Hume and Buddhism
This connection has been noted many times, but never analyzed in depth – because Buddhists didn’t know much (or care much) about Western Philosophy, and Western Philosophers have had scant interest in Buddhism. They lived in separate worlds – literally, East and West.
I have been listening to Hume in 90 Minutes by Paul Strathern – and enjoying it very much. Strathern is a cynical historian of philosophy, and this production gives him a chance to be his most sardonic. Even the narrator sounds sarcastic. I loved it.
It didn’t take him long to dispose of Hume’s philosophy, so he could spend the rest of the time on interesting trivia about Hume and the 18th Century Continental society he lived in. A strange society, to be sure – and one perfectly suited to Strathern’s rapier wit.
Hume suffered from mental instability all his life, and he had at least one episode where he saw saints and demons and tried to kill himself. This immediately brings up the question “What was the nature of these illusions?” since Hume believed sensory input was all we could be sure of – since everything else (the continuity of objects, the sensing self, causality) were all conjecture. His reasoning was impeccable, and could not be refuted – and so, for all practical purposes he was ignored.
The German philosophers who came after him, including Kant and Hegel, proceeded to erect elaborate philosophical systems – in the case of Hegel, so elaborate some have wondered if Hegel understood his own philosophy. Only Nietzsche had the nerve to call their bluff – and promptly went insane himself – but before that happened, he had made Hume respectable again. And ever since he has been more-or-less respectable.
20th Century Science has made him completely respectable, because relativity and quantum mechanics have shown that our common-sense perceptions of the world, those expressed by Newtonian physics, are wildly inaccurate. And the newest theories, such as string theory, are about as removed from common experience as they can get. Even Hume’s personal idiosyncrasies – his extreme obesity and lack of connection to his body fits right into our age.
Now for Buddhism. Anyone who had done some serious meditating, using the Vipassana technique, one of the oldest, has been forced to notice the same thing – everything is impermanent. And I don’t just mean a mental perception of this – I mean a fundamental realization of this, the process that produces Enlightenment. In some, it can also produce insanity, or sociopaths – and it can take a perceptive observer to tell the difference. Hitler in some ways was an enlightened person.