David Hume
Wednesday, April 21, 2010


David Hume

That’s David Hume, the British Empiricist, up above. We’re going to be dealing with selections from his Treatise of Human Nature.

Hume begins in his introduction by relating all of the sciences to the study of man: “It is impossible to tell what changes and improvements we might make in these sciences were we thoroughly acquainted with the extent and force of human understanding, and could explain the nature of the ideas we employ, and of the operations we perform in our reasonings.” Hume accordingly starts at the beginning, with the origin of ideas.

Hume divides the “perceptions of the human mind” into impressions and ideas. Impressions are the more violent and forceful of the two. It is impressions that give rise to ideas. Simple impressions give rise to simple ideas. Impressions are divided into sensation and “reflexion.”

Hume establishes a number of relations, “that quality, by which two ideas are connected together in the imagination, and the one naturally introduces the other.” These relations are:

Resemblance Identity Space and time Quantity, or number Quality Contrariety Cause and effect.

Hume also denies the idea of substance. Substance, to the extent that nay of us think about it, is probably associated with the doctrine of transubstantiation. This is the doctrine that when the bread and wine are consecrated they undergo a change into the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ. The substance is that which makes the bread bread, while the accidents are things like taste, smell, and so on. Now substance, being not made up of visible things is very hard to understand. Taste, smell, sound, and all the rest, which are considered accidents, are pretty evident. Hume contends that there is nothing but the accidents. There is no essence. If bread is not bread, it will not taste like, smell like, sound like, or feel like bread.

If you cannot separate the accidents from the bread, neither can you, in the process of forming an abstract idea separate the image, such as a particular line, from the abstract idea of the line itself. Yeats, in the poem Among School Children, asks whether we can tell the dancer from the dance. Hume seems to be asking whether we can separate the idea of the line from the actual instance of the line that we imagine as we talk about it.

Hume also seems to anticipate Ev Dirksen: “First then I observe, that when we mention any great number, such as a thousand, the mind has generally no adequate idea of it, but only a power of producing such an idea, by its adequate idea of the decimals, under which the number is comprehended. This imperfection, however, in our ideas, is never felt in our reasonings; which seems to be an instance parallel to the present one of universal ideas.” The senator from Illinois once said “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”

Hume’s view of cause and effect is that we make an inference about causation either by “immediate perception of our memory and senses, or by an inference from other causes.” We either see a boy hit a baseball with a bat, or see a ball flying towards right field, and reason that someone hit the ball. It is, according to Hume impossible for us to construct an infinite chain of inferences, and must ultimately stop at some original “impression of the memory or senses.” Note that this is similar to the argument for the existence of God from efficient causation. Just as there cannot be an infinity of efficient causes, neither can there be an infinity of sense impressions or inferences. Hobbes, however, does not use this for any theological purpose.

Hume goes on to say that if we consider objects in themselves that there is no object that implies the existence of another object. If we believe that one object implies the existence of the other that is because we have experienced one in association with the other. If see lightning, and it is always followed by thunder, then we call lightning the cause of thunder. It is the “CONSTANT CONJUNCTION” of the two that leads us to call one the cause of the other.

Hume will later use this idea that it is only the constant conjunction of two acts to show that the four causes given by Aristotle, and subscribed to by the scholastic theologians, do not exist. Given that none of the four, formal, material, efficient, and final, do not exist, Hume can abandon at least one of the 5 proofs of God’s existence given by Aquinas, that from final causation. Hume will later attack, in the Dailogues Concerning Natural Religion, the argument from design.

In the Treatise, however, Hume does not attack the design concept. “The order of the universe proves an omnipotent mind; that is, a mind whose will is CONSTANTLY ATTENDED with the obedience of every creature and being. Nothing more is requisite to give a foundation to all the articles of religion, nor is it necessary we should form a distinct idea of the force and energy of the supreme Being.” It is precisely the first part of this sentence that Hume will attack in the later Dialogues.

Hume attributes belief to “a lively idea related to a present impression.” Ideas, even the most complex and abstract, are apparently built up as the result of sense impression.

A problem raised by Hume is “Why we attribute a continued existence to objects, even when they are not present to the senses; and why we suppose them to have an existence DISTINCT from the mind and perception.” When I go downstairs for breakfast in the morning, I have no reason to believe that my computer continues in existence. From this it follows that my perception of myself is at best fragmentary. For example, in sleep I am no longer conscious of myself, so I cannot assert that I have not gone out of existence while I was sleeping.

Hume’s contention is that it is not the body of the subject that is perceived, but sense impressions; second, the objects of the senses, “sounds, and tastes, and smells,” do not exist as independent objects; thirdly, the senses do not inform us directly, but only a process of reasoning. Identity is something that exists in the imagination as Hume informs us: “For from thence it evidently follows, that identity is nothing really belonging to these different perceptions, and uniting them together; but is merely a quality, which we attribute to them, because of the union of their ideas in the imagination, when we reflect upon them.”

It is memory that holds the human person together according to Hume. However, it would seem that if the continuation of consciousness can be doubted because of sleep, surely the continuation of memory is open to the same doubt. Hume seems to be saying that we can assert our continued identity because of our memory.

Hume denies that passions can be unreasonable. “A passion must be accompanyed with some false judgment” to be considered unreasonable, and it is the judgment that is unreasonable, not the passion. What people usually mean when they say that a passion, such as anger, is unreasonable, is that the cause of the passion, a child’s failure to pick up his or her clothes, or the use of wire hangers, is not sufficient to produce the anger shown by the physical and verbal signs of that anger. If I read Hume correctly, he would seem to be saying that we make a judgment prior to the passion, or perhaps contemporaneously with the passion. So does Hume see anger arising from a judgment, a more or less rational choice, to be angry? It would appear so.

Morals do not derive from reason, “Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions.” So the moral has more in common with passion than it has with reason, which is “totally impotent in this regard,” producing action. Moral rules, according to Hume, are not the products of reason. Hume derives morality from feeling, or sentiment.

Hume has cut morality off from reason, and this gives rise to what is known as the is-ought problem. A preacher might move from the proposition God exists, or God is, to the proposition that we ought to worship Him. How does the fact of God’s existence lead to the obligation to worship? There’s really no way to get from the is to the ought.

Hume then proceeds to assert that there is a moral sense, and that our system of morality comes from that sense. This leads to writers like Sterne putting an emphasis on feeling over action. An encounter with a pitiable man is valuable to Sterne not because it excites him to perform charitable actions, but because it excites feelings of pity. This theory of sentiment as the basis for morality fails to account for the amoral and the psychopathic. Is it simply that these are somehow deprived of this universal sense, or is it something else? De Sade’s heroes contend that they are cruel because Nature has made them cruel. Their cruelty is simply fidelity to their nature, which has apparently not seen fit to furnish them with a moral sense.

Justice is not something which exists in a heaven of forms, not an ideal, but something which springs from society. If I understand Hume correctly, society is prior to justice. This would seem to mean that any socially agreed upon act is a just act. This raises the question of whether this does not re-instantiate the idea of Might as Right. Property and property rights flow from society, so a decision such as Kelo, in which it was ruled that the city or county had the right to transfer property from one private owner to another was correctly decided. Kelo’s lawyers could not appeal to a pre-existing idea of justice to show that the seizure was unjust.

The 5th amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment,” but this means that the prohibition is rooted in the community’s sense of what is cruel and unusual. Do Saudi’s perceive the chop block, and the mounds of amputated limbs belonging to forcibly reformed thieves as “cruel and unusual?” That may be the point of the practice, or it may be that such violence is greeted with mute acceptance.

The court has also come up with a “community standards” test for obscenity. This too is rooted in time and place. It may be that once upon a time “a glimpse of stocking/was shocking,” but now indeed, “anything goes.”

Hume also does not deal with psychopathic states. If a state denies rights to a group of its citizens on the basis of their religion, and puts them to death because of it, are those actions just because they flow from society? If a state confiscates property, as the Soviets did, is that society acting justly?

Can Hume really have a concept of justice that is subsequent to the formation of society, or should he have a concept in which justice precedes the establishment of society, and society evolves towards that ideal?

Hume has an idealistic conception of familial relations: “A father knows it to be his duty to take care of his children: But he has also a natural inclination to it.” Once again Hume does not take into account the negatives. There is no explanation for neglectful and abusive parents, or for parents who have no affection for their children.

Hume quotes Quintilian to assert that beauty is linked to efficient functioning. This fails to explain the fetishization of certain body parts. Large breasts are fetishized by many people, and yet breast size is not necessarily related to milk production. Narrow hips are now fashionable, not the broad swelling hips that suggest fertility and easy delivery. Nor does it explain decorations and piercings, or other adornments.

Hume, in his appendix, says, “Suppose I see the legs and thighs of a person in motion, while some interposed object conceals the rest of his body. Here it is certain, the imagination spreads out the whole figure. I give him a head and shoulders, and breast and neck. These members I conceive and believe him to be possessed of. Nothing can be more evident, than that this whole operation is performed by the thought or imagination alone.” When we look at a statue, such as Rodin’s Man Walking, we sense the motion and imagine the rest of the statue. In recollecting the statue I find it difficult, without looking at the picture, to remember that it is armless. There are some of Magritte’s paintings that play on this completion procession.

Next up will be Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I don’t know about you, but I Kant wait.