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David Hume Essay, Research Paper

David Hume, a Scottish philosopher and historian who lived from 1711-76, carried the empiricism of John Locke and George Berkeley to the logical extreme of radical skepticism. Although his family wanted him to become a lawyer, he felt an “insurmountable resistance to everything but philosophy and learning”. Mr. Hume attended Edinburgh University where he studied but did not graduate, and in 1734 he moved to a French town called La Fleche to pursue philosophy. He later returned to Britain and began his literary career. As Hume built up his reputation, he gained more and more political power. He discarded the possibility of certain knowledge, finding in the mind nothing but a series of sensations, and held that cause-and-effect in the natural world derives solely from the conjunction of two impressions. Hume’s skepticism is also evident in his writings on religion, in which he rejected any rational or natural theology. Besides his chief work, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), he wrote Political Discourses (1752), The Natural History of Religion (1755), and a History of England (1754-62) that was, despite errors of fact, the standard work for many years.

“Nothing seems more unbounded than a man’s thought,” quoted Hume. Hume took genuinely hypothetical elements from Locke and Berkeley but, rejected some lingering metaphysics form their thought, and gave empiricism its clearest and most rigorous formulation. (Stumpf) Hume wanted to build a science of a man, to study human nature by using the methods of physical science. But, with conflicting opinions offered on all subjects how can we know the true nature of things?

Hume believed that all knowledge came from experience. He also believed that a person’s experience’s existed only in the person’s mind. Although our body is confined to one planet, our mind can roam instantly into the most distant regions of the universe. Hume believed that there was a world outside of human conscience, but he did not think this could be proved. The contents of the mind can all be reduced to materials given us by the senses and experience, and those materials Hume calls perceptions. Hume grouped perceptions of the mind into one of two categories: impressions and ideas. (Stumpf) Impressions and ideas make up the total content of the mind. Ideas are memories of sensations claimed Hume, but impressions are the cause of the sensation. In other words, an impression is part of a temporary feeling, but an idea is the permanent impact of this feeling. Hume believed that ideas were just dull imitations of impressions. Besides merely distinguishing between impressions there can be no ideas. For if an idea is simply a copy of an impression, it follows that for every idea there must be a prior impression.

Hume’s most original and influential ideas deal with the problem of causality. Neither Locke nor Berkeley challenged the basic principle of causality. For Hume, the very idea of causality is suspect, and he approaches the problem by asking the question, “what is the origin of the idea of causality?” Since ideas are copies of impressions, Hume asks what gives us the idea of causality. (Feiser) His answer is that there is no impressions corresponding to this idea. How then does the idea of causality arise in the mind? It must be, Hume said, that their idea of causality arises in the mind when we experience certain relations between objects. This idea states that for all effects there is a cause. Hume said that even though the cause preceded the effect, there is no proof that the cause is responsible for the effect’s occurrence. Did you follow along?

Hume also thrived on ones self. Hume denied that we have any idea of self. This may seem paradoxical, that I should say that I do not have an idea of myself, but Hume again tests what is meant by a self by asking “from what impression could this idea derive from”; do you see a trend forming? Hume compares the mind to “a kind of theatre where several perceptions successively make their appearance,” but adds that “we have not the most distant notion of the place where these scenes are represented.”

What led Hume to deny the existence of a continuous self that in some way retains its identity through time was his thorough denial of the existence of any form of substance. While Locke retained the idea of substance as something, which has color or shape, and other qualities and Berkeley denied the existence of substance underlying qualities but retained the idea of spiritual substances. Hume denied that substance in any form exists or has any coherent meaning. If what is meant, by the self, is some form of substance then no suck substance can be derived from our impressions of sensation.

With Hume’s assumption that ” our ideas reach no further than our experience,” would lead him to raise skeptical questions about the existence of God. Most attempts to demonstrate the existence of God rely upon some version of causality. Sometimes experimental models are built with no present knowledge of what the finished model will be like. Is the universe a trial model or the final design? By this line of probing Hume tried to emphasize that the order of the universe is simply an empirical fact and that we can not infer from it the existence of God. This does not make Hume an atheist; he is simply testing out idea of god the way he had tested our ideas of the self and substance by his rigorous principle of empiricism that I spoke about earlier.

In ending I quote Hume in saying “to whatever length any one may push his speculative principles of skepticism, he must act and live and converse like other men it is impossible for him to persevere in total skepticism, or make it appear in his conduct for a few hours.


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