Date of Award

May 2013

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts



First Advisor

Miren Boehm

Committee Members

Robert Schwartz, Margaret Atherton


Early Modern, Hume, Induction, Philosophy, Skepticism


This paper concerns the following interpretative problem: Hume's most explicit arguments in both the Treatise and the Enquiry strongly suggest that he is a skeptic about inductive reasoning. This, indeed, has been the traditional interpretation. And yet, Hume engages in and explicitly endorses inductive reasoning throughout his works. I examine two prominent attempts to reconcile these features of Hume's position. One group of commentators, the descriptivists, argues that Hume is not concerned with whether we ought to accept inductive beliefs; he is only concerned with the psychological causes of such beliefs. Because Hume is not concerned with the normative epistemic question, there is no tension in his text. Another group, the externalists, takes Hume to be engaged in an epistemological project; they even acknowledge the skeptical potential of Hume's arguments, but they reject the idea that Hume is a skeptic about induction because they find in Hume an externalist strategy of justification which offers an escape from the skeptical conclusion.

I criticize these readings on both textual and conceptual grounds. Against the descriptivist, I argue that Hume is indeed engaged in normative epistemology. Against externalist, I argue that Hume offers no broad solution to skepticism about induction. I defend the following interpretation: Hume endorses skepticism about induction in philosophical reflection. Against the background of modern epistemic contextualism, I argue that Hume appeals to multiple standards for belief justification depending on the context of the investigation. Hume repeatedly announces the success of the skeptic in destroying even our strongest beliefs, but only in cases of philosophical reflection: when we examine the fundamental justification of our beliefs. But he also insists that the power of the skeptic is destroyed when the inquiry shifts to practical matters: when the context of inquiry is that of common life. These multiple justificatory standards explain the apparent conflict between Hume's skepticism and endorsement of induction. I conclude that this contextualist reading of Hume's work offers both the strongest philosophical position for Hume, as well as an interpretation which sacrifices relatively little of the traditional impact of Hume's skeptical arguments.