David Hume on escaping an overheated brain

I’ve mentioned this passage from A Treatise of Human Nature to a couple of people recently. I encountered it as an undergraduate philosophy student and it has always stayed with me, as an insight into Hume the author and as a commendably honest reflection on the strange nature of philosophical reasoning. In it Hume reflects on how “refined reflections have little or no influence on us” and admits that “I find myself absolutely and necessarily made to live and talk and act like other people in the common affairs of life”. He describes a deep internal conflict in which “I torture my brain with subtleties and sophistries, doing this at the very
time when I can’t satisfy myself that this painful activity is a reasonable thing to do”. It’s nonetheless something which he is drawn to do in a way which feels like an expression of his deeper nature:

Thus, at a time when I am tired with amusement and company, and have allowed myself a daydream in my room or in a solitary walk by a river-side, I feel my mind all collected within itself, and am naturally inclined to think about all those subjects about which I have met with so many disputes in the course of my reading and conversation. I can’t help wanting to know the sources of moral good and evil, the nature and foundation of government, and the cause of the various passions and inclinations that move and govern me. I am not contented with the thought that I approve of one thing and disapprove of another, call one thing beautiful
and another ugly, and make decisions concerning truth and falsehood, reason and folly, without knowing what principles
I am going by in all this. I am concerned for the condition of the learned world that is so deplorably ignorant about all this.

Treatise of Human Nature Pg 142

But he experiences the inclination to ask questions like this as unpleasant in an almost somatic sense, cutting him off from a world in which he might otherwise be immersed. In turn he finds that he can pleasurably find relief from this questioning by immersing himself with others in that world:

Where am I?
What am I?
What has caused me to exist, and to what condition shall
I return ·after death·?
Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I
What beings surround me? Which ones can I influence, and which have any influence on me?

I am bemused by all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable—surrounded by the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every skill of body and mind. Most fortunately it happens that since reason can’t scatter these clouds, Nature herself suffices for that purpose and cures me of this philosophical gloom and frenzy, either by reducing the intensity of these thoughts or by some pastime that makes lively impressions on my senses that obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse cheerfully with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement I turn back to these speculations, they appear so cold, strained, and ridiculous that I can’t find in my heart to enter into them any further

Treatise of Human Nature Pg 142

This is something I’ve always related to as someone inclined towards philosophical questions while retaining a vague hostility to philosophy itself. I’ve spent much of my life within universities determinedly moving down the ladder of abstraction (from philosophy to social theory to qualitative sociology to education) in the hope it frees me from what often felt like a suffocating tendency towards abstract thought. There have been philosophical sources which have supported me in this journey e.g. Charles Taylor’s post-Heideggerain philosophy and its distinction between engaged & disengaged agency which quite abruptly led me in my early 20s to recognise that thinking was something I was doing in the world.

But my approach to intellectual work has been informed by a deep intuition that abstraction, though necessary, can be stultifying and cloying when approached as an end in itself. I often get irritated by the sense of theory as a locus of esoteric insight, the quiet knowledge which can get us closer to reality itself; I believe this orientation is far more widespread as a sensibility than it is as an explicit doctrine. Instead I’ve always tried to encourage people to treat theory carefully, as a set of tools we must learn to use (and which some people might specialised in building, refining and destroying) but that it is dangerous to take too seriously.

As I blogged earlier this year, learning theory is immensely important but I think it’s often taught in a way which tacitly reproduces this esotericism rather than drawing out connections which enable us to see theoretical moments in all manner of things which we do. It occurred to me recently when taking part in this roundtable discussion that this orientation has been shaped to a considerable degree by my reading of Richard Rorty’s neo-pragmatism in my early 20s (prior to encountering critical realism). This killed philosophy for me in the sense that his quietism codified my disquiet and expressed it back to me with much more rhetorical force than I was able to muster in my own frustrating musings.

While I think he throws the baby out with the bath water and fails to recognise the many role which philosophical reasoning unavoidably does play in the social science (this is where critical realism became significant for me) the underlying suspicion has carried with me; particularly the inclination to deflate conceptual artefacts, to hack away at the byzantine ideational structures which the fetishisation of abstraction gives rise to, in order to get us closer to the world. It is a world which is always conceptually mediated; hence why philosophical reasoning is in a sense unavoidable. But we can escape our overheated brains if we take that as a practical and reflexive challenge rather than a metaphysical opportunity.

2 thoughts on “David Hume on escaping an overheated brain”

  1. I always find your posts insightful but I really liked this one – especially this part:

    “But my approach to intellectual work has been informed by a deep intuition that abstraction, though necessary, can be stultifying and cloying when approached as an end in itself.”

    I’m a big amateur reader of critical realism and Bourdieu – I discovered CR whilst completing my MA in International Relations at Leeds Uni. My BA was in French and Linguistics.

    I’ve worked in shops, on an artisan chestnut cream farm, in call centres, marketing agencies, for a grassroots charity in Malawi, as a Programme Manager in Test and Trace/UKHSA, and I’m now a Senior Policy Advisor in the Cabinet Office on a big infrastructure project. I’ve always preferred being near the bottom of the ladder of abstraction, trying to grasp all the emergent effects that stem from how we organise ourselves etc.

    I love social theory but if I couldn’t channel it into delivering outcomes in the “real” world then I’d quickly start to feel alienated/bogged down – like you allude to in this post.

    Civil Servants are often put through Prince2 training for project management (as well as other pretty shitty programme management courses) and now MPLA for Senior Civil Servants wanting to deliver large scale projects – I’d include Critical Realism as standard reading as well! The complete lack of social ontology in the delivery of big programmes is pretty scary at times! It’s almost as if what you’ve described in this post has lead to social theory being treated as too “meta” and “abstract” with its practical applications completely disregarded and at times sniggered at – in areas where it would actually be useful!

    You’re right though… “we can escape our overheated brains if we take that as a practical and reflexive challenge rather than a metaphysical opportunity”


  2. Oh that’s really interesting! I wonder if you’ve come across the work of Richard Sandford? https://www.csap.cam.ac.uk/network/richard-sandford/ there are interesting overlaps in your work and interest I think.

    There’s so little written on practical uses of social theory in the ‘real world’. This captures it perfectly, as the place where conceptual resources can help make sense of practical outcomes:

    “I’ve always preferred being near the bottom of the ladder of abstraction, trying to grasp all the emergent effects that stem from how we organise ourselves etc”

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