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C H A P T E R  21








David Hume was a Scottish polymath; he was the greatest empiricist philosopher, historian, economist, essayist, and librarian. Hume was born in Edinburgh - the capital of Scotland. He changed his name from Home because the Scottish pronunciation was difficult.

     At 10 years of age David Hume attended the University of Edinburgh (14 was normal). He said, "there is nothing to be learnt from a Professor, which is not to be met with in Books".

     Because he was an atheist he was denied a teaching position, was charged with heresy, and acquitted. Hume's defense was that atheists were outside the Church's jurisdiction.





1.  Hume's Method:
    The mind starts as a blank slate
(Tabula Rosa).
    Nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses
imple ideas are copies of simple impressions.
    One Exception:

    Ideas not derived from the senses are meaningless.
    This is called the empiricist criteria of meaning.

    Knowledge comes from experience.


    Hume's Fork:

    We determine if an idea has meaning by asking:

       a. Does this idea concern matters of fact?

       b. Does this idea concern the relation between ideas?
          (Math / Logic)

    If both answers are no, then commit them to the flames.


    Hume's Microscope and Razor:

    If an idea doesn't concern relations between ideas, then:

      a. Distill complex ideas to simple ideas.

      b. Are the simple ideas copied from simple impressions?

      c. If they aren't, the complex idea is rejected.

2.  The Problem of Cause and Effect:

     We have no experience of necessary connections.

     Experience only shows that past impressions have been

     followed by similar impressions.

     We associate ideas that regularly go together.

    (the association of ideas)


3.  The Problem of Induction:

     The future may not be like the past. (All swans are white.)

     Finite observations can never entail universal conclusions.

     All scientific laws suffer this problem.

4.  We only perceive sense impressions immediately.

    We have no experience of external physical objects.


5.  We have no experience of God.


6.  We have no experience of the soul (Tabula Rosa).

    Our minds are bundles of impressions.


7.  We have no experience of general impressions.


8.  Everything is transitory and fleeting. Nothing is permanent.


9.  Perceptions are mentally present (impressions and ideas).

     Both can be simple or complex.


10. There are 2 kinds of impressions:

     impressions of sensation, and impressions of reflection.

     Sensations are everyday perceptions: pain, cold, sweat etc.

     We can’t know their causes.

     Impressions of reflection are emotions & passions.

     They are caused by sensations and ideas.

     The emotion sorrow is caused by memories (ideas),

     and appearances (sensations).

     The passion love is caused by appearances and memories

     of beautiful things.


11. Ideas are copies of sensations.

     Sensations are more vivid.

     Memory is more vivid than imagination.

     We remember sensations in order.

     Imagination reorganizes simple ideas to form complex

     ideas with no corresponding impression.




Hume's philosophical vision came to him at the early age of 18. He published his chief philosophical work A Treatise of Human Nature. "It fell stillborn from the press," said Hume, so he rewrote it in two smaller easier to understand versions: An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals.


Bryan Magee & John Passmore
on Hume and Empiricism

Section 1 | Section 2 | Section 3 | Section 4 | Section 5


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Copyright © 2010