Miren Boehm

Position title: UW System Fellow (2023-2024)

Pronouns: She/her

Associate Professor, Philosophy, UW–Milwaukee

Photo of a woman with blond hair smiling at the camera.

Empiricism and Intelligibility in Hume’s Philosophy

The study of Hume’s epistemology has been limited to two of his works: Book 1 of Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature and his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.  My book makes the case for the inclusion of Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion as part of his epistemology and theory of science.  It is this latter, posthumous work that displays most clearly and with most detail the application of Hume’s experimental method of reasoning and its limits.  The book offers a novel interpretation of the long-lasting tension between naturalism and skepticism in Hume’s epistemology.  Hume struggles, I argue, with the realization that the facts of human nature, as delivered by his own science, are often not intelligible; they are “not founded on reason,” a phrase Hume repeats throughout his works.  Hume identifies non-rational  “nature” and the “imagination”  as the source of most of our beliefs.  For Hume, the question is how to respond philosophically to this lack of insight into his own discoveries about the mind.  I align Hume’s ultimate response to the unintelligible—the response that survives his skeptical doubts and even despair—with those of natural philosophers like Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton.  All three faced the unintelligible in their findings and chose to “submit” to an empirical, scientific standard of inquiry, which demands explanatory and predictive power, and not necessarily rational insight.  Newton is perhaps the most striking of these philosophers because his views were not only considered absurd by others but at times, to himself as well.  Some of Newton’s most philosophically important texts about gravity explicitly characterize it as “absurd.” Newton responded with this famous “hypothesis non fingo.”  Hume recommends instead a “careless” attitude and the acceptance of our limitations.

Miren Boehm was born in Germany but grew up in the Basque Country, in Spain. She went to university in California, and she is now an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  She studies the period of the scientific revolution and the relationship between science and philosophy, with a focus on the philosophy of David Hume. The questions that have driven her research have been centered on the relationship between the inquiring mind, its ideas and capacities, and our conception of the world or nature. She has explored the relationship between Hume’s philosophy of the mind and Newton’s philosophy of nature. More recently, she has worked on Mary Shepherd’s criticisms of Hume’s philosophy. Her work on Hume’s and Newton’s conceptions of space and time, the nature of causation, scientific methodology, and skepticism and naturalism has been published in leading journals such as Philosophers’ Imprint,  Journal of the History of Philosophy, Synthese, and in book collections with Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, and Routledge.