Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation




College of Arts and Sciences

First Advisor

Matthew Kisner


This dissertation addresses the question of whether David Hume is an epistemic skeptic about core beliefs—beliefs that are practically indispensible for life and science. On the one hand, Hume claims to be a skeptic, but on the other hand, he carries on with ordinary life and with a constructive program of research. The relationship of his science and skepticism remains a central and contested question in the literature.

I offer a practical conciliation of Hume’s science and skepticism. On my reading, Hume really is an epistemic skeptic about core beliefs. However, he thinks that we are practically permitted—even required—to ignore the skeptical arguments against these beliefs and retain them, in spite of the fact that they are epistemologically unjustified. This is his rationale for carrying on as he does with common life and science.

In order to establish that Hume is an epistemic skeptic, I first develop an account of Humean epistemic justification. I argue that he uses the term “philosophy” to refer to an epistemologically normative method of inquiry and belief-formation that governs all of the special sciences. For Hume, a belief is philosophically (that is, epistemologically) justified if and only if it is (a) produced by a propensity which is permanent, irresistible, and universal, and (b) the belief is undefeated.

Hume’s real skeptical challenges are defeater arguments from reason—an undermining defeater against the deliverances of reason and a rebutting defeater against belief in body. The Title Principle, which I interpret as a practical, rather than epistemic, norm, entitles us to ignore the rational defeaters of these core beliefs. But the limited practical authority of philosophy does not open up the floodgates of epistemic irresponsibility. We are only practically justified in ignoring reason under the relatively rare circumstances specified in the Title Principle. Despite its liabilities, philosophy is still a safer and more agreeable method of inquiry than superstition. Hume’s overall goal is not to destroy philosophy but to put it in its proper place—subordinated to human interests, integrated into a well-rounded life.

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Philosophy Commons