thinks that no one needs to become a philosopher. Where Socrates took the unexamined life not to be worth living, Hume holds that an unexamined life is just fine, if you are not the kind of person who is curious about abstruse matters.
It is sometimes said that historians of philosophy end up telling their readers more about themselves than about the philosophers they study. I too am an ambivalent philosopher, both attracted to the investigation of the human condition and slightly maddened by our incapacities to know. The University College community offers me a respite from my own “philosophical melancholy and delirium” – colleagues from across a range of disciplines who teach me things well outside of my areas of expertise; students whose energy, enthusiasm, and thirst for knowledge energize me; staff, whose devotion to the mission of the College is truly exemplary; and alumni who repeatedly demonstrate that a UC education has taken them to success after success.
One of Hume’s slogans urges: “Be a philosopher; but amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.” In my case that means balancing my interests in the history of philosophy with the pleasures and challenges of the historic University College.