If you have spoken to me recently, you have heard me complain about David Hume. No doubt there was a collective sigh of relief when I finished my course in the hopes that at last my hatred of Hume would no longer be a topic of conversation. I studied Descartes’s and Hume’s philosophies of imagination, with a particularly in-depth study of Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature. I knew little other than that it was pivotal text in my area of interest. I can count on one hand the books that I have disliked in the past decade, so I had no reason to anticipate a negative response.
However, from the first chapter, Hume’s philosophy of mind seemed batty. What we call mind is “nothing but a heap or collection of different perceptions, united together by certain relations.” It progressed quickly from mad to offensive, as he calls a moral system built on eternal, rational measures of right and wrong “vulgar.” He relocates morality to the realm of the passions, redefining virtue as a kind of pleasure, which, like color or taste, is merely a perception in the mind. It was not just Hume’s grotesque diminishment of virtue and patronizing tone that got under my skin – it was the struggle to read generously.
When I began as a graduate student in a Great Books program, I was introduced to the Great Books Foundation’s Shared Inquiry Method, based on the work of Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler. This method requires the student to come to discussions with questions that are not factual or evaluative, but interpretive. My introductory course included practicing this method with readings on American democracy, no doubt selected because they are great works, but also ones to which it is natural to respond with strong opinions. Focusing on interpretation eliminates the two primary ways in which mainstream education teaches us to respond to literature. The first is the reader’s response: I think, I like, I agree, I disagree. The second, slightly more sophisticated, is the critic’s response, cobbling together the opinions of literary critics. But neither of these teaches the reader to listen to what the author is saying. Once opinions were off the table, it opened not only a way of reading but also a way of listening.
Before we can be in a position to agree or disagree with a book, we must first come to terms with the author. In works of non-fiction, particularly philosophy, each philosopher has the right to define his own terms: good, truth, justice, wisdom, beauty. Within the work, these words mean what the author says they mean. Some months ago I experienced firsthand the injustice of having a false meaning imputed to my words. I used a theological term that is, of course, understood differently by different Christian traditions. I used the term in a particular way with a precise definition in mind. The person with whom I was speaking immediately decided upon an alternative definition and began to berate me. Though I repeatedly tried to clearly define my term, her ears were shut. She would only hear what the word meant to her, and she raged at something I never said.
Like my conversation partner, we all bring our baggage, definitions, and expectations to a text. The work of the reader (when reading a book worth reading) is to set that aside on a shelf and listen. Interpretive questions are simply about understanding what the writer means. Is he using an important term in more than one way? When I examine passages that seem to contradict, do they actually clarify? I attempt to approach every text with gracious assumptions. That is, I ask myself, “If this book has stood the test of time as a great or important work, what is the most generous way in which I can understand this argument?” Only after I have done the work of understanding the terms and the argument, do I pick my opinions back up off the shelf. Then I can weigh the writer’s ideas and see if they are found wanting.
Intellectual integrity demands that I must be able to clearly articulate the position or argument with which I disagree. It is challenging at times to understand that with which we do not agree. Do I misunderstand because the argument is incoherent, or does the argument seem incoherent because I misunderstand? Hume is notoriously difficult, and he nearly defeated me. Once I go to his philosophy of will, his ideas of liberty and necessity seemed total madness:
I desire it may be observed, that by the will, I mean nothing but the internal impression we feel and are conscious of, when we knowingly give rise to any new motion of our body, or new perception of our mind. This impression, like the preceding ones of pride and humility, love and hatred, it is impossible to define, and needless to describe any farther…
I asked for help and was generously assigned a zoom call with the president of the university, who was a great lover of Hume. Listening to his passion, I was able to understand Hume in a way that I had not before. Sadly, his passion for Hume was the same source of my disgust: Hume’s construction of morality apart from God, apart from external or eternal standards. Understanding, I could finally weigh Hume’s ideas against what I knew to be true. I found them wanting, but my judgment was fair because I understood.
In the end, though Hume’s ideas were far less worthy than the other thinkers that I read, the exercise was extremely important. Reading beyond disagreement is harder work. It is one thing to respond, “Isn’t Aristotle clever! How useful the four causes are!” It is another to say, “I understand Hume’s ideas of necessary connection and constant conjunction. Here are some reasons that I find his ideas of causality wanting.”
My final essay could be boiled down to my best argument why Hume’s moral philosophy is rubbish. But the feedback I received was the most gratifying of any academic work I have done: my essay demonstrated understanding and open-mindedness. Open-mindedness does not mean agreement, but a willingness to listen before choosing to agree or disagree. We have all experienced a conversation in which the listener, rather than truly listening, is waiting for the speaker to take a breath so that they can interject an opinion. We have all been that person. Learning to disagree with a book not only helps us to engage with ideas but also brings the great benefit of learning to listen.
 Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), 257.
 Ibid, 447.
1 thought on “How to Disagree with a Book”
This takes such self-control! As I read this, I’m wearing a shirt that says “Listening to understand does not require you to agree.” I appreciate that you brought it back to generosity and grace. This requires maturity. Thank you.