Meditation XXIII, David Hume (1711-1776) – Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

David Hume

~ When two people meet, they unconsciously affect one another in ways the mind cannot even begin to comprehend. The meeting may be brief and uneventful with nothing fruitful happening as a result of it. But the die is cast and the wheels of time have turned. The present as we know it is now the past and the future is always just beyond reach. Looking backwards, we see the roads we travelled and everything is fated. Looking forward, we see nothing but mist and mazes.  Nothing happens out of mere coincidence and randomness. No effect is without a cause just as no cause is without an effect. For every action there is a reaction and we find that events of the past are necessary and certain. Our meeting today is inevitable.

~

Considered as the greatest English philosopher since John Locke, David Hume was the second son in a strict Scottish Presbyterian family. Well known as a philosopher, essayist and historian, Hume aimed to place Logic, Morals, Criticism and Politics on the foundation of the ‘science of man’ and the theory of human nature. Famous for his scepticism in metaphysics, he placed emphasis on the limits that human nature places on our capacity for scepticism. His chief concern was to explore the limitations of reason and to explanations behind human behaviour.

In his most widely studied work, an Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume describes his own thought as a kind of ‘mitigated scepticism’. One finds a mixture of both Pyrrhonian and Academic scepticism in Hume who’s way of thinking sways between dogmatism and scepticism. Unlike Descartes, Hume is inclined to believe that the arguments posed by sceptic philosophers are largely successful. Pyrrhonian philosophy, according to Hume, undermines the two pillars of human understanding, namely, sensation, and reason.

Hume continues by elaborating on how reasoning succeeds in only telling us about ideas themselves while experience only succeeds in telling us about the way things appear to us (and not their external reality). Base on these two propositions, Hume rejects traditional metaphysics that claims to know the ultimate reality of this world and theology which claims to know the divine. In the famous passage of the first Enquiry, he urges his readers to burn as rubbish any text that claims to present knowledge about topics beyond the reach of the two prongs of what has now become known as the ‘Hume’s fork’.

The first prong of the ‘Hume fork’ is known as, ‘relations of ideas’. It concerns itself with abstract reasoning concerning quantity and number or propositions that are discoverable by thought (3 x 5 = 15). The second prong on the other hand, is ‘matters of fact’ like propositions that cannot be demonstrated by thought alone and are contingent in that their negation is possible. For example, the sun will rise tomorrow. For Hume, the mind is divided into impression and ideas. Impression being ‘sensations, passions and emotions’ while ideas are ‘the faint images of these’ in thought, reflection and imagination. Complex ideas may be formed from simple ideas and simple ideas can only enter the mind as copies of our impressions.

Widely known as a sceptic, Hume claims that human nature saves him from complete scepticism. He claims that although he is ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even more probable or likely than the another; ‘a few hours of good company and backgammon make his melancholy and sceptical conclusions seem ridiculous’. Hume states ‘that since no reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose’. The best expression of scepticism is one where we follow our nature without pretending we have an independent justification.

While many of Hume’s works are channelled to subvert other schools of thought in rationalistic science, metaphysics and theology, his objectives was not entirely destructive. In contrast to Descartes, Hume argues that our theorising should not be built on absolute truths but in accordance to the factors of Academical scepticism, which are, durability, usefulness, ease, an appropriate fit with human custom and nature, as well as the capacity to satisfy demands of critical scrutiny.

~ Ee Suen Zheng

Bibliography

  • Peter E. Cooper & Peter S. Fosl, eds, 2010, Philosophy: The Classic Readings, Wiley-Blackwell, United Kingdom.
  • Tom Honderich, ed, 2005, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, United States.
  • Will Durant, 2005, The Story of Philosophy, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, United States.
  • Robert Paul Wolff, ed, 2002, Ten Great Works of Philosophy, Signet Classic, Penguin Group, United States.

“A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.”

~ David Hume

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