David Hume: Concerning Human Understanding

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Agnosticism is bad, but not all agnosticisms are equally bad. Such is the case with David Hume. If one reads Karl Marx or Herbert Marcuse, one has to decode the dialectical system before you can even understand what they are saying. Further, Marx was probably demon-possessed and his economic system caused the deaths of hundreds of millions. Not so with Hume. Like many Anglo philosophers, his writing is fresh and clear. So when he is wrong, it’s easy to see where he is wrong. And in economics, he champions liberty (of a sorts).

Hume’s Argument: (1) all our ideas are copies of our impressions (VII.i.49). (2) There can never be an idea of a cause because there can never be a sense impression of a cause (Ibid sec. 50)

{A} Knower——->——-> Object–>Mind—>Idea—>knower

{A’} Knower——>—–>Object—> Mind —> Impression–>Idea—>knower

Our thought is a faithful mirror that copies objects truly. Perceptions of the Mind:

  • thoughts/ideas (weaker)
  • impressions (strong). Hume also means “sensations.”

Our ideas are always copied from some precedent (II.14). Ideas must follow from impressions. These impressions/sensations are always more vivid than the ideas.

Critique of Hume

Critics of Hume have to resist the temptation to read Berkeley back into Hume. I will assume, in the spirit of charity, that Hume believed in an external world. Further, we must also point out that Hume is not a modern atheist materialist: he believes in the existence of the mind and that the mind is not the brain.

[1] As Owen Barfield and others have pointed out, if all we can know are sense-impressions, then Hume’s three qualities of association fail the test: “resemblance, contiguity, and causation” are not sense-impressions, or did not originate as such (Barfield 25). Of course, this is the same criticism Hume offered of causality. But why stop at causality? Why not apply it to the other two?

[2] It is here that Hume’s nominalism becomes vicious. How are ideas “in the mind” held together? Hume says they are “bundled” together, but doesn’t bundling imply some sort of unity or association? If Hume’s criticism of causality holds, then it must also hold to any form of association. Thus examining the mental process, Hume is left with an array of facts that cannot relate to each other in any possible way. “All is flux.”

[3] This critique is not so much a refutation of Hume but points toward an ambiguity. During the mental act I perceive an object, we will say the sensory impression of touch, to which it comes back to my mind as the idea of touch. When I reflect upon the ideas “in my mind,” I do so in visual categories. But what does the visual category of “touch” even mean? [sidenote: As Wolterstorff pointed out, this is more a criticism of Locke than Hume].

[4] Hume cannot escape the reality of universals, as Bertrand Russell pointed out (Russell 96ff). If we deny, for example, the universals of “whiteness” and “triangularity,” we will still, in order to form an idea of a triangle, imagine a patch of whiteness and a three-sided figure and say that anything meeting these criteria is white and a triangle–we say that the resemblance must hold. We will also say that the resemblance must hold among many white 3-sided things. We will say that the resemblances must resemble each other. We have made “resemblance” a universal.

As Russell pointed out, Hume failed to note that not only are qualities universals, but so are relations.  The relation of “being north of” is also a universal

[5] Much has been made of Hume’s critique of miracles. I’ll give him credit on one point: if you define miracle as a violation of God’s law or nature’s law, then it’s hard to argue with Hume. But why must we accept Hume’s definition of miracle, or of reality in general? I can’t recall a good reason. There is no reason to view reality as as self-enclosed monads.

A theist could very well argue, as James K. A. Smith does, for an open ontology that allows the Spirit to move from within nature, rather than a miracle that is “tacked on” to nature from the outside. Miracles are not “add-ons.” They are not anti-nature, since “nature is not a discrete, autonomous entity” (Smith 104).

[6] Per Thomas Reid and N. Wolterstorff, Hume needs to explain how a physical sensation can cause a mental apprehension (Wolterstorff 2004).

[6.1] Hume’s analysis of perception and reflection seems to privilege visual ideas. Perhaps that can work. Such has been the tendency of philosophy since Plato. Yet when we move to the other senses Hume’s analysis breaks down. How does my idea (weakened sensation) of touch bear any resemblance to the apple I just touched? Even worse, doesn’t the phrase “mental idea” connote visuality? Could this possibly work on ideas like “touch”?

[7] As Thomas Reid pointed out, it seems Hume has lumped all mental reflection (sensation/though) under the label of “perception” in the mind. How does Hume make a distinction between the “idea” of sight and the “idea” of touch (Reid 301ff)?

Works Cited

Barfield, Owen. Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, reprint [1973]).

Reid, Thomas. The Works of Thomas Reid, ed. Sir William Hamilton. Edinburgh: McLachlan and Stewart, 1863.

Russell, Bertrand. The Problems of Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, reprint [1964]).

Smith, James K. A. Thinking in Tongues. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Thomas Reid and the Story of Epistemology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004


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