SOCRATES MEETS HUME
The Father of Philosophy Meets the Father of Modern Skepticism
by Peter Kreeft
227 pages, $12.95
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I studied philosophy under Peter Kreeft, so reading this book was like going back in time to sit in the classroom again.
Which is a good thing, because Professor Kreeft was always challenging, rigorous, honest and humorous. Philosophy under his guidance was exciting: to unfold the basic tasks of human beings; to try to find out why things are the way they are; to love wisdom, which is what the word philosophy means. And that love, he said, quoting St. Augustine, begins in wonder.
Wonder is not something David Hume wrote much about. He was an 18th-century English philosopher who seems to have refuted just about everything he could: the idea of a self, the validity of general ideas, the possibility of miracles and even the notion of causality, that we can know one thing causes another. The only thing he did not consider refuting, as Kreeft points out, was his own refutations.
A philosopher once said that the problem with so much of modern philosophy is that it is “self-referentially inconsistent.” It tears down everything but itself. It is like the character in the cartoon sawing off the branch he is sitting on and then the tree falls away as he sits content on a branch in the middle of the air. The only problem being that life is not a cartoon.
Kreeft examines Hume’s inconsistency through the conceit of a Socratic dialogue. The idea is that Hume has died and meets Socrates in the antechamber of heaven. The philosophical questioning begins immediately, intertwined with the very nature of language itself, showing just how basic philosophy is.
Socrates asks, “David Hume, is that you?”
Hume answers, “I . . . I think so.”
“You’re not certain?”
“I always was skeptical of that little word, ‘certain.’”
“In fact, you were even skeptical of that other little word, ‘I.’”
“True. I denied the existence of a substantial self.”
Kreeft uses this dialectical method throughout the book not to demolish Hume’s arguments so much as to probe them, to point out both their strengths and weaknesses.
Kreeft’s love of wisdom is apparent in his introduction: “I will never forget my first exposure to Hume,” he writes. “We had to read Hume over vacation week. We took this great skeptic very seriously, because we were more concerned with finding the truth than with finding an A, and Hume deeply disturbed us because we could not refute his arguments, yet could not accept his skeptical conclusions. For if we did, what would become of philosophy? What would become of science and common sense and religions and morality and education and human knowledge in general? The whole process of liberation from the cave of ignorance would be merely another cave.”
Read Socrates Meets Hume if you want to find your way out of the cave of skepticism, guided by a philosopher who takes skepticism more seriously than a lot of skeptics themselves. Read it to remind yourself that the love of wisdom begins in wonder.
Franklin Freeman writes from Saco, Maine.