David Hume (1711-1776)


I.  Life

A. although raised as a Calvinist in Scotland, he abandoned traditional Calvinist beliefs by the time he was twenty

B. attended Edinburgh University, where he becomes familiar with writings of John Locke

C. because of his reputation as the "Great Infidel," was unable to find a job in the university system

II. Major Works

A. A Treatise of Human Nature; Being an Attempt to introduce the experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects (1739)

1. three parts:

a. Of the Understanding

b. Of Passions

c. Of Morals

2. defended an empiricist theory of knowledge and a pleasure/pain theory of moral judgment

3. "fell deadborn from the press:"  ignored, ridiculed, misunderstood

B. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), which re-works first part of Treatise; 10 editions

C. An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), which re-works part three

D. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion(1779 posthumous)

E. other works, inc. a 6-vol. History of Great Britain



An Enquiry concerning Human understanding


section I:  of the different species of philosophy


I.  Two ways of treating "moral philosophy" (533b)

A. note that Hume defined "moral philosophy" as "the science of human nature" (q.v.) and not simply as ethics

B. the first way

1. considers human being as an active being, guided by "taste and sentiment"

2. uses literary devices to persuade us to choose the path of virtue

C. the second way (534a)

1. considers human being as a reasonable rather than active being and attempts to cultivate a person’s understanding more than his manners

2. seeks foundations for morality and the rest of philosophy

3. however, their writing is abstract and even unintelligible to the ordinary reader (534a)

4. and it is difficult for its principles to have any influence over people’s conduct (534b)

5. also, it is easy for such philosophers to make a mistake in their reasoning, which will lead to further mistakes until they finally reach very odd conclusions, while the others have common sense as their guide

6. e.g., Aristotle, Malebranche, Locke vs. Cicero, La Bruyère, Addison

D. It seems the best life is one that is balanced between thought on the one hand and action and society on the other (535a)

II. Metaphysics

A.  If ordinary readers were content simply to prefer the easy philosophy to the abstract and difficult, without casting aspersions on the latter, Hume would have been content to leave them with their preferences.  (535a-b)

B.  However, they often go beyond simply preferring the easy philosophy and absolutely reject all profound philosophy or metaphysics (535b)

C. So, Hume proposed to defend abstract philosophy

1. the easy philosophy depends on the abstract philosophy for its accuracy (535b, q.v.)

a. analogy with artist, who must have accurate knowledge of anatomy

b. in all the arts and professions, accuracy makes them more useful to society

2. also drew an analogy with the benefits to be had from vigorous exercise (536a, q.v.)

a.  although it may be "painful" labor for the mind to bring light from obscurity

b.  the results are pleasurable

D. in philosophy, obscurity is objected to not only because it is painful but because it is the source of error and uncertainty

E. it is largely for this reason that metaphysics is not a "science" (q.v.)

1. either it pursues knowledge of that which is inaccessible to the human understanding

2. or it is the result of the "craft of popular superstitions"

a.  viz., religion

b. note how he compares priests and theologians, who hide the weakness of their thought behind obscurity, to criminals, who hide in the forest

F. the obscurity and difficulty of metaphysics, however, is no reason not to enter into it (536b, q.v.)

1. on the contrary, we need to root the enemy out of their hiding places

2.  we cannot merely hope that their failure to prove anything will lead them to give up metaphysics

a.  some people seem to have too much at stake emotionally in these topics

b.  and there is also the "adventurous genius" who thinks he will succeed where others have failed

G. the only remedy for freeing learning from metaphysics is to inquire into the nature of the human mind (q.v.)

1. to show that its powers and capacities are not fitted to such subjects

2.  to pursue this inquiry is to cultivate "true metaphysics"

3.  accurate reasoning is the only way to subvert the metaphysical jargon that gets mixed up with religion and gives it the air of being learned

III. The study of the human mind

A. in addition to freeing us from false metaphysics, positive benefits will accrue to us through a careful study of the human mind (536b-37a)

B. thus, an important part of science consists in the analysis and classification of the powers and faculties of the human mind, to conduct what he called a “mental geography” (537a, q.v.)

1. no one can doubt that the mind has several distinct powers and faculties: (537b)

a. will

b. understanding

c. imagination

d. passions

2. "finer and more philosophical distinctions" are no less  real although they may require more work to understand

3. Hume compared the value of such work to Newton’s achievement in cosmology

C. Hume, however, hoped we could get beyond mere classifying and discover "the secret springs and principles" by which the mind is activated (538a)

1. analogy with astronomy (q.v.)

a. astronomers have long been contented with "proving, from the phenomena, the true motions"

b. then Newton came along and gave us laws and forces

2. no reason to despair of equal success with the mind -- to give up any hope of knowing these things is no less rash than to assert the most dogmatic metaphysics (538b)

3. difficulty of reasonings about human nature does not imply their falsehood

D. Hume would be happy if he could undermine foundations of a philosophy that serves as a shelter to superstition (q.v.)


section II:  of the origin of ideas


I.  Distinguishes ideas from impressions (538b-39a)

A. impressions are all our "more lively perceptions" (539a, q.v.)

B.  ideas or thoughts have less force or vivacity

C.  the difference is that between our present perceptions and our memories or imaginations

II. Creative Powers of the mind (539b)

A. at first view, it seems that there is no limit to what the mind can imagine, except what involves a contradiction

B. upon further examination, however, we find that all this creative power amounts to nothing other than "the faculty of compounding, transposing, augmenting, or diminishing" materials received from the senses

1. compounding:  gold mountain (539b)

2. transposing:  virtuous horse

III. in short, all of our ideas are copies of impressions (q.v.)

A. first argument: whenever we analyze our thoughts or ideas, we find that they resolve themselves into simple ideas that were copied from feelings or sentiments

1. even those ideas that seem furthest from experience:  e.g., idea of God arises from reflecting on operations of our own mind and augmenting these mental qualities

2. challenges the reader to come up with a counter-example (540a)

B. Second argument:  if someone has a defect in a sense organ, will lack the corresponding ideas

1. similarly, if they have never experienced a certain sort of object -- e.g., wine

2. or have never felt a certain emotion

C. objection:  missing shade of blue

1. argues that each shade produces a distinct idea:  if this were not true, they would all run together and even the extremes would not be different (540a-b)

2. suppose a person had met with all the shades of blue but one (540b)

a. if one placed all the shades except that one before the person, he would see a gap

b. furthermore, he would be able to imagine that shade without ever having seen it (540b)

3.  hence, not all simple ideas are derived from the senses

D. however, Hume dismisses this counter-example as "singular"

1. but of course, this makes it no less a counter-example, if true

2. and it may not be singular:  missing tones?

IV. Meaning

A. all ideas, especially abstract ones, are faint and obscure

B. impressions are more lively

C. hence, if we are in doubt about the meaning of some idea, all we need to do is to inquire into what impression it comes from (540b-41a, q.v.)

1. if we cannot find one, the idea is meaningless (541a)

2.  For Hume, this is a useful principle for banishing jargon and metaphysical disputes

D. claimed that Locke got drawn into debate about innate ideas through ambiguity of “innate” and “idea” (541, n. 3)

-- if “innate” means not copied from anything, then all of our impressions and none of our ideas are innate


section III:  of the association of ideas


I.  affirms that it is "evident" that there is a "principle of connection" by which one idea calls up another with a certain degree of regularity (541a)

A. examples:

1. in serious discourse

2. in dreams (541a-b)

3. ordinary conversation (541b)

B. even among very different languages

1. words that express the most compounded ideas nearly correspond to each other, in the sense that the same simple ideas are bound together into complex ideas

2. my counterexamples:  German "wissen" and "kennen" vs. English "to know"

II. Three principles of association: 

A. resemblance

B. contiguity in time and place

C. cause and effect

III. Difficult to prove that the enumeration is complete -- all we can do is run through examples (541b-42a)