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How much we may presuppose…

From Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1777 edition), pp. 80-6.

From this circumstance alone, that a controversy has been long kept on foot, and remains still undecided, we may presume, that there is some ambiguity in the expression, and that the disputants affix different ideas to the terms employed in the controversy. For as the faculties of the mind are supposed to be naturally alike in every individual; otherwise nothing could be more fruitless than to reason or dispute together; it were impossible, if men affix the same ideas to their terms, that they could so long form different opinions of the same subject; especially when they communicate their views, and each party turn themselves on all sides, in search [p. 81] of arguments, which may give them the victory over their antagonists.

[p. 85]…from observing the variety of conduct in different men, we are enabled to form a greater variety of maxims, which still suppose a degree of uniformity and regularity.

Uniformity in human action is only somewhat less predictable than uniformity in nature. Human vagary, a little exaggerated.

Are the manners of men different in different ages and [p. 86] countries? We learn thence the great force of custom and education, which mould the human mind from its infancy, and form it into a fixed and established character. Is the behaviour and conduct of the one sex very unlike that of the other? It is thence we become acquainted with the different characters, which nature has impressed upon the sexes, and which she preserves with constancy and regularity. …Even the characters, which are peculiar to each individual, have a uniformity in their influence; otherwise our acquaintance with the persons and our observation of their conduct, could never teach us their dispositions, or serve to direct our behaviour with regard to them.

The mutual contamination of masculine and feminine principles in the wild—resulting in an indeterminacy of sex and a proliferation of mongrel forms—Weininger would later use to explain the level of cross-gender understanding and affiliation that does exist. But the radical difference in the two principles—not always and completely evident in their instantiations—remains. Contra Hume, the faculties of mind and valuation are not uniform across the species. (And we don’t mean to cast hierarchical aspersions, and, no, there are no class, race or ethnicity issues waiting in the wings, etc. here, as certain shallow pates have historically been inclined to aver. We are addressing something more fundamental than any of those sortings.) The dispute is not just about words. It is not that the words happen to mean different things; it is that they cannot mean the same things across gender, given the bifurcated nature of the speakers. The meanings cannot truly be “affixed” without deep misunderstanding, as many well-meaning types have tried with certain freighted ideas, for example, as “freedom” or “necessity”. Hume, percipient though he was, missed this. Minds are not naturally alike across (or rather within) the species, not even in principle. If there is a long-running uniformity in our observations of human interactions worthy of producing conviction, even and especially on Humean terms, it is this: female and male consciousnesses begin from different places. The wonder is that they ever meet, if in fact that ever happens.

Posted by luno in sex differences, Hume, feminism, Moral Theory, Weininger (Monday June 6, 2005 at 9:19 pm)

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