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I'm currently taking a course in early modern philosophy. The focus is on psychology, morality, and aesthetics. I've taken philosophy courses in the past, but I'm having a lot of trouble with this one, because I find the readings to be so obvious that they seem pointless. I don't want to come across as one of those people who complain about philosophy being pointless. I just need someone to help me understand and appreciate what I'm missing.

I'll take one from last week as an example. We read David Hume's Dissertation on Passions. He writes at length about how...

  • Most of our feelings about things are somewhere between joy and grief. Where they land along this spectrum depends on the probability of something happening and the amount of joy/grief it would cause if it did happen.

  • We feel more pride if the source of the pride is more exclusive. For example, we'd feel more proud of having an autographed Tom Brady jersey than we would for having a box of cereal .

  • We feel more compassion for those to whom we're closer. I'd feel more sad if my brother got hurt than if my third cousin twice-removed did.

I'll leave it at those examples for now. My point is that none of these seem to be particularly interesting. I don't see what the point of this dissertation is, since nobody could possibly argue with these assertions. I've had this problem with the other readings as well. In other courses that I've taken, the readings seem to be more contentious. In ethics, for instance, someone typically puts forward some ethical framework, and then people argue over whether it's good or bad, and why. In these readings, I just don't see how anyone could possibly disagree when the text is just stating the obvious. I'm not saying that a text has to be contentious to be interesting, but so far I don't see much difference between these readings and one that says: "Humans have two arms, two legs, need food to survive, etc."

I asked my professor, and he didn't give me a straight answer, and just seemed annoyed that I wasn't satisfied. Any thoughts on what I'm missing?

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    I don't know how I could possibly answer your question given the parameters of your frustration, but two thoughts on this: (1) patently obvious to us now does not equal patently obvious to everyone in the past. Sometimes it is precisely the work that you are reading that cleared things up for people. (2) parsing the same phenomenon in a more accurate way is progress. – virmaior Jan 28 at 3:00
  • I agree with virmaior, but would also add that things which may seem too obvious or uninteresting to you now might gain depth of meaning as you become more experienced and mature -- and have more time to think seriously about them. – Bread Jan 28 at 4:13
  • I think it's your professor who is missing what it is important and stimulating to read. – Geoffrey Thomas Jan 28 at 9:38
  • A lot of what is written is obvious but has to said for the sake of clarity and lack of ambiguity. In philosophy it is important to start with what is (or seems) obvious, Still, it seems true that lot of philosophy texts do little more than state the obvious. You might like to check out Descartes' ninth rule for the direction of mind. – PeterJ Jan 28 at 10:19
  • I think there is still something of a disjoin between the humanities and science (see en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Two_Cultures). Philosophers often hail from the humanities and have a different way of laying out arguments from the one you are used to from a modern secondary education, which is STEM leaning. Sadly there is no way of knowing whether your opinion of another's statements is due to your ignorance.. But don't be afraid to hold a well considered opinion on the thoughts of published philosophers. Being published.. doesn't make one 'right'. – Richard Jan 28 at 11:33
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When something appears so obvious that it is uninteresting and yet one knows that others do not find it obvious at all, what one may be missing is understanding what is at stake for them. Why do they not agree with what is obvious?

The OP provides some examples from David Hume's Dissertation on Passions that appeared particularly uninteresting and obvious, such as this one:

We feel more compassion for those to whom we're closer. I'd feel more sad if my brother got hurt than if my third cousin twice-removed did.

This does seem obvious, but a rhetorical device is to get readers on one's side by saying something they are likely to agree with and drop the more controversial assertion later.

In the case of compassion, it seems obvious that our compassion, a feeling, is not based on objective rational grounds, say that our brother is a human being, but rather it is based on something more emotional like our brother being closer to us.

What's at stake here?

One way to find out is to read a survey of Hume. An internet search brings up a Wikipedia article on Hume. Glancing through it one finds a reference to Hume's ethics:

His [Hume's] views on ethics are that "[m]oral decisions are grounded in moral sentiment." It is not knowing that governs ethical actions, but feelings.

Perhaps what is at stake is that Hume is not merely talking about compassion, but more generally ethics. Are our ethical decisions grounded on sentiment or rationality?

Perhaps even that still seems obvious and uninteresting. If so, then one should continue reading about Hume in a source that provides more detailed information on those who disagreed with him about this point.

The OP wants to know more generally "what I'm missing" when something does not seem "particularly interesting" but others find it interesting enough to disagree with. What is missing is knowing what is at stake for those other people who do find a topic interesting enough to object to it.


"David Hume" Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Hume

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    "what is at stake" is a good question to ask! – user35983 Jan 28 at 5:18
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    +1. Your answer obviously heads in the right direction. – Geoffrey Thomas Jan 28 at 9:36
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Just like now, in Hume's time there was a tendency to dismiss emotions as our animal nature, and essentially meaningless, vs our logical reasoning side as the arbiter of all meaning and virtue. This is deeply suspect, and we should be curious about why it is such a persistent bias.

Probably Hume's most significant contributions to moral philosophy, are the statement in Treatise On Human Nature:

"Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them."

And the Is-Ought problem in the Treatise On Human Nature.

These involve a deeply radical reevaluation of emotion, subversive even. He points at the idea emotion is really a kind of reasoning, one about motivations, impulses, which cannot be drawn in a neccessary or linear (logical) way from our 'dispassionate' reasoning. We must remain animals, who use reasoning, rather than aspiring to be 'purely rational' creatures.

Science bears out this kind of reevaluation of emotion. The amygdala sorts memories into groups and tags them for relevant circumstances, with varying priorities, and keys our physiological state in the present to these memories of the past; and that at core is emotion, is what emotion is for and does. We also have fast heuristic emotional reasoning, vs more energy and time intensive first-princples reasoning, with the difference often obscured by post hoc rationalisation - we use our reasoning to justify where we want to go, rather than to decide where we want to go. And, that involves sophisticated intelligence and in most circumstances, is entirely reasonable.

The bigger picture is that this applies also to how and why. We consider how to be subsidiary, particular, and why to be general, transcending particulars, and fundamental. Yet, we have to observe that a satisfying answer to a why question, or an end to a chain of why questions, is fundamentally an emotional evaluation, about when we feel an explanation has been sufficiently integrated with our other experiences, or with other points of knowledge we have accepted why answers for, or at least cease to question. So our 'ultimate' mode of reasoning, our deepest use of our rational faculties, asking why, involves emotional evaluation as final arbiter.

Hume's thought is not fully developed in the Dissertation on Passions. But pay close attention and you will see he is critiquing false views of passions and emotion which persist largely unquestioned even now. I would argue this is one of the most important areas of philosophy for directly applying to how ordinairy people live, that we should develop and trust our emotions and passions, not seek to wall them off, given that our motivations and aims can in truth only arise there.

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I think your summary of Hume's points are shortchanging Hume. Let's take a look at just the first one to make this point.

Most of our feelings about things are somewhere between joy and grief. Where they land along this spectrum depends on the probability of something happening and the amount of joy/grief it would cause if it did happen.

No, the aspect of probability is only brought in to account for two other emotions, hope and fear. What Hume is saying is that hope is due to the uncertainty of joy, and fear is due to the uncertainty of grief.

Is that obvious? Not necessarily; it's certainly debatable. One could counter-argue that one would fear the gallows even though one was certain one was about to be hanged. But perhaps Hume's point is that he is defining fear this way. I think there is a great deal of interesting potential in this idea, because it really gets into the computational aspects of how the brain generates emotions.

What if anxiety--a common problem--was due to the convergence of two neural streams, one representing the "grief content" of some aspect of one's experience, and the other representing the uncertainty. If so, Hume may have been groping toward this kind of model way back in 1757.

He then goes on to build on this basic layout for how emotions work in the next section. He describes hope and fear as a rapidly vacillating system of joy then grief, grief then joy ("I'm going to be reprieved! I'm going to be hanged!", repeat). To the degree that one of these dominates, the mind produces the emotion of either hope or fear, just like a sustained musical chord on a stringed instrument that has both consonant and dissonant notes will give an overall impression based on that ratio.

And then he takes it even further, examining the exact nature of where the uncertainty lies. And much more.

The point is, you just took the starting point and presented it as evidence that Hume was stating the obvious, and therefore wasting everyone's time. But if he didn't start where he did, he could not proceed to give his account of the mechanics of how emotions work.

Also, be wary of the freshman mistake of rapidly labeling ideas as "obvious". The danger is that what may be obvious to you may not be obvious to someone else, or, worse, what may be obvious to you may just be wrong. It's "obvious" to many people in South Korea that regular oscillating room fans cause "fan death" if kept on a sleeping person. Everyone "knows" it. And yet this is of course not true at all.

It's better to state some obvious points and build foundations that the reader can be clear about than to leave them out. In this regard, these prefatory statements by Hume do differ significantly from your, "Humans have two arms, two legs, need food to survive, etc."

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If you were to study, or example Psychology, you will notice from the history of Psychology that particular philosophical stances fosters particular psychological approaches. Remember the old adage: We don't know where we are going if we don't know where we come from? It comes into play here in two ways.

Firstly, there is deepening your understanding of the subject. If you take a course in formal logic you'll find it starts with a lot of 1+1 type stuff, however these are necessary building block to better insight into Logic.

Secondly, there are those who believe that nobody who has read your post understood it in exactly the same way, and only approximately as you intended. Starting from an "obvious" level of understanding and building from that is a common device among philosophers.

So try to see where Hume, for example, is going with his obvious statements. Also take note of the different approaches, to the subject matter, by different writers, as well as the various ways of using language.

If these people where really "uninteresting" they would have been long forgotten. But asking: "what am I missing", is the best way to approach Philosophy.

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'A Dissertation on the Passions' is a minor work compared with A Treatise of Human Nature, Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, and Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals. These are works in which Hume sets out his principal philosophical positions.

The passions matter to Hume because they, and not reason in his view, provide the foundations of morality. If you had been asked to consider the claim in the Treatise that reason is the mere slave of the passions - i.e. that reason logically cannot set any goals of action, you might have found Hume slightly more interesting. You might also have found him more interesting if you had been introduced to his claim that there is no necessary connection between cause and effect or that free will and determinism are compatible.

The Dissertation on the Passions is of marginal significance. Hume attaches so much moral and aesthetic significance to the passions that in the Dissertation - which is among his scripta minora - he reflects on them in what was never meant to be more than a lightweight treatment. The Treatise contains Hume's elaborate and far from obvious and unsubtle analysis of the nature and role of the passions.

Your problem appears to be that you are being asked to read low-grade texts. Hume was a great philosopher who wrote a clutch of classic texts - as subtle and profound as any in the Western tradition - but the Dissertation is not among them.

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In general, there are three main reasons philosophers make seemingly obvious statements:

  1. It wasn't obvious at the time - It might be a commonplace now, but it was controversial and/or groundbreaking at the time.
  2. It's a trap - You're being set up to be forced to accept something controversial or groundbreaking that is implied or entailed by the seemingly harmless things you just agreed with.
  3. He who has ears, let him hear - There is something intrinsically world-shaking about this seemingly trivial observation. But you have to be able to perceive it (perhaps in a larger context).

I'm not familiar with this particular dissertation of Hume's or its importance, but from what I know of Hume's place in philosophical history, I would venture that all three are at work here. Hume was the decisive philosophical figure who set the English speaking world (wrongly, in my opinion) on the path of physicalist empiricism (and away from metaphysical idealism). These seemingly trivial statements are asserting that even human emotions are governed by rule-based observables. In other words, they are being transferred from the realm of the ineffable soul to the realm of material evidence-based scientific observation. They seem trivial because a) Hume won, that's how most people in today's world think of things like emotions, b) this is a backdoor into his more controversial statements on topics like religion and c) unless you know what you're looking for, you'll miss it.

  • And he woke some people from their dogmatic slumbers.. Like Descartes, Hume is a pivotal figure to understand because even if you disagree with everything you have to sharpen up ideas and language. – CriglCragl Jan 30 at 0:53
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Very few people take the time to challenge obvious things. Because they don't need to drive a point (obvious things are agreed upon) and because, as I invite you to try, challenging obvious things is very difficult.

In ethics, for instance, someone typically puts forward some ethical framework, and then people argue over whether it's good or bad, and why.

Let's say someone brings up utilitarianism, and we know utilitarianism weights happiness to decide what is good or not. Let's say utilitarianism is brought under contention, you may find it useful to defend it with what Hume has to say about why

Most of our feelings about things are somewhere between joy and grief

Or you may, just for sport, try to challenge Hume's positions. Have you seen the flat earth discussions on Youtube ? Most people believe the earth is round, but we have to thank flat earthers for challenging that position and showing us that most people would be embarassed if asked to prove why it is round.

I can't tell you why the teacher chose these texts, but I'm inviting you to work on them to make the most of your time.

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I think some of the other answers are correct, but they do not answer what you are missing. In my opinion, what you are missing is a deep study of logic and modern mathematics, and most importantly the history, the paradoxes we have come across in the past, the foundational questions we've come up with, and the answers to those questions.

Doing this will give you three new insights:

  1. There are no obvious statements, only intuitive ones
  2. Intuitive statements which are also true are extremely rare and hard to find (in fact its very possible we haven't found any)
  3. Intuitive statements can be used to prove extremely non-intuitive results

Lets use your first example:

Most of our feelings about things are somewhere between joy and grief. Where they land along this spectrum depends on the probability of something happening and the amount of joy/grief it would cause if it did happen.

Lets look at this statement in terms of the three "insights" I listed above

  1. Is it obvious? This is certainly an intuitive statement, but it is not at all obvious. Why? If most feelings are somewhere between joy and grief, how do we distinguish between feeling extreme sadness and extreme anger, for example? It seems that we can feel almost all of our feelings in the same intensity that we feel another, so a sliding scale between extreme grief and extreme joy may not fit. And what about when we feel grief or sadness for no reason? Also, if our feelings are caused by the probability of something happening in the future, why do memories make us feel intense emotions? Why do stories which are completely made up? What about dreams?
  2. Is it rare?/Could anyone have discovered this? Did you come up with it? ;)
  3. Can this be used to prove non-intuitive results? I would say the answer to this is undoubtedly yes. Note, he describes here a relationship between feelings and probability. He is making a very powerful claim here, that feelings are a result of the probability of events in the future. If what he is saying is true, the wide range of varied and complex emotions that humans feel could be identified with just single number between 0 and 1 with 1 meaning that there is a 100% chance we will feel as much joy as humanly possible, and 0 meaning that there is a 100% chance we will feel as much grief as humanly possible. This means two things: that objectively identifying a person's feelings becomes a matter of applying statistics (statistics is filled with non-intuitive results), and also that our wide range of varied and complex emotions aren't as wide ranging or varied as it might seem (which in my opinion is not obvious or intuitive).

So again, I believe what you are missing is practice in mathematics and logic as well as its history. When you have studied mathematics enough, the questions I listed and the consequences of these statements jump out at you almost immediately. Reading modern mathematics, you come across extremely obvious statements all the time, but then, almost like magic, something entirely unexpected arises out of them. And that feeling sticks with you and shapes how you view the world.

Furthermore, there are far more obvious statements that have been shown to be false (or not necessarily true). For example, the statement "A shape with finite volume must have finite surface area" is false. Another, more famous, example is Euclid's fifth postulate, which states that given a point P and a line L1, there is only one line L2 passing through P which is parallel to L1.

Tl;Dr

Study mathematics!

  • I had a basic undergraduate course in logics and never studied mathematics. There is really no need for this for a deep understanding of the more intricate philosophical positions, even if it may help sometimes. In other words: this is but one possible way. – Philip Klöcking 1 hour ago

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