In his essay "The Skeptic," 18th-century English philosopher David Hume concludes:

In a word, human life is more governed by fortune than by reason; is to be regarded more as a dull pastime than as a serious occupation; and is more influenced by particular humour, than by general principles. Shall we engage ourselves in it with passion and anxiety? It is not worthy of so much concern. Shall we be indifferent about what happens? We lose all the pleasure of the game by our phlegm° and carelessness. While we are reasoning concerning life, life is gone; and death, though perhaps they receive him differently, yet treats alike the fool and the philosopher. To reduce life to exact rule and method, is commonly a painful, oft a fruitless occupation: And is it not also a proof, that we overvalue the prize for which we contend? Even to reason so carefully concerning it, and to fix with accuracy its just idea, would be overvaluing it, were it not that, to some tempers, this occupation is one of the most amusing, in which life could possibly be employed.

My question is about the use of the word "dull" in the first sentence (which I've boldfaced for easy reference). In context, it seems he doesn't mean "boring" as is the modern meaning of the word, as that contradicts the thrust of the paragraph. What was the historical meaning of the word that he is using here?

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    I believe he means a pastime engaged in a blasé, disinterested manner, lacking curiosity, structure or purpose. This in contrast with what he can expect his reader to attribute to engagement in "a serious occupation." – bitless Aug 21 '15 at 21:00
  • Did you look up the definition of "dull"?? – Hot Licks Aug 21 '15 at 21:06
  • (And why can't he mean "boring"?) – Hot Licks Aug 21 '15 at 21:10
  • @bitless - that reading would mean he's directly contradicting himself, as he says we shouldn't be indifferent a few sentences later. – Ghopper21 Aug 21 '15 at 21:19
  • @HotLicks - yes, though I don't have access to the OED which would be useful for historical meaning; and if he means "boring" then he is contradicting himself within the same paragraph, which is why I suspect he means something else. – Ghopper21 Aug 21 '15 at 21:20

Perhaps we can tease out the meaning by examining the three contrasts of the first sentence:

fortune1 (i.e., chance) vs reason
dull2 vs serious3 (i.e., involving earnest thought)
particular humour (i.e, emotion) vs general principles

So, on the right-hand sides we have rationality, its methods, and its results. On the left-hand side, we have things that undermine rationality. I think this forces us to take the older meaning (per the OED) of "dull" as stupid or foolish (as opposed to boring). This gives us the nice contrasts to rationality of its enemies -- chance, foolishness, and emotionality.

From the OED:
1. Fortune. "1. Chance, hap, or luck"
2. Dull. "1. ...obtuse, stupid, inapprehensive. In early use sometimes: Wanting wit, fatuous, foolish."
3. Serious. "Having, involving, expressing, arising from earnest purpose or thought."

  • Thanks, this makes a lot of sense. Any chance you are able to quote the OED on this? – Ghopper21 Aug 21 '15 at 22:15
  • Sure. Are you interested in "fortune" and "serious" or just "dull"? – deadrat Aug 21 '15 at 22:20
  • Mostly "dull" but if there are bits in "fortune" and "serious" that illuminate the contrast, that'd be appreciated also. (Wish the OED were available online!) – Ghopper21 Aug 21 '15 at 22:21
  • @Ghopper21Done. See the edited answer. The OED is online. You just have to pay for access. Some libraries have subscriptons. – deadrat Aug 22 '15 at 1:54

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