PHL302 Background

Ports of Call



Hume, Ideas, Causality and the Problem of Induction

First Sightings

Readings for this part of your journey

You are going to read Chapters 1-4, 7 and then 5 of the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. This is in the Empiricists.

An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

David Hume
In this unit of the course we will be exploring some aspects of David Hume's empiricist philosophy. We begin with Hume's account of the nature of ideas, the distinction between impressions and ideas, and the association of ideas. We then turn to Hume's revolutionary account of causality, an account which makes questions about causality empirical, and finally turn to one of Hume's great discoveries, the problem of induction.

Hume's first book was his monumental masterpiece A Treatise Concerning Human Understanding. This remarkable book was not received well. It shows Hume struggling with the problems which he eventually resolves. There was no one on the philosophical scene at the time who could really appreciate its greatness. Hume later reworked some of the material in the Treatise in the The Enquiry concerning Morals and the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. It is this latter work that we are going to explore. It contains Hume's reflections on a variety of topics which we have examined in this class, including free will and determinism, skepticism, the nature of religious belief and so forth. We are going to focus on issues relating to causality.

The Background

Hume's Life

David Hume (1711-1776) may be the greatest philosopher of all time to write in English. Hume was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father owed a small estate called "Ninewells" where Hume grew up. Hume went to Edinburgh University at an early age, graduating at age 15. His parents had intended him for a career in the law, but he disliked the law and soon after leaving Edinburgh University he began an intense course of study of his own devising. In 1734 he went to France where he wrote A Treatise of Human Nature, published anonymously in 1739.

Hume was deeply disappointed at the reception of his revolutionary work. He expected learned controversy, instead he received incomprehension and mockery. The best review of the Treatise was "An Abstract of a Treatise of Human Nature." Scholars have recently determined that this insightful piece was written by Hume himself! In 1748 he published Philosophical Essays Concerning the Human Understanding and 1751 An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. The Philosophical Essays were retitled An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding in a 1758 edition. The Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding is better written and organized than the Treatise but leaves out much material of interest and importance, including Hume's now famous discussion of the problem of personal identity. From 1748 on Hume acknowledged authorship of all major works except the Treatise and the Abstract. In a later edition of the two Enquiries Hume expressly desired that they and not the Treatise should be regarded as containing his philosophical sentiments and principles.

Hume made no more major contributions to philosophy except the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion published posthumously and probably written in the 1750s. These Dialogues critically examine the argument from design for God's existence. Because the argument from design depends on God being like a machine maker, and thus like humans in certain respects, Hume's critique of the argument links him to Spinoza in interesting ways. Both, for example, reject the near view of God and regard looking for ends on the level of the cosmos as a mistaken enterprise. At any rate, having restated his philosophy to his satisfaction and finished with his examination of religious ideas, Hume sought literary fame in history, and moral and political thought including economics, in which he won a reputation equal in his lifetime to that of his friend Adam Smith.

Hume was never an academic though he made two unsuccessful bids for chairs of philosophy at Edinburgh and Glasgow. He was a man of letters and to a lesser extent a man of affairs. His principal appointments were to General St. Claire from 1746 to 1749 on a military expedition to Brittany and a diplomatic mission to Turin, as keeper of the Advocates library in Edinburgh, where he wrote his History of Great Britain from 1752 to 1757; as private secretary to Lord Hertford, British Ambassador to Paris from 1763 to 1766, where for a time Hume was charge d'affairs; and as Undersecretary for Northern Affairs from 1767 to 1768.

Hume was a deservedly popular figure in the literary world of the period. Sociable, witty and kind, innocently vain and devoid of envy, he was known to his French friends as "Le Bon David."

The General Nature of Hume's Philosophy

Hume, like many another eighteenth century thinker, had been enormously impressed with the achievement of Isaac Newton in natural philosophy using the experimental method. Hume aspired to be the Newton of the mind, to apply the experimental method to "the moral subjects." He believed a comparable level of success could be achieved. Hume's ultimate aim was to provide a "complete system of the sciences..." This aim was hardly new, Descartes and Locke had both pursued it. But Hume intended to build on a new foundation, to ground all human knowledge in human nature itself. So, the fundamental science was to be the science of man. "There is no decision of importance which is not comprised in the science of man, and there is none which can be decided with any certainty before we become acquainted with that science." As the other sciences depend on the science of man, so the foundation of the science of man is experience and observation.

Hume is an empiricist. His empiricism may be summed up in two propositions:

(1) All our ideas are derived from impressions of sense or inner feeling. That is, we cannot conceive of things different in kind from everything in our experience.

(2) A matter of fact can never be proved by reasoning a priori. It must be discovered or inferred from experience.

From these two propositions it follows that metaphysical systems telling us of the existence of God, the origin of the world and other matters transcending are illegitimate. Hume seeks to combat these metaphysical tendencies by arguing for the empiricist origins of our ideas of space, time, number and existence. Hume further argued that questions which are decidable purely a priori are purely conceptual -- and that the relation of cause and effect is a matter of fact and not logic.

As noted above, Hume's ambition was to found a science of man which would rival Newton natural philosophy. Hume's is interested in explaining the principles by which the human mind works. He has inherited the way of ideas from Descartes and his successors. To ideas, which explain the cognitive content of the human mind, he adds the passions or sentiments in order to explain morality and action. (This part of Hume is one which we will not be touching on in this class.) He develops a set of principles by which he hopes to explain the association of all the ideas in the human mind. Resemblance, contiguity and cause and effect are the only three principles which Hume thinks necessary to explain all the connections in human thought. (In fact the basic list is even smaller, since resemblance and contiguity play a crucial role in our idea of cause and effect.)

Hume's account of causality turns out to be revolutionary, and the way in which Hume treats causality leads directly to the first formulation of the problem of induction. The problem of induction has to do with our ability to generalize from a sample, or to make predictions about what will happen in the future. The question Hume is asking is what is the justification for these generalizations and for our claims to know what will happen in the future.

We are going to follow Hume through his account of ideas, the association of ideas, and his revolutionary analysis of causality until we reach the problem of induction.


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