THR Web Features   /   March 15, 2023

David Hume’s Guide to Social Media

Emancipation by the cultivation of taste.

Alan Jacobs

( THR illustration.)

In a recent Substack post, free-range social critic Freddie deBoer asked, “Are smartphones to blame for the mental health crisis among teens?” He is far from alone in asking that, of course, but what he said next grabbed my attention:

The debate has picked up steam lately, in part because of the steady accumulation of evidence that they are indeed, at least partially…. Jonathan Haidt has done considerable work marshaling this evidence. But there’s an attendant question of how phones make kids miserable, if indeed they do.

The important issue, then, is what exactly smartphones are doing to teens that makes them so miserable? DeBoer’s answers are quite good—I especially welcome his emphasis on the misery of being constantly bombarded by images of lives none of us can actually live—but I think we can significantly deepen our understanding of these matters by turning to an account of human behavior offered by the philosopher David Hume nearly three centuries ago. Hume begins his first book, A Treatise of Human Nature (1740), with this assertion:

All the perceptions of the human mind resolve themselves into two distinct kinds, which I shall call IMPRESSIONS and IDEAS. The difference betwixt these consists in the degrees of force and liveliness, with which they strike upon the mind, and make their way into our thought or consciousness. Those perceptions, which enter with most force and violence, we may name impressions; and under this name I comprehend all our sensations, passions and emotions, as they make their first appearance in the soul. By ideas I mean the faint images of these in thinking and reasoning; such as, for instance, are all the perceptions excited by the present discourse, excepting only, those which arise from the sight and touch, and excepting the immediate pleasure or uneasiness it may occasion.

From this point, Hume goes on to make a great many distinctions, but here I want to focus on just a few of them. Setting aside Ideas for now, let us turn to Impressions:

Original impressions or impressions of sensation are such as without any antecedent perception arise in the soul, from the constitution of the body, from the animal spirits, or from the application of objects to the external organs. Secondary, or reflective impressions are such as proceed from some of these original ones, either immediately or by the interposition of its idea. Of the first kind are all the impressions of the senses, and all bodily pains and pleasures: Of the second are the passions, and other emotions resembling them.

From these reflections, then, I have derived my thesis: The effect of our smartphones on our mind—as those devices are typically used—is to suppress wholly the realm of Ideas, and to suppress greatly the “impressions of the senses,” and instead to stir the passions.

Why this matters is something Hume explains in an essay he wrote just after finishing his Treatise, called “Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion.” That essay begins thus:

Some people are subject to a certain delicacy of passion, which makes them extremely sensible to all the accidents of life, and gives them a lively joy upon every prosperous event, as well as a piercing grief, when they meet with misfortunes and adversity.

It is the purpose of our smartphones, and especially the social media apps installed on them, to make us this kind of person. And if our time on our devices gave us as much “lively joy” as “piercing grief,” then perhaps that would not be so bad. But as Hume goes on to explain, that’s not how it works:

Good or ill fortune is very little at our disposal: And when a person, that has this sensibility of temper, meets with any misfortune, his sorrow or resentment takes entire possession of him, and deprives him of all relish in the common occurrences of life; the right enjoyment of which forms the chief part of our happiness. Great pleasures are much less frequent than great pains; so that a sensible temper must meet with fewer trials in the former way than in the latter. Not to mention, that men of such lively passions are apt to be transported beyond all bounds of prudence and discretion, and to take false steps in the conduct of life, which are often irretrievable.

It is difficult to imagine a more vivid and accurate portrayal of someone consumed by Instagram envy or Twitter doomscrolling.

But what is to be done? How are people who have (intentionally or unintentionally) developed this “sensibility of temper” to resist it, to reclaim their very selves from its power over them? Hume has an answer to that question, too. It lies in the concept he places in contrast to “delicacy of passion.” He calls it “delicacy of taste.”

In one sense, Hume acknowledges, the two dispositions are similar: “Delicacy of taste has the same effect as delicacy of passion: It enlarges the sphere both of our happiness and misery, and makes us sensible to pains as well as pleasures, which escape the rest of mankind.” Yet he goes on to argue that “delicacy of taste is as much to be desired and cultivated as delicacy of passion is to be lamented.” How so? Hume’s distinction begins with this simple but profound point: “The good or ill accidents of life are very little at our disposal; but we are pretty much masters [of] what books we shall read, what diversions we shall partake of, and what company we shall keep.” This matters because

every wise man will endeavour to place his happiness on such objects chiefly as depend upon himself: and that is not to be attained so much by any other means as by this delicacy of sentiment. When a man is possessed of that talent, he is more happy by what pleases his taste, than by what gratifies his appetites, and receives more enjoyment from a poem or a piece of reasoning than the most expensive luxury can afford.

Or the shiniest Instagram post, for that matter.

Again, there is both simplicity and profundity here. By setting ourselves to cultivate a taste for what is beautiful and wise—and such taste does indeed require cultivation, being neither innate nor instantly grasped—we gradually emancipate ourselves from the power of others who would act upon us, which is to say, from the passions they seek to intensify in us. “And,” Hume continues

this is a new reason for cultivating a relish in the liberal arts. Our judgment will strengthen by this exercise: We shall form juster notions of life: Many things, which please or afflict others, will appear to us too frivolous to engage our attention: And we shall lose by degrees that sensibility and delicacy of passion, which is so incommodious.

Imagine that: Many things, which please or afflict others, will appear to us too frivolous to engage our attention. The cultivation of taste, in morals as well as in art, is neither snobbish nor elitist; it is, rather, the key means by which we emancipate ourselves from the tyranny of passions that the people who make our smartphone apps would like to see dominate us. By cultivating “delicacy of taste,” we become less vulnerable, less manipulable; and as the world of the passions ceases to dominate us, the great domains of Sensation and Idea become available to us once more. If there is a better guide to our current technocratic moment than David Hume, born 310 years ago, I don’t know who it is.