Instincts and emotions are examples of internal propensities.14 A feeling of discomfort is activated as soon as an event impedes its propensity to express itself. Whether this resistance comes from the inside or from the outside, the feeling of frustration is the same. The idea here is that the representation of an internal or external event has the power to inhibit a propensity that creates the same affective impression. Likewise, an interior image or a beautiful painting hung on a wall can produce a similar feeling of satisfaction.15 An external event does not become active in the mind until the moment it is perceived. Thus, the origin of a representation can be multiple (social activity, memory, etc.), but its effects obey the laws of the mind. Every event that is experienced as enhancing one’s self-image is experienced as pleasure and pride, whereas any event that is experienced as harmful for one’s self-image is experienced as pain and shame.
An example of external propensity is Hume’s analysis of the appreciation of beauty. According to Hume, the impression that a woman is beautiful is a natural stimulation of sexual excitement in a man. This impression, therefore, depends as much on internal as on external factors, because the characteristics of beauty vary from culture to culture or from one epoch to another. The male organism would have a natural propensity to seek out beautiful women to satisfy his sexual needs (an example of internal propensity). However, this propensity is conceived in such a way by nature as to be calibrated by the social environment (an example of external propensity). In the case of an external propensity, a man mostly seeks the love of a woman who corresponds to socially constructed cliches, instead of a woman who corresponds to his profound instinctive and affective needs. Thus, the particularities of a person’s representations have a greater impact on passions than what is often thought. For psychotherapy, this implies that working on the way a person tends to imagine the object of his propensities allows one to improve one’s understanding of how a person associates his habitual mental propensities with his habitual ways of behaving.16
In this theory of instincts, there exists an internal propensity (I need a beautiful womanâ) that cannot function until and unless it grafts itself onto a system of aesthetic social values. This model is close to the one of the laptop computer that must be connected to the Internet to receive emails. In both these cases, it is possible to speak of internal mechanisms, but these mechanisms calibrate themselves according to the network to which they are connected. The development of muscles and nerve connections adapts to the activities of the organism Similarly, once a laptop is linked to an Internet connection, it is able receive updates that can modify the way its programs behave. Not only do the external propensities come to coordinate the dynamics of the organism to social rituals, but these same rituals, by influencing behavior, can have an impact on the way an organism thinks.17
The Basic Ethics of All Intellectual Inquiries: Socrates, Spinoza, Hume, Kant
We have just seen that Hume is the antithesis of Socrates and Spinoza when he pretends that the universe can function without global coherence, and that a thinker can propose pertinent ideas without having access to Ideas constructed by forces other than human activity. However, there is a domain where these three personalities defend exactly the same cause: the ethics of philosophers.