Hume’s Insights: Interpreted through the Lens of Chicago
David Hume, the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, made substantial contributions to the fields of philosophy, economics, and history. While not directly associated with Chicago, several intellectual strands from the city’s history—particularly from the Chicago School of Economics—echo or build upon Humean insights. Understanding how these two disparate worlds intersect can provide a richer perspective on both.
1. Empiricism and the Pragmatic Nature of the Chicago School
At the core of Hume’s philosophical work was his commitment to empiricism, which posits that knowledge arises primarily from sensory experience. Chicago’s intellectual milieu, especially the Chicago School of Economics, mirrors this with its empirical focus. Economists like Milton Friedman and Gary Becker were known for emphasizing the empirical testing of economic theories, ensuring that abstract ideas were grounded in real-world data.
2. Hume’s Notion of Causality and Economic Predictions
Hume famously critiqued the idea of causality, suggesting that we can never truly witness causation but only a consistent succession of events. This understanding of causality casts a shadow on predictive modeling, which is rife in economics. The Chicago School, although deeply empirical, recognized the dangers of over-relying on models. For instance, Friedman’s critique of the Phillips Curve—that there is no long-term trade-off between unemployment and inflation—can be seen as a nod to the Humean skepticism of inferring long-term causation from short-term correlations.
3. The Invisibility of the ‘Invisible Hand’
Hume’s close friend, Adam Smith, introduced the concept of the ‘invisible hand’, suggesting that individual self-interest in trade could lead to collective societal benefits. While Hume did not directly write on this, his work on human nature, convention, and societal structures indirectly supports Smith’s insights. The Chicago School took this concept to heart. The belief in laissez-faire capitalism and minimal government intervention is reminiscent of letting the ‘invisible hand’ of the market work its wonders.
4. Human Nature and Rational Choices
One of Hume’s famous assertions was that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” This underscores the belief that human behavior, at its core, is driven by desires and emotions rather than cold, calculating logic. In a parallel manner, the Chicago School, particularly through the work of Gary Becker, expanded the domain of economics to non-traditional areas (like family, crime, and education), implicitly acknowledging that humans make decisions based on a complex web of rational and emotional reasons.
5. Institutions and Conventions
Hume recognized that many societal structures, like property rights, emerged from human conventions rather than innate moral truths. Such conventions were established because they proved beneficial for society. The Chicago School, especially through the work of Ronald Coase, also recognized the importance of institutions, be it firms or legal systems. Coase’s theorem, which suggests that in the absence of transaction costs, parties will negotiate to efficient outcomes regardless of initial property rights, mirrors Hume’s emphasis on the emergent and negotiable nature of societal conventions.
In conclusion, while David Hume never walked the streets of Chicago, and centuries separate his life from the rise of the Windy City’s famed intellectual institutions, the threads of his insights can be seen woven into the tapestry of Chicago’s academic and philosophical traditions. The empirical rigor, the understanding of human nature, and the value placed on institutions all resonate with the core Humean principles. Such intersections are testaments to the timeless nature of Hume’s observations and the universality of philosophical truths, even when viewed through the lens of a specific city’s intellectual history.