Annette Baier Hume's Account of Our Absurd Passions
THE JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY
VOLUME LXXIX, NO. 11, NOVEMBER 1982
HUME'S ACCOUNT OF OUR ABSURD PASSIONS*
A I read Hume's Treatise, it is a daring attempt to transfer to passion and sentiment categories and achievements traditionally the monopoly of intellect. Book One shows the hollowness of intellect's pretensions to do what Hume's philosophical predecessor at La Fleche had supposed it could do, namely to see what is distant, to avoid self-contradiction, and to understand and affirm its own workings. Books Two and Three investigate the capacity of passion, helped by imagination, to do any better. From the congratulatory tone of Book Three, it is fairly clear that the moral sentiment is felt to be successful when judged by these criteria—it is cool and farsighted, its achievement precisely is to overcome "continual contradictions in our sentiments" (T 581),' and it is an intrinsically reflexive passion, reactive not only to other passions and motives (T 477) but also to itself. "Reflecting on itself, it approves of those principles from whence it is derived, and finds nothing but what is great and good in its rise and origin" (T 619). What part does Book Two play in the development of this theme, the usurpation by passion of reason's claimed prerogatives? I shall here suggest an answer, namely that Book Two not only prepares the ground constructively for Book Three's account of the moral sentiment, by its analysis of the pride and love one of which always accompanies that sentiment (T 575), but also exhibits the need for some overcomer of contradiction among the passions themselves, by means of its account of the intrinsic liability of human passions to contradiction.
The phrase 'absurd passions' I take from Hume's account (T 332) of how we must hope that others will love us for those very possessions which ground our pride. Were this not to happen, he says, our passions would be absurd. Everyone needs "a correspondence in the sentiments of every other person with those themselves have entertained" (ibid.), since otherwise pride cannot be sustained. This, if Hume is right, is because "every pleasure languishes when enjoyed apart from company" (T 363) and the pleasure of pride is particularly fragile. "Our reputation, our character, our name are considerations of vast weight and importance; and even the other causes of pride; virtue, beauty and riches; have little influence when not seconded by the opinions and sentiments of others" (T 316). Pride will languish unless others confirm our pride by their esteem, and the hope that pride can be sustained will be absurd unless others esteem us for the things of which we are proud.
And is this hope absurd and vain? On Hume's own account it seems it must be whenever others aspire to pride in the same sort of possession. To have ground for pride, a person must find her fine possessions "singular," outshining those of others. Faced with another person's pride, and bid for esteem, then, our own pride is in danger: "upon comparing ourselves with others, as we are every moment apt to do, we find that we are not in the least distinguished, and . . . the passion must be entirely destroyed" (T 292). Such an experience is more likely to cause resentment and humility than to cause love for the other. Hume faces this difficulty in his discussion of respect and contempt. The problem is "why any object ever excites pure love" (T 392). Another's fine possession can, at best, evoke a recognition of its and its possessor's comparative worth, and a weakening of one's own pride. At worst, this "humiliation," as it were, will cause envy and resentment. "Objects always produce by comparison a sensation directly contrary to their original one" (ibid.). Thus it seems that pride will not be reinforced by esteem and that love is an impossibility.
Before discussing Hume's solution to this "difficulty" of how pride can be "seconded" by love, I shall first consider just what sort of relation between passions Hume refers to as "contrariety" and "contradiction" and just what it takes to make a passion or a combination of passions "absurd". I hope I have already given enough evidence that Book Two is concerned with absurdity and contrariety in passions—if more were needed one need only turn to the very outset of Hume's discussion of pride, where pride's "contrariety" with humility, along with the fact that they are equally self-concerned passions, is turned into a problem. Its solution is the "indirectness" of both passions, their need for a "subject" as well as an "object," and the diversity of possible "subjects" combined with constancy of object. "For as these passions are directly contrary, and have the same object in common; were their object also their cause; it could never produce any degree of the one passion, but at the same time must excite an equal degree of the other; which opposition and contrariety must destroy both" (T 278). What Hume goes on to say about how they are able to "take place alternately," provided their different subjects or causes enable them to avoid a direct "encounter," both prepares us for his more explicit discussion of opposition in passions at T 442/3, and also picks up, from the conclusion of Book One, the theme of alternation of opposed or contrary passions. There the collapse of intellect into self-destructive "manifest contradiction," at T 268, had been followed by alternating moods of despair and merriment, spleen and ambition, indolence and active curiosity. Book Two takes up this already introduced theme of alternation of contrary passions and continues Book One's study of contradictory movements in the human mind. But what exactly does Hume mean by the term 'contrariety' when that is applied to passions?
One possible answer is that contrariety in passions is entirely parasitic on contrariety in the ideas that present the "objects" of such passions. Thus hope that a welcome visitor will arrive would have as its contrary fear that she not arrive. Such an account would be plausibly attributed to a philosopher whose version of contrariety in ideas was standard. Hume's, however, is not standard, and when we look to Book One for elucidation of the relation of contrariety, far from finding there a clear account of a logical relation of contradiction among ideas which could provide the core of an account of contradiction in passions, we find rather that any dependence runs more in the other direction. Hume appeals to conflict in accompanying feelings to explain why certain beliefs cannot coexist, and thus count as contraries. This is indeed what we should expect from a philosopher for whom belief itself is "a peculiar feeling or sentiment" (T 623). But it is not really that contradiction in belief is reduced to contradictory feelings, any more than the reverse; rather that both are assimilated to a more dynamic conception of destructive psychological force, and its opposite, self-sustaining force. Contrary beliefs are whichever beliefs destroy one another, and contrary passions also are those which compete for exclusive occupancy of the mind. "Direct contrariety" in two passions "must destroy both" (T 278), and contrariety in beliefs is also essentially a matter of threat of mutual destructiveness. Hume speaks of the tension among our various ways of thinking about material objects as a "combat of internal principles" (T 205), and the "contradiction" thus produced is always seen by him as a threat of mutual destruction of beliefs. Sometime this threat is averted by special contrivances, or "fictions," such as that of the "double existence" of perceptions and objects thereby perceived. "Not being able to reconcile these two enemies, we endeavour to set ourselves at ease as much as possible, by successively granting to each whatever it demands, and by feigning a double existence, where each may find something that has all the conditions it desires" (T 215). This "successive assent" (T 266) to opposed beliefs that threaten to destroy one another is called by Hume the embrace of a "manifest contradiction" (ibid.).
The contradictions he terms "manifest" are not always, perhaps not ever, formal contradictions in the logician's sense. This is particularly clear in another passage in that climactic battle of opposed mental allegiances, the conclusion of Book One. At the turning point of that battle, the defeat of intellect, Hume says "Very refin'd reflections have little or no influence upon us; and yet we do not and cannot establish it for a rule that they ought not to have any influence; which implies a manifest contradiction" (T 268). Unless "is" implies "ought," no formal contradiction is here implied. What is made manifest is the failure of a less reflective mental move to obtain endorsement by a more reflective mental operation. This seems to be the Humean paradigm of a "manifest contradiction," a clash of dicta, one (more reflective) mental edict undermining another, a literal speaking against something.
That for Hume a contradiction is a destructive speech act is confirmed by his official account, early in the Treatise, of the relation of contrariety. Listing it as one of his seven sorts of philosophical relation, or rather of one of the six respects in which things that are somehow resembling can be related, he says "the relation of contrariety may at first sight be regarded as an exception to the rule that no relation of any kind can subsist without some degree of resemblance. But let us consider, that no two ideas are in themselves contrary except those of existence and non-existence, which are plainly resembling as implying both of them the idea of the object, tho' the latter excludes the object from all times and places in which it is supposed not to exist" (T 15). This enigmatic pronouncement can be read as giving fair warning that, for Hume, contradiction and contrariety are not exactly what the logician takes them to be. A little later, talking of our knowledge of relations, he says that contrariety is among the relations that "depend entirely on the ideas," unlike the relations of contiguity, identity, and causation, which "may be chang'd without any change in the idea" (T 67). Contrariety can be known with certainty from the mere inspection of ideas, since "No-one can once doubt but that existence and non-existence destroy each other, and are perfectly incompatible and contrary" (T 70). To destroy, presumably, is to bring about the nonexistence of something, at least as a thing of some specified sort. We can see why existence and nonexistence are, for Hume, the basic contraries—because the intentional move from something's existence to its nonexistence, namely destruction, is the procedure that gives, as its outcome, a sequence of events displaying "contrariety." And when Hume uses the term 'contradiction' and 'manifest contradiction' he seems always to mean some self-destructive thought act.
Having established that Hume's conception of contrariety and contradiction is appropriately nonintellectualist, so that contrary passions and contrary beliefs are both to be construed simply as mutually threatening mental states, we may now return the question of whether esteem for the good qualities of others would always be a threat to self-esteem and whether a person's need for reinforcement of self-esteem is a need which cannot be met. Is there an ineluctable contradiction between the proud person's bid for esteem, for a "correspondence in the sentiments of every other person" to second her claim to singularity and pride-worthiness, and that actual similarity in psychology which ensures that other persons make similar and competing demands for eminent recognition? The source of the problem, as Hume presents it, is the operation of the "principle of comparison" which blocks sympathetic "correspondence" of love in response to another's pride and produces a negative competitive influence of one person's feelings on another's. The "solution" Hume offers to these difficulties amounts to a division of "title to operate" similar to that by which he reconciled the warring principles of naive realism and theories of representative perception. When we are confronted with persons we see as enemies, the principle of comparison operates and produces negative effects, but with allies, and in particular with relatives, sympathy operates. "Whoever can find the means either by his services, his beauty, or his flattery to render himself useful or agreeable to us is sure of our affections: As, on the other hand, whoever harms or displeases us never fails to excite our anger or hatred. When our nation is at war with another, we detest them under the character of cruel, perfidious, unjust and violent: But always esteem ourselves and allies equitable, moderate and merciful" (T 348). Our willingness to recognize good qualities in "allies" is at its greatest when they are allied to us by "the relation of blood" which, Hume says, produces "the strongest tie the mind is capable of" (T 252). He describes eloquently the joys of intimacy, the "deepest melancholy and despair" of the lonely person. In a passage strikingly contrasting with that expressing "the most deplorable condition imaginable" at T 269, he now celebrates the more normal, less solitary, human condition, the company of an intimate. In such company the mind "awakes, as it were, from a dream: The blood flows with a new tide: The heart is elevated: And the whole man acquires a vigour which he cannot command in his solitary and calm moments. Hence company is naturally so rejoicing, as presenting the liveliest of all objects, viz a rational and thinking' Being like ourselves who communicates to us all the actions of his mind; makes us privy to his inmost sentiments and affections, and lets us see, in the very instant of their production all the emotions which are caus'd by any object. Every lively idea is agreeable, but especially that of a passion because such an idea becomes a kind of passion, and gives a more sensible agitation to the mind than any other image or conception" (T 353). Such secure intimacy allows sympathy a chance to operate, producing an agreeable sharing of pleasures rather than envy, fear, and resentment.
But there still remains a problem. Granted that love of intimates is easier than esteem for enemies, it is still not clear how a proud person finds it possible to recognize an intimate's good qualities, ones perhaps better than her own, without her pride being threatened. Hume's question, how pure love is possible, still remains inadequately answered, and Hume has more to offer in answer to it than the distinction between response to allies and response to enemies. He has an interesting thesis to offer about the imperfect correspondence between the causes of love and the causes of pride, a thesis which I find suggestive of a more comprehensive answer to the question of when pride can be combined with love of another. What Hume says is that, despite the general coincidence of the causes of pride with the causes of love, necessary if these passions are not to be absurd, there are some qualities better fitted to cause love than to cause pride. These lovable but unenviable qualities he lists as "good nature, good humour, facility, generosity, beauty, and many other qualities" (T 392). The causes of pride, he says, are qualities that are both pleasant and magnificent (T 391), whereas, for love, the pleasant suffices. Some love, then, is love of others for pleasant qualities like good humor and generosity, of which we would not ourselves be proud if we possessed them. Such pleasant qualities in others present no threat to our own vanity, since they are less "adapted" to inspire pride than to inspire love. This gives us a simple answer to how love is possible (but as yet no answer to how prideworthy qualities can inspire love). Simple though it is, it raises the question of what it is about those listed qualities which unfits them for being causes of pride. Hume offers us the concepts of the magnificent and the mean, and behind those concepts lie, I suggest, those of the manifestly powerful and the manifestly powerless.
One's first impression of Hume's account of value is that he is a hedonist, but on more careful inspection one finds, running throughout the Treatise, an interest in the concept of power, and in particular of the power to sustain one's existence, what one might call Spinozistic power. Section X of Part I of Book Two is the most obvious place where this concern with power surfaces, but it can be found also in Hume's attempt to define possession (T 506) and in other less obvious places.2 One such place is this discussion at T 391/2, of the greater limitations on the causes of pride than on those of love. One thing the lovable but unenviable qualities have in common, besides their lack of magnificence, is their failure to confer on their possessor any sort of power. If, as I suggest, Humean pride is always pride in manifest power, then pride will never be taken in qualities that transfer power to others, as do generosity and good nature. Beauty is a more problematic member of Hume's list, since he does include it as a cause of pride, and it may sometimes confer a sort of power on its possessor. In fact, when Hume discusses pride in beauty, he associates beauty closely with power to perform some function and smoothly shifts his discussion to pride in strength, agility, force, and "bodily accomplishments." The beauty in which pride can be taken is the appearance of that group of natural virtues which Hume calls "advantages of the body," "signs of force and vigour" (T 614/5). So perhaps we need a distinction between that prideworthy beauty which is a sign of power in its possessor and that lovable beauty which renders another agreeable but also harmless to one. "Whoever can find the means either by his services, his beauty, or his flattery to render himself useful or agreeable to us is sure of our affections" (T 348). Some beauty, like helpfulness and good nature, increases the power of others, whereas that beauty which is a sign of force and vigor shows its possessor's power. Some beauty is, and other beauty is not, fitted to cause pride. When Hume comes to discuss "the amorous passion," he says that love of beauty is "plac'd in a just medium" between "the appetite of generation" and esteem for "the wit and merit of the person." Its close association with this former appetite makes love inspired by bodily beauty as closely allied with a sort of power to prolong existence as is pride in the sort of beauty which displays that power.
Whatever the intricacies of Hume's account of the place of beauty among the causes of love and of pride, it is clear that he does want a partial partitioning of fine qualities into the good lovable ones and the magnificent prideworthy ones. (See also his parallel partitioning of the natural virtues into the great and the good qualities, in Sections II and III of Book Three, Part III.) But this still leaves us the difficulty of how the person who is proud of her great and magnificent qualities manages to inspire love, or to love any except the lowly, good-natured, and prettily fragile. How can the proud strong person get esteem from another proud strong person? Such esteem from an equal or superior is the only esteem which will adequately "second" pride, according to Hume. "We are principally mortified with the contempt of persons on whose judgment we set some value" (T 321), and we need not set such value on the judgment of those whom we love for their flattery, services, or decorative beauty. How then can we love someone whose return love will reinforce our fragile pride? The only answer I find within Book Two lies again in Hume's account of our attitude to our blood relatives. If we see another person as closely enough related to us, then their good qualities count as something of which we can be proud, and this pride in a relative's qualities or possessions naturally flows from love for them. "The virtues of a friend or brother produce first love, and then pride" (T 343). Once love leads to pride, then, Hume says, the affections have found their natural resting place. "When self is the object of a passion, 'tis not natural to quit the consideration of it" (T 341). When Hume anatomizes our passions he does tend to "bring the affections back to pride" (T 336), the passion that has pride of place in his account.
Love of a relative's power, strength, magnificence then is easily "transfus'd" into pride, thanks to the lack of distance or separation between that person and oneself. There is another advantage to family feeling, and that is that the esteem which best reinforces our pride is that of our own intimates, whose feelings sympathetically spread to us more easily than do those of remoter persons. "The uneasiness of being contemn'd depends upon sympathy and that sympathy depends on relation to ourselves; since we are most uneasy under the contempt of persons who are both related to us by blood, and contiguous in place" (T 322). The "fame" or reputation we crave, on Hume's account, is paradoxically with those closest and most identified with us. Should the close relative whom we admire and feel proud of return that esteem, then love and pride will doubly reinforce each other, since Hume allows one confirming exception to his rule that love leads to pride more easily than pride to love, namely that pride grounded in reputation or esteem naturally leads to love of the esteemer. "Thus nothing more readily produces kindness and affection to any person than his approbation of our character and conduct" (T 346). When the approver is a relative whose own good qualities inspire love and pride, then love and pride are reciprocal and affirm each other. Family feelings escape absurdity; family relations avoid contradiction in passions.
However optimistic, implausible, or unattractive one may find Hume's version of the natural family as a mutual-admiration mini-society, this theory in Book Two of when and how human passions become mutually adjusted, is, I believe, the neglected basis of Hume's very powerful moral theory in Book Three. There the natural family figures both as the place where the advantages of cooperation become familiar and obvious (T 493), thus making the social artifices a psychological possibility, and as the place where the chief natural virtues are to be displayed. (Hume's favorite example of such a virtue is parental solicitude.) The moral sentiment, which overcomes continual contradictions in our sentiments and avoids conflicts in our behavior, has its basis in family feeling, on the account Hume offers. Both in order to understand his moral theory and to see the full extent to which, on Hume's bold revisionist anatomy of the human mind, passions have usurped the title to intellect's old prerogatives (and with them, the liability to special sorts of fault), Book Two is essential reading. I have here tried to draw attention both to some of its puzzles and to some of its suggestive theses, suggestive both in their psychological insight and in providing us with interpretive keys to the unity of Hume's phenomenology of mind, his Treatise of Human Nature.
*To be presented in an apa symposium on Hume, December 28, 1982. Robert J. Fogelin will comment; see this journal, this issue, 652. 1 References throughout are to David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, edited by Selby-Bigge and Nidditch, Oxford, 1888, reprinted, 1949. 21 have explored this theme in "Hume on Resentment," Hume Studies, VI (November 1980): 133-149.