Updated: May 4
by Dominic Smith
(originally posted on the Scottish Centre for Continental Philosophy website, April 1, 2020)
I wasn’t in the habit of noticing it at all: a small rectangular fridge magnet bearing a likeness of the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, gifted to me by an eccentric member of the Hume Society many years ago…. It is frankly hideous: Hume’s likeness comes from a bad waxwork, and it looks like he is melting. To avoid offending my eyes with it, I had placed this piece of cheap and ugly plastic on the side of the fridge. It was meant to be ‘out of sight, out of mind’ (And, more to the point, out of sight and mind for potentially curious houseguests).
But there I was in the kitchen last night, doing the dishes as a way of 1.) hiding from the kids for ten minutes, and, 2.) focusing on something small, tedious and halfway ‘normal’ in the midst of the (mindboggling and bewildering) COVID-19 crisis in the UK, when Ugly David reached right out from the fridge and grabbed me (I mean this figuratively, not literally; I have not lost my mind….Yet).
A quote beside David reads: “‘Tis not reason that is the guide of life, but custom'”. The traine philosopher in me has always viewed this as a fairly dull statement of Hume’s philosophy (empiricism). The vain aesthete in me has always seen it as a fairly poor and random slogan for a fridge magnet.
But then I got to thinking….
Our habit in the face of something like the COVID-19 pandemic is to be hyper-rational. And by ‘our’ here, I mean that of literally everyone: child, teenager, parent, grandparent, teacher, pupil, friend, sibling, doctor, nurse, shopworker, policeman, criminal, soldier, student, artist, worker, jobseeker, engineer, homeless person, asylum seeker, politician, journalist, economist, epidemiologist…. Whichever terms here best describe you (and there are innumerably many others that can be added), we are extremely well versed in being hyper-rational these days.
This means we do things like the following: we reason in terms of chains of inference (if X, then Y…. Either A or B…. ); we look for relationships of cause and effect; we try to reason in terms of relevant analogies, symmetries, asymmetries and patterns; we think in terms of parts and wholes…. These and other processes are what we might call the hyper-rationalist ‘toolkit’.
This toolkit can be put to especially industrious use in networked societies. This is because there is astronomically more information for these habits and customs to work with in such societies. In fact, you might call these habits and customs ‘algorithms’. This is because they can be mathematically modelled and trained, and because a particular class of machines (Von Neumann ones) are extremely good at performing them (in fact, significantly better than humans in certain cases, such as on chains of inference and pattern recognition).
This can be a very good thing. We do, for instance, all have very good reasons to be concerned for healthcare workers and the ill/vulnerable at this time, and it is completely rational to want to support them as best we can. The right algorithms and machines, moreover, can and will be an important part of helping us through this. Hume’s point, however, is that these kinds of habits and customs, although important, can only be part of the story. There are two main reasons for this (it is of course a paradox that these are reasons, but just suspend that trained philosopher ‘clever clogs’ tick for a moment: dull scholastic papers can be written about it in the future….) First: being hyper-rational can guide us in the wrong direction, in no direction at all, or in too many directions at once (the toolkit is only as good as its material, and it can do a botched job). Second: there are other kinds of habits and customs.
On the first point, it is worth noting that there are other (less edifying) types that could have been added to the list of people given above: ‘conspiracy theorist’, ‘narcissist’, ‘egotist’, ‘paranoiac’, ‘reactive’, ‘harsh judge’, ‘troll’, ‘preacher’, ‘catastrophist’….
Hume, I think, would want to see these types in a continuum with the ones listed above. This is because we all have the propensity to be these kinds of people at least some of the time, and because these less edifying types also make use of the hyper-rationalist tool kit. The conspiracy theorist will, for instance, reason in terms of cause and effect (Which scapegoat/dark nemesis is the cause of all of this? Who must be responsible?) The paranoiac will do this too, and often with justifiable reason in the immediate circumstances surrounding a change that has not yet become familiar (Is that person standing less than two metres from me? Will they cause something in me?) And the catastrophist will reason by analogy and see things in terms of patterns and parts and wholes (Is this a kind of ‘war’? Have I been ‘enlisted’? Where are we on a sliding scale between CJD/Spanish Flu/ The Plague? What part will this play in rearranging the whole economy?)
Quite how well these types use the hyper-rationalist toolkit is a different matter. That they are using it is a matter of fact, and one that is historically intensified in highly networked societies, where we all have the means to be these kinds of people more often, and, thereby, to lead ourselves and others round and round in vicious circles of scepticism, shame, anxiety and doubt.
On the second point, consider three recent events: 1.) when the phrase ‘panic buying’ entered the media in connection with COVID-19, people started panic buying; 2.) when it was announced that pubs would be closing (Friday 20th March 2020), people bought booze in bulk; 3.) when it was announced that large sections of the UK population were being asked not to go to work, people visited parks and holiday spots.
These three events generated a lot of moralism online, but the target was largely misplaced. People weren’t doing these things for reasons they had reflected on; they were acting according to well-engrained habits and customs that have been inculcated in them (Worried? Let’s go shopping…. Pubs are shut? Let’s party back at mine…. No work on Monday? Let’s go on holiday….)
Bad customs and habits can be as worthy of condemnation as bad intentions and reasons, and just as pernicious in their effects. If we fail to recognise precisely what we are condemning, however, and how badly and condescendingly we sometimes do it, then we will fail to see how the situation might be altered for the better: in the face of a pandemic, you can’t just appeal to people’s reason and expect things to be altered immediately; you also have to reshape their habits and customs, and this takes time.
The ‘what aboutery’ response here, of course, is that time is what we might not have. But this never was a zero sum game: it is not a case of either reason or custom. Instead, Hume’s point is that you must appeal to both, because they are in a continuum, and, even more importantly, you ought to focus most of your attention on customs and habits, because that’s where you can expect the most important and progressive changes to happen.
Providing we can find the time to let them grow, such changes can, as Hume puts it, be our ‘guide of life’. Whether and how we can find the time for them at a national/planetary/civilisational level is a matter of great hyper-rational consternation right now. What many of us do currently have, however, in a situation where many of our most cherished habits and customs have received an almighty jolt, is the scope to reinvent our own habits and customs. And we have to do this, both in order to have them to fall back on for personal care, and in preparation to join the dots between them/ scale them up for the more caring society that we are going to have to find the courage and energy for as we move towards the future.
So, I was not in the habit of noticing an ugly fridge magnet that a snobby part of me had intentionally misplaced….
What I was also not in the habit of thinking was that a sustained philosophical reflection like this could have grown out of one Koan-ish sentence, previously discounted as a bad slogan (‘Tis not reason….’), or that the reflection in question could have been written out on a phone (as this one has). This is because the snobby part of me, you see, still thought that you simply had to take the time to read and understand entire dusty old books, and that the writing conditions for philosophy simply had to be more romantic (the starving lunatic/genius in a garret – the usual teenage-angsty bullshit).
In the present conditions, I am much more inclined to trust and celebrate the part of me that can’t afford to be this self-indulgent: the part that has to steal ten minutes to do the dishes and have a think sparked by whatever important stimuli are to hand.
It turns out that that old cliché is right: there are stimuli around us like this all the time, making gentle demands to be noticed. What I want to convey here, however, isn’t just the cliché. It’s also this: good and healthy habits and customs can be nurtured around these stimuli and their attendant acts of noticing.
In times as fraught and hyper-rational as these, such regimens and routines are what can keep us sane and together…. I will, for instance, be stealing ten minutes to do the dishes this evening. I am looking forward to it, and already have a notion of what I want think about: it concerns that magnet again, but doesn’t have to do with high-faluting philosophical ideas. What writing this (another such regimen) has made me recall, you see, is that my elder son used that magnet as a way of learning the name of my wife’s brother. My son would point to it, and make utterances; my wife and I would say back ‘yes, that’s David’; over time, the habit of saying ‘David’ was acquired and perfected. It is now a little anchor in my son’s life. To him, it is not a word with two syllables, not the name of a Hebrew King, and certainly not the first name of a famous Scottish philosopher; it is rather a bridge for making contact with an Uncle who loves and cares about him.
That’s what I’ll be thinking about when I do the dishes tonight: the story, not of ‘Ugly David’ the fridge magnet, but of my son and ‘Uncle David’.
About the Author
Dominic Smith is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Dundee.