An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding

by David Hume
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"Custom Is The Great Guide Of Human Life"

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 256

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Context: There is a danger, says Hume, that a passion for philosophy, like a passion for religion, may lead us astray; the passion for philosophy may, instead of correcting our manners and relieving our vices, push us toward the very selfishness we are trying to avoid. But nature, maintains Hume, has a means of prevailing upon us, a principle which helps us to avoid our undermining the understanding of common life, that principle being custom, or habit. To judge the happenings about us on the basis of custom enables us to avoid trying to answer the how of the happenings and to limit ourselves to that which we know from experience. Reason alone, says Hume, is incapable of variation, but experience tells us there can be variation; so Hume concludes, "All inferences from experience, therefore, are effects of custom, not of reasoning." He continues, in a discussion of custom:

Custom, then, is the great guide of human life. It is that principle alone which renders our experience useful to us; and makes us expect, for the future, a similar train of events with those which have appeared in the past. Without the influence of custom, we should be entirely ignorant of every matter of fact beyond what is immediately present to the memory and senses. We should never know how to adjust means to ends, or to employ our natural powers in the production of any effect. There would be an end at once of all action, as well as of the chief part of speculation.