Thursday, February 24, 2011

Hume's Arguments in 10 Points

I understand that my last two posts summarizing David Hume's arguments from the 1748 book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding have not been of considerable interest to most.  I trust it is because my chapter summaries were rather long, as I summarized each page rather than each chapter (Part 1, Part 2).  This was more for my benefit that for your own.  So here I present a one-page, 10-point summary of his theories regarding human knowledge, and hopefully you will find it more rewarding.

1. Whenever we experience something, and our mind is conscious of that experience, we gain a new impression.  Impressions can include things we see, hear, feel, love, will, etc.

2. Ideas are copies of impressions (ex. the memory of eating an orange is a copy, and thus less intense, than the actual eating of an orange).  There are no exceptions to this.  If a philosophy exists, but it cannot be reduced to a copy of an impression, it is meaningless and needs to be rejected.

3. If we are unable to form an impression, a realm of ideas remains closed to us (ex. a blind man can never think of colour)

4. The imagination is limited by impressions, but it is not limited with what it can do to impressions.  It can add together unrelated things to produce ideas never before experienced (such as unicorn = horse + horn).  So long as these compound ideas reduce to simpler copies of impressions, we can imagine them.

5. We can imagine all sorts of fictions.  The first step in sorting out fact from fiction is experience.

6. All matters of fact are known through cause and effect. 

7. All causes and effects are known through custom (the repeated experience of the same effect coming from the same cause).

8. When we are confronted with a novel object, we can never reason out its causes or its effects, as the cause is logically distinct from the effect.

9.  Therefore all sorts of fictional causes or effects could be conceived by the mind.  Only custom (experience) can determine the actual cause or effect.

10.  Custom conjoins objects together (such as snow and cold, heat and flame).  In our imagination, in which all causes and effects are possible, the cause and effect relationship influenced by custom stands out with greater force and clarity due to the sentiment of belief.  Thus the mind can distinguish between fact and fantasy, and is not easily led into mistaking fantasy for truth.  Custom and belief are essential for survival.

These ten points essentially summarize the first half of Hume’s book.

In the rest of the book Hume applies these points to some matters that were of philosophical importance during the 1700s (and, indeed, today).  They are: the nature of the force that binds a cause to an effect (necessary connection), liberty and necessity, the reason of animals, miracles, providence and a future state, and a final reflection on scepticism.  These, then, will be the topics of my next few posts.

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