Abstract of my Ph.D. Thesis on David Hume

Dissertation Abstracts International, February 1973, Volume 33, Number 8, Segment A: The Humanities and Social Sciences (Xerox University Microfilms, Xerox), pp.4467-A and 4468-A.


Eduardo O. C. Chaves, Ph.D.

University of Pittsburgh, 1972


Commentators on Hume often say that Hume’s treatment of religion and theology is incomplete, sketchy and disconnected.

I show, first, that Hume’s critique of theology is complete and systematic – indeed, in the context of eighteenth-century thought, as much so as one might wish. I emphasize the systematic nature of his critique. In discussing the central problem of theological epistemology, theologians had maintained that either revelation or reason, or both, were the sources of theological insight. Hume proceeded to systematically attach each of these alleged sources. He attacks revelation by arguing against the credibility of miracles, the supposed guarantee of revelation. He attacks reason as a source of theological insight by criticizing the various arguments for the existence of God. Then, treating the question of evil, he moves to the offensive and presents an argument for the non-existence of the traditional Christian God. Finally, after showing that belief in God is without rational justification, he gives a naturalistic explanation of why people believe in God. In discussing Hume’s treatment of these issues, I often enter into dialogue and debate with contemporary interpreters of Hume.

Secondly, I take up the role of the Dialogues in Hume’s thought and try to show that this work is far more coherent and unified than most interpreters of Hume have allowed. Philo, in particular, represents Hume, but all the others may also speak for Hume when not explicitly or implicitly disagreeing with Philo. Alternative views and the evidence for and against them are also discussed. Special attention is given to recalcitrant passages in Section XII of the Dialogues and an effort is made to show that even here Philo is basically consistent in his adherence to a naturalistic skepticism. Parallels between the Dialogues and Hume’s other writings are traced, and the question whether belief in God is a “natural belief” is discussed.

Thirdly, I indicate my appraisal of the significance of Hume for the history of Christian Thought. He is, I argue, the first major figure in modern intellectual history to launch such a devastating attack upon religion and theology. As such he deserves a much more prominent place in the history of theology than the one, he is usually given. Two initial chapters provide the scenario for Hume’s critique by discussing the question of reason and revelation from Thomas Aquinas through the first half of the eighteenth century. Although theologians (e.g., William of Ockham, Martin Luther) had rejected reason as a proper source of theological insight, and although the deists, for instance, had rejected revelation, never before in the history of Christian Thought had a major modern figure systematically attacked and rejected both alleged sources of theology, concluding that theology was, epistemologically, a groundless enterprise.

Fourthly, post-Humean theological trends must be viewed in relation to his critique. If one agrees with him that theology has no rational justification, one must proceed either to reject it, as he himself did, or one must, as Kierkegaard did, rejoice in its irrationality. If one disagrees with him, one must circumvent his criticisms either by trying to refute them, as especially Roman Catholic theologians tried to do, or by finding a new ground or source for theology, a path that Kant and liberal Protestant theologians preferred to follow. Hume’s work, done at a most important point in the history of Christian Thought, represents a major turning point in this history, ever since Thomas Aquinas’ synthesis of reason and revelation, for the Protestant Reformation made no important new contribution to the basic epistemological question of the sources of theology.

After Hume, as Kant was probably the first to realize, theology could no longer be the same, if it could indeed exist at all.

Order no. 735005, 620 pages.

Eduardo Chaves
Transcribed here in Salto, on 4-May-2019

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