Context (World Philosophers and Their Works)
David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature is his earliest philosophical work and the one that contains the most complete exposition of his views. Apparently it was planned when he was in his early twenties, when he claimed to have discovered a “new scene of thought.” The work was composed during a sojourn in France from 1734 to 1737 and was revised shortly thereafter in an unsuccessful attempt to gain the approbation of Bishop Joseph Butler. The first book of A Treatise of Human Nature was published in 1739, and the other two the next year. Hume had hoped that his views would attract a great deal of attention; instead, the work “fell dead-born from the Press.” His novel theories did not attract attention until after he had published a more popular version in Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding (1748; best known as An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1758). A Treatise of Human Nature was subjected to a full-scale attack by Thomas Reid in 1764. By this time, Hume was so successful as an author, especially on the basis of his essays and The History of England (1754-1762), that he refused to defend his first book and called it a juvenile work. Over the years, it has become increasingly important as the fullest and deepest statement of Hume’s philosophical views; book 1 of A Treatise of Human Nature has come to be regarded as one of the finest achievements of English...
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Science Applied to Moral Subjects (World Philosophers and Their Works)
On the title page of book 1, Hume announces that A Treatise of Human Nature is “an attempt to introduce the experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects.” In the preface, he explains that he intends to develop a “science of man” by applying Sir Isaac Newton’s experimental method to human mental behavior. Following in the footsteps of various English and Scottish moral philosophers, and of the French skeptic Pierre Bayle, he hoped to discover the limits of human knowledge in such areas as mathematics, physics, and the social sciences (the moral subjects). By scrupulously observing human life, Hume thought he could discover certain general laws about human thinking and behavior. He admitted at the outset that it was probably not possible to uncover “the ultimate qualities of human nature,” but he thought it should be possible to learn something about the origin and nature of what we think we know.
All of our information, Hume writes, is composed of impressions and ideas. The only difference between these is that the former strike us more forcefully and with greater vivacity than do the latter. Ideas and impressions can be simple or complex, the simple ones being those that cannot be divided into parts or aspects, while the complex ones are composed of simple ones. There is a great deal of resemblance between the impressions and the ideas. The simple ideas, in fact, exactly resemble simple impressions in all respects except...
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The Basis of Knowledge (World Philosophers and Their Works)
In the first part of A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume proceeds to explore the bases of our knowledge. We possess two faculties, memory and imagination, for dealing with the ideas that we receive. The memory preserves the ideas in the exact order in which they entered the mind. The imagination, on the other hand, is free to arrange the ideas in any manner that is desired. However, contrary to what might be expected, our imaginations do not function at random. Instead, we imagine ideas in ordered sequences, so that whenever a particular idea comes to mind, related ideas automatically follow it, according to certain principles of the association of ideas that Hume calls “a kind of ATTRACTION, which in the mental world will be found to have as extraordinary effects as in the natural.” Ideas tend naturally to be associated when they are similar or when they are contiguous in time or space or when they stand in the relation of cause and effect. The importance of association is brought out when Hume comes to discuss causality in part 3.
Before applying these “discoveries” about the way we think, Hume takes up a few other questions. He argues first for a point the philosopher George Berkeley had previously made, that we possess no abstract general ideas but only ideas of particular things. General terms, such as “man” or “triangle,” designate the collections of similar particular ideas that we have acquired from experience.
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A Theory of Mathematics (World Philosophers and Their Works)
Hume then tries to explain mathematics as being about particular experiences. He knew relatively little about mathematics and based many of his views on comments in philospher Pierre Bayle’s The Historical and Critical Dictionary (1695-1697). Hume’s empirical mathematical theory has generally been regarded as, perhaps, the weakest part of his book, though he was always proud of having shown that mathematics is “big with absurdity and contradiction.” Hume conceived of arithmetic as being a demonstrable science dealing with relations of quantity, whereas geometry was thought of as an empirical science dealing with observable points. Because of the limitation of our ability to see and count the points, the theorems in geometry are always to some degree uncertain.
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Sources of Knowledge (World Philosophers and Their Works)
The most famous part of A Treatise of Human Nature is the third part of book 1, which treats “Of Knowledge and Probability.” Genuine knowledge is gained by an intuitive inspection of two or more ideas to see if they stand in a particular relationship to each other. We can be completely certain by intuition that two ideas do or do not resemble each other, or that they differ from each other, or that one has more or less of a given quality than another—for instance, that one is darker than another. Such knowledge is certain in that it depends solely on what one “sees” when two or more ideas are brought together by the imagination, but it gives us relatively little information. By connecting a series of intuitions, we gain the sort of demonstrative knowledge that occurs in arithmetic and algebra. Intuition and demonstration are the sole sources of complete certainty and knowledge.
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Causality (World Philosophers and Their Works)
Our information about the causal relation of ideas does not arise from an intuitive examination of our ideas, and almost all of our information about what is happening beyond our immediate experience is based upon causal reasoning. How do we decide which ideas are causally related? When we examine two ideas, or two impressions that we think are so related, we find that we do not perceive any necessary or causal connection between them. We perceive only that the ideas are contiguous and successive. We do not, however, perceive that they are necessarily connected in any way, although we do feel that there must be more to the sequence than merely one idea following after another. We believe that one of the ideas must make the other occur. However, Hume asks, what evidence do we have for such a belief, and where do we acquire the belief? If we admit that we do not perceive any necessary connection between events, then Hume suggests that we ought to ask ourselves why we believe that every event must have a cause and why we believe that particular causes necessarily must have certain effects.
When the first problem is examined, we discover something that is surprising. Even though we all believe that every event must have a cause, this proposition is not intuitively obvious, nor can it be demonstrated. When we conceive of events, we neither see them as caused nor necessarily think of them in terms of their causes. Because of the freedom of our imagination, each...
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Causes and Effects (World Philosophers and Their Works)
To explore the matter further, Hume turns to the other problem: What is the basis for our belief that particular causes have particular effects, and how do we infer one from the other? The actual constituents of our causal reasoning, he asserts, are a present impression of sense or memory, an imagined idea of a related event, and an unknown connection between them. When we hear a certain sound, we think of somebody ringing the doorbell. Why and how do we infer from the impression to its supposed cause? Many other ideas might have come to mind. When we hear the sound, we do not, at the same time, experience its cause, yet we implicitly believe that said cause must also be occurring to produce the perceived effect. This reasoning process is not a logical one, Hume maintains, since there is no reason for us to think of one idea rather than another when a particular experience takes place.
If reason cannot be what makes us connect events causally, perhaps experience is responsible. We find that when a sequence of events is constantly repeated in our experience, and when the events are conjoined, we tend to associate ideas about them in our minds. Then, when we experience just one of the events, we also think of the other. One of them we call the cause and the other, the effect. What is there in the fact that certain events have been constantly conjoined in the past that leads us to think of them as causally related? Hume points out that if the...
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The Limits of Experience (World Philosophers and Their Works)
Hume next questions whether we possess any evidence that this principle is true, or that it has to be true. Since we can readily imagine that the world might change in many respects in the future, it is not possible to demonstrate that nature must be uniform. Our experience up to the present moment does not constitute evidence as to what the future course of nature will be, or must be. Just because the sun has risen every day up to now does not prove that it has to rise tomorrow. We can judge the future only if we know that nature is uniform. However, our information up to this point is only that, so far, nature has always been uniform. Experience can provide us with no clue about what has to be the case in the future. Hence, we can neither demonstrate nor prove from experience that the all-important principle of the uniformity of nature is true, even though much of our reasoning about the world depends upon it.
The acceptance of this principle, Hume contends, is a fundamental characteristic of human nature. We have a habit or custom that operates upon us for unknown and unknowable reasons. After we have experienced the same sequence of conjoined events several times, then, when we perceive one of the conjuncts, habit or custom leads us to think of the other, and to think of it in a lively and forceful way. Although we are able to think of any idea we wish, we are led psychologically to think only of a particular conjoined idea and to conceive of it with...
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Causation Rooted in Imagination (World Philosophers and Their Works)
Hume uses his discovery of the psychological origins of our belief in the uniformity of nature to explain the basis for our conviction that there is a necessary connection between events. The necessary connection is never perceived, no matter how often the same sequence is observed. However, after a constant conjunction of events has been perceived many times, we then feel that one of the conjuncts causes or produces the other. It is not any discoverable fact about the events that makes us believe this, but rather our psychological attitude toward the events. We possess a fundamental propensity or determination of the mind to think of a conjoined idea after experiencing the conjunct or thinking of it, once we have perceived the constant conjunction of the two in our experience. This determination, which is a strong feeling, is the necessary connection that we think exists between events. Although it is felt in us, we have a tendency to conceive of it as existing in the events themselves. This idea is actually a feature of the way we think about events, rather than a feature of them. Thus, the term “cause” can be defined as “An object precedent and contiguous to another, and so united with it in the imagination, that the idea of the one determines the mind to form the idea of the other, and the impression of the one to form a more lively idea of the other.”
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Knowledge vs. Belief (World Philosophers and Their Works)
In Hume’s explanation of causality, he joins Nicolas de Malebranche’s contention that there is no necessary connection between events with his own psychological account of how we react to the uniformities in experience. Because of our habits, we expect the future to resemble the past, and we feel that when we observe certain events, their constant conjuncts must also be taking place, even if we cannot observe them. We have no actual knowledge of what is taking place, but only beliefs. Because we can never be completely sure that our beliefs correspond to the actual state of affairs, our causal information is always, at best, only probable.
Hume sees the task of the sciences as that of carefully establishing bases for “reasonable belief” by collecting data about the constant conjunctions that occur in human experience and organizing these data in terms of scientific laws. These laws provide a form of rational expectation in that they allow us to predict the future course of events on the basis of detailed information about what has happened up to now. The scientist, like anyone else, expects, through personal habits and propensities, that the future will resemble the past. Science, for Hume, is not the search for the “real” cause of events but for the best available probable predictions about the course of nature, founded on correlations of constant conjunctions of events and the psychological habits of human beings.
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Hume’s Skepticism (World Philosophers and Their Works)
After presenting his explanation of the source of our information, the nature of our beliefs about the world, and the character of scientific “knowledge,” Hume turns in part 4 of A Treatise of Human Nature to the full statement of his skeptical views. He first presents a series of reasons to show why we should be doubtful of the conclusions that we come to because of our reasoning and those that we come to because of our sense experience and our attitudes toward it. Then Hume contends that though there are basic difficulties with regard to both our reason and our senses, we still have to believe many things because of our psychological structure. Unfortunately, what we believe is often either indefensible or contradictory.
The argument offered to engender a “scepticism with regard to reason” purports to show that even the most certain conclusions of reasoning are actually only probable and that their degree of probability diminishes the more that we examine them. Because we all make mistakes, every time we reason there is a possibility that we may err. When we check our reasoning, it is still possible that we have erred in our checking, that we will err in checking our checking, and so on. Each judgment that we make about the merits of our reasoning is merely probable, and the combined probability, Hume says, will get smaller and smaller the more we judge our judgments of our judgments of our judgments. Hence, if this checking process...
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The Limits of Skepticism (World Philosophers and Their Works)
However, nature prevents us from carrying out this skeptical attitude to its final destructive conclusion. Regardless of the difficulties, in practice we find that we have to believe all sorts of things, even incompatible things. When we go out in the world, the skeptical doubts lose their force; we are overwhelmed by our natural feelings and beliefs, and we act and live in the same way anyone else does. Hume’s final advice is that one should be skeptical when one has to be, and be a natural believer when one must, while realizing that neither of these attitudes has any final justification. In periods when doubts are not being taken seriously, one can go on to examine other aspects of the human world, as Hume does in books 2 and 3 of A Treatise of Human Nature, and search for laws about human passions. (One of his findings in this regard is that reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.)
A Treatise of Human Nature has been a rich source of many contemporary views. The more empirical side of it has greatly influenced the logical positivists and the language analysts. Some of the psychological analysis of human belief and behavior has influenced the pragmatists and instrumentalists. The extreme skepticism and irrationalism have had some impact on neo-orthodox theologians. It is for these reasons that A Treatise of Human Nature is regarded by many as one of the best philosophical works in the English language.
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Bibliography (World Philosophers and Their Works)
Ayer, A. J. Hume. New York: Hill and Wang, 1980. This brief introduction to Hume’s life is both well written and useful. The chapter on aims and methods is especially good.
Chappell, V. C., ed. Hume: A Collection of Critical Essays. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966. This collection of twenty-one essays by such acknowledged authorities as Ernest Mossner and Anthony Flew is valuable to students of Hume.
Hanson, Delbert J. Fideism and Hume’s Philosophy: Knowledge, Religion, and Metaphysics. New York: Peter Lang, 1993. Fideism holds that belief in some religious theory must be sustained by faith alone. Michel de Montaigne and Blaise Pascal were Fideists. Hanson takes issue with the concept that Hume was a skeptic and attempts, in this book, to support that argument.
Hausman, David B., and Alan Hausman. Descartes’s Legacy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. This book is about the thought of René Descartes, George Berkeley, and Hume. Two chapters concentrate on Hume. The entire study is written from the point of view of Descartes’s philosophy; Berkeley and Hume are contrasted with Descartes.
Herdt, Jennifer A. Religion and Faction in Hume’s Moral Philosophy. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997....
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