Classic quotes: Hume on anthropomorphism

From David Hume's Natural History of Religion Sect III (found via Dennett's Breaking the Spell):

There is an universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object, those qualities, with which they are familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious. We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and by a natural propensity, if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice or good-will to every thing, that hurts or pleases us. Hence the frequency and beauty of the prosopopoeia in poetry; where trees, mountains and streams are personified, and the inanimate parts of nature acquire sentiment and passion. And though these poetical figures and expressions gain not on the belief, they may serve, at least, to prove a certain tendency in the imagination, without which they could neither be beautiful nor natural. Nor is a river-god or hamadryad always taken for a mere poetical or imaginary personage; but may sometimes enter into the real creed of the ignorant vulgar; while each grove or field is represented as possessed of a particular genius or invisible power, which inhabits and protects it. Nay, philosophers cannot entirely exempt themselves from this natural frailty; but have oft ascribed to inanimate matter the horror of a vacuum, sympathies, antipathies, and other affections of human nature. The absurdity is not less, while we cast our eyes upwards; and transferring, as is too usual, human passions and infirmities to the deity, represent him as jealous and revengeful, capricious and partial, and, in short, a wicked and foolish man, in every respect but his superior power and authority. No wonder, then, that mankind, being placed in such an absolute ignorance of causes, and being at the same time so anxious concerning their future fortune, should immediately acknowledge a dependence on invisible powers, possessed of sentiment and intelligence. The unknown causes, which continually employ their thought, appearing always in the same aspect, are all apprehended to be of the same kind or species. Nor is it long before we ascribe to them thought and reason and passion, and sometimes even the limbs and figures of men, in order to bring them nearer to a resemblance with ourselves.

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Sometimes I think you exist just to please me, John. This semester I'm doing philosophy of biology, and Hume's "Diologues Concerning Natural Religion".

P.S. I mean "Dialogues" not "Diologues", of course.

So, would you call yourself a Secular Hume-anist or a Mill-ianaire or are you just having a Hull of a good time?

By Ian H Spedding FCD (not verified) on 09 Feb 2007 #permalink

It seems to me that there are some rather distinct stages to this:

First, the finding of a pattern in things which may be just random.

Then, the objectifying, reifying, or externalizing the source of that pattern.

Then, ascribing feelings, intelligence, purpose, or personality to the agent of the pattern.

Finally, deifying the agent.