David Hume’s Empiricism Sanket Thakkar Oakton Community College Every philosopher begins with the premises from which he bases his entire philosophical theory. Descartes rejects all the premises and holds innate into question. He withholds all the assumptions and only believes in things that can be proven. His goal in subjecting everything to methodical doubt is you don’t know it is true until you have the proof. Descartes begins by doubting his own existence and starts with the premise, “I think I am therefore I am”.
He is not sure whether he exists or not but the fact that he is thinking is the proof that his mind exists. Descartes is Mind-Body dualist and although mind cannot exist without a body, he believes mind and body are separate from each other. He proved that mind exists but that doesn’t prove that the body exists. He undertakes pyramidical approach and base of all his premise is that his mind exists and from there follows series of all other premises. He then proves that he has innate ideas from which he proves God exists which leads to the proof that his body exists.
Descartes proves he exists by the virtue of thinking therefore he has the concept idea of “self”. David Hume has different approach compared to Descartes who begins by proving his mind exists. David Hume doesn’t doubt existence of mind but he is interested in how does the mind really works. He starts from question where do ideas come from. He begins by distinguishing two kinds of perceptions of the mind: impressions and ideas. The most fundamental perception according to Hume is impressions. Impressions consist of direct sense experiences of things outside us or inside us i. . sensations or passions and emotions. It is anything that we get from the real world. These impressions leave a mark upon the mind and thus according to Hume, mind consists of large number of such impressions. He uses analogy mind is like a wax sheet where coin is smacked on to it leaves an impression of coin. According to Hume, impressions are original, lively and active. Ideas according to Hume are nothing but copies of impressions. He says, “Everyone will readily allow that there is a considerable difference between the erceptions of the mind when a man feels the pain of excessive heat or the pleasure of moderate warmth, and when he afterwards recalls to his memory this sensation or anticipates it by his imagination. ”(165). Thus according to Hume, ideas are secondary, they are dull and inactive / passive. The reason Hume says ideas are passive is because they are dependent on previous impressions. Impressions and ideas are different by the sense of their greater “force and vivacity”. According to Hume no matter how hard we try to impersonate perceptions of the senses they can never reach the exuberance of the original experience.
Thus, unless the mind is disordered due to some disease or some madness, the liveliest thought is still inferior to the dullest sensation, “All the colors of poetry, however splendid, can never paint natural objects in such a manner as to make the description be taken for a real landscape” (165). Even when a person is going to similar situation as we have in past, we can imagine or think of the emotions, sentiments, and affections, but it won’t be as bright as when we originally experienced it.
For example when we talk about riding roller coaster at six flags we can only imagine having fun, excitement and thrill about the ride, it will not be as lively as it was when we actually had the roller coaster ride. According to Hume, it is impossible to think of anything that you have not experienced or somebody else might have experienced it and then communicated to you. You cannot think of anything, no thought in your mind if you didn’t have preceding impression of which idea would be a copy of such impression.
This is premise of David Hume is different to that from Descartes who says that every human being are born with innate ideas and no experience or impressions are required to have such ideas. According to Hume, there are two kinds of ideas, simple ideas and complex ideas. Simple ideas are copy of a single direct experience/ impression for example, idea of Mount Everest. Complex ideas are combination of two or more copies of impressions/ experiences for example, idea of a golden mountain.
You have an idea of gold color and you have an idea about mountain thus even though nobody has seen a golden mountain but you can have idea about a golden mountain. According to Hume, you only know what your experience will allow you to know. You cannot know more than what you can experience; knowledge is dependent and derivative of experience. He says God is complex idea we don’t have any proof about God’s existence or inexistence. This point of view of David Hume is completely different to Descartes who believes in God’s existence.
According to David Hume, if we have idea of infinity that means we must have impression of infinite but we cannot touch or feel infinity thus infinity is not a simple idea. In order for infinity to be complex idea but we don’t have anything that is infinite so according to Hume, concept of infinity doesn’t exist. It is just pseudo idea that we have given name which has no relation to anything actual. David Hume makes another distinction regarding object of cognition, anything that is thought about. All the object of human reason or inquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, relation of ideas and matters of fact.
David Hume uses the term “Matters of fact” is the kind of thing you can think about weather through an experience or from ideas. Matters of fact is anything that is out there in real world doesn’t matter it is true or false. It is object of cognition that is known through experience and anything known through experience has some level of uncertainty to it. For example, we can say it is sunny day today but we only know that to certain with a margin of error because an hour later it can start raining or what if you were dreaming.
Matters of fact by definition can be uncertain and about ninety percent of what we know are matters of fact. Now along with matters of fact, mind also contains another kind of object of cognition that is relations of ideas. Relations of ideas are an idea that is drawn not from outside world but from another idea. According to Hume, there is only one exception rule the only type of thing that you can think of that is not derived from any impression are relations of ideas. “Of the first kind are the sciences of geometry, algebra, and arithmetic; and in short every affirmation which is either intuitively or demonstratively certain. (167) According to David Hume, relations of ideas are certain, definite, consistent and don’t change. They are predictable and have same conclusion For example, three times five equals to half of thirty expresses a relation between these numbers. According to him, this is the only area where notion of infinity can be applied. The form of relations of ideas is mathematics where if you divide two by three you get is what can be called a notion of infinity but there is no idea of infinity as such drawn from mattes of facts and he says that some questions are just silly questions and we cannot come to an answer of, we annot prove it one way or the other so why do we waste time on answering such questions. He doesn’t even believe in theory of judgment as according to Hume the ability to judge is simply an impression. David Hume says that sometimes we infer connection between thing based on our past experiences. What Hume is saying it just happen to be connected, there is no necessary connection between them and we shouldn’t generalize connection based on past experiences only.
He says “that causes and effects are discoverable, not by reason but by an experience” (169) and defines it as causality. Causality according to Hume is generalization of past experiences. Certain things are connected to each other creating cause and effect between those two objects. We generally see some causal connection between two objects and think there is inevitable connection with no grounds other than our past experiences. What Hume is trying to say is just because it happened in past don’t means it will happen in future.
He says, “As to past experience, it can be allowed to give direct and certain information of those precise objects only, and that precise period of time, which fell under its cognizance. But why this experience should be extended to future times and to other objects which, for aught we know, may be only in appearance similar- this is the main question on which I would insist (171)”. For example, if event “B” is followed by an event “A” over and over again, we create a pattern from experience that whenever event “A” will occurs, “B” will always follow in future.
You don’t think of any other possibility until you experience it or somebody experiences it and when it occurs, we are shocked that is the reason why Hume says don’t get accustomed to routine and make it natural because there is no certainty. World is an open book and you never know what next page is going to show and to avoid disappointment he says, “the best expedient to prevent this confusion is to be modest in our presentations and even to discover the difficulty ourselves before it is objected to us. By this means we may make a kind of merit of our very ignorance (170)”.
When talking about personality, people think that we have set distinctive personality which is nobody shares. We think life will change around according to experience but inside those set personality will always remain same. But according to Hume, if all ideas are copy of impression and impressions come from experiences. We have to evaluate idea of self based on this premise. Everybody has different perception of each experience and we are just bundle of such impression. We are what everything we have done, everything we though and every way we reacted. We are subtotal of all the impressions.
According to him each individual are unique as everybody have different experiences, different things we have done and way we reacted but we are subtotal of everything, the good bad and ugly. What Hume is saying is that we try to suffice in narrow term and deny who we are as they don’t want to admit to their bad side or don’t want to admit to bad thing they have done. According to Hume we cannot do anything about it we just have to accept the fact that is who we are and don’t fight the fact. What we do is learn from experience and perceive things based on those experiences and that is why we are drawn to certain people and things that