The Sympathetic Formation of Reason and the Limits of Science


I develop an interpretation of reason using the thought of David Hume and Adam Smith. I contend that reason in Hume and Smith can plausibly be interpreted as a kind of sensation. Reason is a sensation in that it is a sentimental conception of the relationship between two objects that impels certain interpretations. Reason is developed sympathetically in experiential contexts that not only guide but constitute reason’s operation. I comment on Hume’s talk of reason in his Treatise of Human Nature to build my interpretation. I use Smith’s work in The Theory of Moral Sentiments to develop an understanding of the sympathetic formation of reason. I briefly integrate my interpretation with talk of confirmatory bias in psychology and behavioral economics. I conclude by considering implications for scientific conversation.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    For interpretations of Hume on reason in the Hume literature see, e.g., Winters (1979); Baier (1991); Garrett (1997); Owen (1999); Ridge (2003).

  2. 2.

    References to the Treatise are to Hume (2000b), hereafter cited as “T” followed by part, section, chapter, and paragraph number, and to Hume (1978), hereafter cited as “SB” followed by page number.

  3. 3.

    David Owen (1999) points out some crucial differences between Humean demonstrative reasoning and deductive reasoning, namely that demonstrative reasoning is non-formal in nature. Humean demonstration hinges on intuitive chains of connection between ideas, not logical or syllogistic forms.

  4. 4.

    Hume infamously illustrates the logic of probable reasoning with the following example: “That the sun will not rise to-morrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction than the affirmation, that it will rise” (Hume 2000a; italics his).

  5. 5.

    Hume distinguishes three epistemic categories: demonstrations, probabilities, and proofs. But he notes at T (SB 144) that proofs really slide into probabilities: “…that tho’ our reasonings from proofs and probabilities be considerably different from each other, yet the former species of reasoning often degenerates insensibly into the latter by nothing by the multitude of connecting arguments.”

  6. 6.

    In, e.g., Hume (2007, 3) he equivocates between the the understanding and the imagination.

  7. 7.

    Hume also suggests at T (SB 74) that the philosophical relationships of demonstrative reason can be engulfed by the relationships of probable reason, loosening the precision of demonstrations: “This is all I think necessary to observe concerning those four relations, which are the foundation of science; but as to the other three, which depend not upon the idea, and may be absent or present even while that remains the same…” (italics his). Such an idea foreshadows his iterative probability argument at T 1.4.1.

  8. 8.

    Norman Kemp Smith (1941, 99-102) broadly corroborates this interpretation of the relationship between demonstrative and moral reason in Hume.

  9. 9.

    References to The Theory of Moral Sentiments are to Smith (1982b), hereafter cited in the text as “TMS”, followed by part, section, chapter, and paragraph.

  10. 10.

    Klein (2016) puts forth a non-foundational interpretation on Smith’s moral philosophy in which he elaborates on Smith’s organon.

  11. 11.

    The community that a person identifies with could be philosophers, making critical enquiry a status-quo proposition. Thus the sympathetic understanding of reason allows one to make way for a sort of internalized critical theory. Within certain spheres of exemplars, critical assessment is a core commitment to be sympathized with by those wishing to be validate in such an outlook.

  12. 12.

    For a simple example, consider the controversy of the minimum wage. There is a surprising amount of divergence amongst economists as to whether or not the minimum wage does in fact cause unemployment. See Card and Krueger (1994); compare to Neumark and Wascher (2000).

  13. 13.

    Cf. Klein et al. (2013) for survey evidence on the lack of consensus on policy views amongst economists and the bifurcated distribution of opinion on positive economics judgments.

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W. Matson, E. The Sympathetic Formation of Reason and the Limits of Science. Soc 54, 246–252 (2017).

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  • David Hume
  • Adam Smith
  • Reason
  • Knowledge
  • Confirmatory bias