We tend to think that beliefs are opinions that we form in the light of certain evidence. But perhaps most beliefs are not like that. Perhaps most beliefs are like contagious diseases that we catch. – When philosophers talk like that, it’s easy to think that they are speaking metaphorically. Looking at debates around Hume and other philosophers, I’ve begun to doubt that. There is good reason to see references to physiology and medical models as a genuine way of philosophical explanation. As I hope to suggest now, Hume’s account of beliefs arising from sympathy is a case in point.
Seeing the table in front of me, I believe that there is a table. Discerning the table’s colour, I believe that the table is brown. It is my philosophical education that made me wonder whether what I actually perceive might not be the table and a colour but mental representations of such things. Taking things to be as they appear to us, without wondering about cognitive intermediaries, that is what is often called the vulgar view or naïve realism. Now you might be inclined to think that this view is more or less self-evident or natural, but if you look more carefully, you’ll quickly see that it does need explaining.
As far as I know there is no historical study of the vulgar view, but I found various synonyms for this view or its adherents: Ockham, for instance, speaks of the “layperson” (laicus), Bacon, Berkeley and Hume of the “vulgar view” or “system”, Reid and Moore of “common sense”. When it is highlighted, it is often spelled out in opposition to a “philosophical view” such as representationalism, the “way of ideas” or idealism. Today, I’d like to briefly sketch what I take to be Hume’s account of this view. Not only because I like Hume, but because I think his account is both interesting and largely unknown. As I see it, Hume thinks that we adhere to the vulgar view because others around us hold it. But why, you might ask, would other people’s views affect our attitudes so strongly? If I am right, Hume holds that deviating from this view – for instance by taking a sceptical stance – will be seen as not normal and make us outsiders. Intriguingly, this normality is mediated by our physiological dispositions. Deviation from the vulgar view means deviation from the common balance of humours and, for instance, suffering from melancholy.** In this sense, the vulgar view we share is governed by medical norms, or so I argue.
The vulgar view is often explicitly discussed because it raises problems. If we want to explain false beliefs or hallucinations, it seems that we need to take recourse to representations: seeing a bent stick in water can’t mean to see a real stick, but some sort of representation or idea. Why? Because reference to the (straight) stick cannot explain why we see it as bent. Since the vulgar view doesn’t posit cognitive representations, it cannot account for erroneous perceptions. What is less often addressed, however, is that the vulgar view or realism is not at all plain or empirical in nature. The vulgar view is not a view that is confirmed empirically; rather it is a view about the nature of empirical experience. It’s not that we experience that objects are as they appear. So the source of the vulgar view cannot be given in experience or any empirical beliefs. Now if this is correct, we have to ask what it is that makes us hold this view. There is nothing natural or evident about it. But if this view is not self-evident, why do we hold it and why is it so widespread?
Enter Hume: According to Hume, most of the beliefs, sentiments and emotions we have are owing to our social environment. Hume explains this by referring to the mechanism of sympathy: “So close and intimate is the correspondence of human souls, that no sooner any person approaches me, than he diffuses on me all his opinions, and draws along my judgment in a greater or lesser degree.” (Treatise 188.8.131.52) Many of the beliefs we hold, then, are not (merely) owing to exposure to similar experiences, but to the exposure to others. Being with others affords a shared mentality. In his Essay on National Character, Hume writes: “If we run over the globe, or revolve the annals of history, we shall discover every where signs of a sympathy or contagion of manners, none of the influence of air or climate.” What is at stake here? Arguing that sympathy and contagion explain the sociological and historical facts better, Hume dismisses the traditional climate theory in favour of his account of sympathy. Our mentalities are not owing to the conditions of the place we live in but to the people that surround us.***
Now how exactly is the “contagion” of manners and opinions explained? Of course, a large part of our education is governed by linguistic and behavioural conventions. But at the bottom, there is a physiological kind of explanation that Hume could appeal to. Corresponding to our mental states are physiological dispositions, temperature of the blood etc., the effects of which are mediated through the air via vapours which, in turn, affect the imagination of the recipient. Just like material properties of things affect our sense organs, the states of other bodies can affect our organs and yield pertinent effects. When Hume speaks of the “contagion” of opinion, it is not unlikely that he has something like Malebranche’s account in mind. According to this account opinions and emotions can be contagious and spread just like diseases.
In the Search after Truth, Malebranche writes: “To understand what this contagion is, and how it is transmitted from one person to another, it is necessary to know that men need one another, and that they were created that they might form several bodies, all of whose parts have a mutual correspondence. … These natural ties we share with beasts consist in a certain disposition of the brain all men have to imitate those with whom they converse, to form the same judgments they make, and to share the same passions by which they are moved.” (SAT 161) The physiological model of sympathetic contagion, then, allows for the transmission of mental states allueded to above. This is why Hume can claim that a crucial effect of sympathy lies in the “uniformity of humours and turn of thinking”. In this sense, a certain temperament and set of beliefs might count as pertinent to a view shared by a group.
Of course, this mostly goes unnoticed. It only becomes an issue if we begin to deviate from a common view, be it out of madness or a sceptical attitude: “We may observe the same effect of poetry in a lesser degree; and this is common both to poetry and madness, that the vivacity they bestow on the ideas is not derive’d from the particular situations or connexions of the objects of these ideas, but from the present temper and disposition of the person.” (T 184.108.40.206)
The point is that the source of a certain view might not be the object perceived but the physiological dispositions which, in turn, are substantially affected by our social environment. If this is correct, Hume’s account of sympathy is ultimately rooted in a medical model. The fact that we share the vulgar view and other attitudes can be explained by appealing to physiological interactions between humans.
As I see it, this yields a medical understanding of the normality we attribute to a view. Accordingly, Hume’s ultimate cure from scepticism is not afforded by argument but by joining the crowd and playing a game of backgammon. The supposed normality of common sense, then, is not owing to the content of the view but to the fact that it is widespread.
* This is a brief sketch of my Hume interpretation defended in my book on Socialising Minds: Intersubjectivity in Early Modern Philosophy, the manuscript of which I’m currently finalising. – Together with Evelina Miteva, I also co-organise a conference on “Medicine and Philosophy”. The CFP is still open (till December 15, 2018): please apply if you’re interested.
** Donald Ainslie makes a nice case for this in his Hume’s True Scepticism, but claims that Hume’s appeal to humoral theory might have to be seen as metaphorical. — I realise that proper acknowledgements to Humeans would take more than one blog post in itself:) Stefanie Rocknak’s work has been particularly important for getting to grips with Hume’s understanding of the vulgar view. – Here, I’m mainly concerned with the medical model in the background. Marina Frasca-Spada’s work has helped with that greatly. But what we’d need to understand better still is the medical part in relation to the notion of imagination, as spelled out in Malebranche, for instance. Doina Rusu and Koen Vermeir have done some great work on transmission via vapours, but the picture we end up with is still somewhat coarse-grained, to put it mildly.
*** I am grateful to Evelina Miteva for sharing a preliminary version of her paper on Climata et temperamenta, which provides a succinct account of the medieval discussion. Hume should thus be seen as taking sides in an ongoing debate about traits and mentalities arising from climate vs. arising from sympathy.