A Defense of Hume on Miracles

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Since its publication in the mid-eighteenth century, Hume's discussion of miracles has been the target of severe and often ill-tempered attacks. In this book, one of our leading historians of philosophy offers a systematic response to these attacks.

Arguing that these criticisms have--from the very start--rested on misreadings, Robert Fogelin begins by providing a narrative of the way Hume's argument actually unfolds. What Hume's critics (and even some of his defenders) have failed to see is that Hume's primary argument depends on fixing the appropriate standards of evaluating testimony presented on behalf of a miracle. Given the definition of a miracle, Hume quite reasonably argues that the standards for evaluating such testimony must be extremely high. Hume then argues that, as a matter of fact, no testimony on behalf of a religious miracle has even come close to meeting the appropriate standards for acceptance. Fogelin illustrates that Hume's critics have consistently misunderstood the structure of this argument--and have saddled Hume with perfectly awful arguments not found in the text. He responds first to some early critics of Hume's argument and then to two recent critics, David Johnson and John Earman. Fogelin's goal, however, is not to "bash the bashers," but rather to show that Hume's treatment of miracles has a coherence, depth, and power that makes it still the best work on the subject.

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Editorial Reviews

Times Literary Supplement - Mark Sainsbury
What a joy to read a philosophy book that is graceful, clear, and short. . . . Fogelin writes with the simplicity and immediacy of a distinguished mind. . . . [I]mpressively conceived and executed.
Philosophy in Review - Dan O'Brien
This book provides a subtle reading of Hume; it is both engaging and well argued; and, it makes a useful addition to the recent literature concerning both Hume's argument and testimony in general.
From the Publisher

"What a joy to read a philosophy book that is graceful, clear, and short. . . . Fogelin writes with the simplicity and immediacy of a distinguished mind. . . . [I]mpressively conceived and executed."--Mark Sainsbury, Times Literary Supplement

"This book provides a subtle reading of Hume; it is both engaging and well argued; and, it makes a useful addition to the recent literature concerning both Hume's argument and testimony in general."--Dan O'Brien, Philosophy in Review

Times Literary Supplement
What a joy to read a philosophy book that is graceful, clear, and short. . . . Fogelin writes with the simplicity and immediacy of a distinguished mind. . . . [I]mpressively conceived and executed.
— Mark Sainsbury
Philosophy in Review
This book provides a subtle reading of Hume; it is both engaging and well argued; and, it makes a useful addition to the recent literature concerning both Hume's argument and testimony in general.
— Dan O'Brien
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Robert J. Fogelin is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and the Sherman Fairchild Professor in the Humanities at Dartmouth College. His previous books include "Wittgenstein, Hume's Skepticism", and "Pyrrhonian Reflections on Knowledge and Justification".
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Read an Excerpt

A Defense of Hume on Miracles

By Robert J. Fogelin

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2003 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-12243-4


On my return from Italy, I had the mortification to find all England in a ferment, on account of Dr. Middleton's Free Enquiry, while my performance was entirely overlooked and neglected. -David Hume, My Own Life

THE FULL TITLE OF Thomas Middleton's Free Inquiry is A Free Inquiry into Miraculous Powers, Which are supposed to have subsisted in the Christian Church, From the Earliest Ages through several successive Centuries. It is an anti-Papist tract intended to show that Christian miracles did not continue into post-Apostolic times and that, for this reason, none of the later miracles claimed in support of the Roman Catholic Church should be acknowledged. When it appeared in 1749, Middleton's work caused a sensation, whereas David Hume's recently published Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748), including its own examination of miracles, was, as he ruefully reports, entirely overlooked and neglected. With time, the roles have reversed. Middleton's work (somewhat sadly) has fallen into obscurity, while Hume's discussion of miracles continues to attract serious attention.

Hume's essay "Of Miracles" appears as section 10 of his Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. Hume had originallyplanned to include a discussion on this topic in his Treatise of Human Nature but, for reasons of prudence, decided not to do so. It appears in the Enquiry as one of two sections on religious matters. The second, which follows it, is titled "Of a particular Providence and of a future State." Neither essay is friendly to the cause of religion. Both seem intended to be provocative. If so, at least the essay on miracles has succeeded admirably. For more than two centuries it has been an object of vigorous defense and equally vigorous (often abusive) attack.

Hume, whose confessed ruling passion was a love of literary fame, would surely be pleased by this continuing attention, but I think he would also be perplexed by the wide range of competing interpretations of his position concerning miracles. Without making claims for originality on any particular point, I will attempt to provide a coherent reading-something like a narrative-of the way the text unfolds. This is the first and primary task of this work.

My exposition of Hume's position concerning miracles turns crucially on rejecting what I take to be two common misreadings of the text-misreadings that, in various ways, feed on each other. The first misreading is that, in part 1 of his essay on miracles, Hume maintains that no testimony could ever be sufficient to establish the occurrence of a miracle. Hume does not say this in part 1. Indeed, Hume nowhere asserts this, though in part 2 he does say, "Upon the whole ... it appears, that no testimony for any kind of miracle has ever amounted to a probability, much less to a proof" (EHU, 10.35, emphasis added). The second common misreading of the text is that in part 1 Hume presents what he takes to be an a priori argument sufficient by itself to establish his fundamental theses concerning the status of testimony in behalf of miracles. This, I will argue, is false. Nor is part 2 simply an add-on containing supplementary a posteriori considerations that also bear on the topic of miracles. Part 2 is essential for the completion of the argument begun in part 1. The second task of this work is to make good these interpretive claims.

The third task is to respond specifically to attacks that Hume's treatment of miracles has encountered in recent literature. This work was provoked in part by these misguided, often ill-tempered, bashings. Its overarching goal is not, however, to engage in counterpolemics, but rather to show that Hume's treatment of miracles, when properly understood, exhibits a level of richness, subtlety, coherence, and force not generally appreciated.


Excerpted from A Defense of Hume on Miracles by Robert J. Fogelin Copyright © 2003 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface xi
Abbreviations xiii
CHAPTER 1. The Structur of Hume's Argument 4
CHAPTER 2. Two Recent Critics 32
CHAPTER 3. The Place of "Of Miracles" in Hume's Philosophy 54
APPENDIX 1. Hume's Curious Relationship to Tillotson 63
APPENDIX 2. "Of Miracles" 68
Notes 89
References 95
Index 97
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