Style And Epistemology

In the letter from Pamphilus to Hermippus that begins David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Pamphilus remarks concerning the limitations of the form of writing for expressing the content desired.

Dialogue was the preferred form among the ancient philosophers. Even Aristotle is supposed to have written in dialogue form. What we have left of his writings are considered to be lecture notes. Moderns who attempted to write in dialogue sorely missed the mark, according to Pamphilus. It takes a certain talent to appropriate that form in a way that is clear, concise, and accurate. Plato was a true artist of this literary form.
For whatever reason, modern philosophers in the time before Hume found it much more preferable to write in a didactic form, presenting their ideas straightforwardly in a logical progression. What this does, however, according to Pamphilus, is change the whole cast of characters. We move from conversation to lecture and the consequent change of relationships from friend-friend or citizen-citizen or senator-senator (Cicero) to Author-Reader. The ideas become a SYSTEM to encounter once and for all – coherently put together and soundly argued. Whereas in dialogue uncertainty still remains. The danger Pamphilus sees as possible in dialogue is the shift from Author-Reader to Teacher-Pupil which has pedantic patronizing potential.

I suppose the understood distinction made between lecture and dialogue is that the former is more suited for discovery and the latter more suited for analysis (in this case of that which has already been put forth as discovered). Many of Plato’s and Cicero’s dialogues are concerned with discussing established positions and definitions. Pamphilus goes on, however to say that the best place for dialogue is where the subject is of an obscure and uncertain nature. This is the most natural starting point for a dialogue. There is no clear authority concerning the matter and therefore the many are able to participate in the search.

When the subject is obscure and uncertain, the reader can read with a certain amount of amusement at the attempts of the various interlocutors to grasp at the ungraspable. If no enlightenment is attained from the reading of the dialogue, there is at least attainable some enjoyment from the presence of “the two greatest and purest pleasures of human life, study and society.”

So the two subjects which make dialogues worthwhile and advantageous for philosophical writing are both the established as certain and that which resists such establishment. The topic which (paradoxically?) embodies both characteristics, according to Pamphilus, is Natural Religion. What is more established (in 18th century Scotland) than the existence of God? And what is more uncertain than the rationale of his ways (how unsearchable are his judgments…) or the nature of his Being (not that exists, but in what way he can be said to exist). These uncertainties concerning the established as true provide fertile ground for an intriguing (though possibly conclusion-less) inquiry.

Pamphilus thus begins recounting to Hermippus the conversation he had witnessed concerning this very subject while he was spending time with a friend, Cleanthes. Cleanthes is said to be a philosopher joined in conversation by Philo, a careless skeptic, and Demea a “rigidly inflexible orthodox [Christian].”

Thus begins the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

One is reminded of Cicero’s academic skepticism in the tone of this introduction. Plurality of opinions and delight in uncertainty.

I think the main issue at stake here in the introduction to Hume’s work is the relationship of style to epistemology. If we know for certain there is no need to establish it as true. But there is benefit in poking around and finding new consequences of the established-as-true. Likewise if there is no possible way of knowing a subject – there is also security in poking around. There is no ground for violent defensiveness since one is certainty and the other unable to ever become so.

Didactic argument style is for the realm of that which is not established but can be.



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