When Hume lived in La Flèche

Alison Gopnik has a terrific article in The Atlantic. Drop everything and read it, as I just did.

She starts with her personal crisis in which a lot of things fell apart and triggered other things falling apart, and she couldn’t work. (She’s a philosopher and a psychologist. I think I’ve quoted her in the past.)

My doctors prescribed Prozac, yoga, and meditation. I hated Prozac. I was terrible at yoga. But meditation seemed to help, and it was interesting, at least. In fact, researching meditation seemed to help as much as actually doing it. Where did it come from? Why did it work?

So she began to read Buddhist philosophy.

Then there’s David Hume. He had a crisis himself, at age 23; he too couldn’t work, although he had ideas he badly wanted to write up.

Somehow, during the next three years, he managed not only to recover but also, remarkably, to write his book. Even more remarkably, it turned out to be one of the greatest books in the history of philosophy: A Treatise of Human Nature.

In his Treatise, Hume rejected the traditional religious and philosophical accounts of human nature. Instead, he took Newton as a model and announced a new science of the mind, based on observation and experiment. That new science led him to radical new conclusions. He argued that there was no soul, no coherent self, no “I.” “When I enter most intimately into what I call myself,” he wrote in the Treatise, “I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.”

Contemporary cognitive science confirms this. There is no unitary self, it’s an illusion that makes a bunch of disparate things seem to cohere.

Hume had always been one of my heroes. I had known and loved his work since I was an undergraduate. In my own scientific papers I’d argued, like Hume, that the coherent self is an illusion. My research had convinced me that our selves are something we construct, not something we discover. I had found that when we are children, we don’t connect the “I” of the present to the “I” of the past and the future. We learn to be who we are.

This is one reason I find the way a lot of people talk about their “identity” and take it terribly seriously quite frustrating.

Until Hume, philosophers had searched for metaphysical foundations supporting our ordinary experience, an omnipotent God or a transcendent reality outside our minds. But Hume undermined all that. When you really look hard at everything we think we know, he argued, the foundations crumble. Descartes at least had said you always know that you yourself exist (“I think, therefore I am”), but Hume rejected even that premise.

Hume articulates a thoroughgoing, vertiginous, existential kind of doubt. In theTreatise, he reports that when he first confronted those doubts himself he was terrified—“affrighted and confounded.” They made him feel like “some strange uncouth monster.” No wonder he turned to the doctors.

But here’s Hume’s really great idea: Ultimately, the metaphysical foundations don’t matter. Experience is enough all by itself. What do you lose when you give up God or “reality” or even “I”? The moon is still just as bright; you can still predict that a falling glass will break, and you can still act to catch it; you can still feel compassion for the suffering of others. Science and work and morality remain intact. Go back to your backgammon game after your skeptical crisis, Hume wrote, and it will be exactly the same game.

And does that remind you of anything? Yes, of course: of Buddhism.

In my shabby room, as I read Buddhist philosophy, I began to notice something that others had noticed before me. Some of the ideas in Buddhist philosophy sounded a lot like what I had read in Hume’s Treatise. But this was crazy. Surely in the 1730s, few people in Europe knew about Buddhist philosophy.

Still, as I read, I kept finding parallels. The Buddha doubted the existence of an omnipotent, benevolent God. In his doctrine of “emptiness,” he suggested that we have no real evidence for the existence of the outside world. He said that our sense of self is an illusion, too. The Buddhist sage Nagasena elaborated on this idea. The self, he said, is like a chariot. A chariot has no transcendent essence; it’s just a collection of wheels and frame and handle. Similarly, the self has no transcendent essence; it’s just a collection of perceptions and emotions.

“I never can catch myself at any time without a perception.”

That sure sounded like Buddhist philosophy to me—except, of course, that Hume couldn’t have known anything about Buddhist philosophy.

Or could he?

The rest of the article is about the scholarly detective work Gopnik did to find out, and – spoiler alert – she discovered that he could have. It’s not for sure that he did, but he could have. He knew some Jesuits who knew the one guy in Europe who could have informed him about Buddhist philosophy. He knew the Jesuits well, and the one guy in Europe knew Buddhist philosophy well. It’s a great story.

I discovered that at least one person in Europe in the 1730s not only knew about Buddhism but had studied Buddhist philosophy for years. His name was Ippolito Desideri, and he had been a Jesuit missionary in Tibet. In 1728, just before Hume began the Treatise, Desideri finished his book, the most complete and accurate European account of Buddhist philosophy to be written until the 20th century. The catch was that it wasn’t published. No Catholic missionary could publish anything without the approval of the Vatican—and officials there had declared that Desideri’s book could not be printed. The manuscript disappeared into the Church’s archives.

But! Desideri paid a visit to a little French town called La Flèche, home to the Jesuit Royal College. Eight years later, Hume lived in La Flèche while writing the Treatise. He socialized with the Jesuits, who were keen intellectuals. One of them in particular had talked to Desideri a lot. So. It’s possible.

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