Giving Count Potemkin a Bad Name
Covering the Economy: Readings for February 21: Federal Reserve/Poverty and Income

History of Philosophy Cage Match

Brian Leiter makes it clear that Leon Wieseltier knows nothing about David Hume. It does make one wonder what Wieseltier has been doing with himself--and what Sam Tanenhaus is doing with his book review:

Leiter Reports: Why review a book of philosophy when you can sneer at it? (Leiter): The New York Times has done it again: they've enlisted an ignorant reviewer to review a philosophical book. The reviewer is Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor at The New Republic. The book is Daniel Dennett's latest book, a "naturalistic" account of religious belief....

[Wieseltier writes] "Dennett's misrepresentation of Hume [as an atheist, not a theist]... is noteworthy, therefore, because it illustrates [Dennett's] complacent refusal to acknowledge the dense and vital relations between religion and reason, not only historically but also philosophically."

Has Dennett misrepresented Hume?.... Paul Russell (Philosophy, British Columbia) writes.... "In 1757 Hume published “The Natural History of Religion”, a work that proposes to identify and explain the origins and evolution of religious belief.... Hume's primary objective in this work is to show that the origins and foundations of religious belief do not rest with reason or philosophical arguments of any kind but with aspects of human nature that reflect our weaknesses, vulnerabilities and limitations (i.e., fear and ignorance).... Hume is directly challenging an opposing view... [that] the evidence of God's existence is so obvious that no one sincerely and honestly doubts it...."

What Mr. Wieseltier confidently pronounces Hume's theism is, alas, not so clearly ascribed to Hume according to those who actually know something about Hume. There has been misrepresentation of Hume, I fear, but not by Professor Dennett.

Mr. Wieseltier's confident ignorance extends beyond Hume scholarship.... Mr. Wieseltier... does not seem to realize that an account of the historical genesis of a belief can have bearing on the epistemic status of that belief, that beliefs with the wrong kind of etiology are epistemically suspect....

Mr. Wieseltier complains: "It will be plain that Dennett's approach to religion is contrived to evade religion's substance. He thinks that an inquiry into belief is made superfluous by an inquiry into the belief in belief. This is a very revealing mistake. You cannot disprove a belief unless you disprove its content."

It is true that you cannot show a belief to be false by explaining its origin, but... you can show that holding the belief is not warranted by explaining its origin.... If you believe buying stock in High Tech Miracle, Inc. is a good investment based on recommendation of your broker, and then you discover that your broker recommended it because he is an investor in the company and a beneficiary of its rising stock fortunes, you no longer have a reason to believe it's a good investment.... Hume, Nietzsche, Marx, Dennett and many others exploit this form of argumentation, without making any mistakes, let alone abandoning "reason," as Mr. Wieseltier--whose arrogance may even outstrip his ignorance--remarkably claims...