Summary

Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

(The entire section is 237 words.)

Science Applied to Moral Subjects

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

(The entire section is 353 words.)

The Basis of Knowledge

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

(The entire section is 242 words.)

A Theory of Mathematics

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

(The entire section is 119 words.)

Sources of Knowledge

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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,...

(The entire section is 154 words.)

Causality

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

(The entire section is 358 words.)

Causes and Effects

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

(The entire section is 315 words.)