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2.1       Hume’s Science of Human Nature

Hume
believed human nature to be the proper focus of the philosopher because its
first principles necessarily carry over to every human endeavor, cognitive alike.
Wayne Waxman, “David Hume’s Theory of Consciousness” Cambridge,
1994″. A science of human nature affords fundamental insight not only
into such domains as morals, aesthetics, and politics, but “Even Mathematics,
Natural Philosophy, and Natural Religion,” which “are in some measure dependent
on the science of MAN; since they lie under the cognizance of men, and are
judged of by their powers and faculties. Townsend, Dabney. Hume’s
Aesthetic Theory. London: Routledge, 2001.  situating himself in the line of British
empiricist thinkers extending from Francis Bacon and John Locke, Hume
restricted the investigation of human nature to evidence gleaned from “careful
and exact experiments, and the observation of those particular effects, which
result from its different circumstances and situations” (¶8). It constitutes a
science insofar as we “must endeavor to render all our principles as universal
as possible, by tracing up our experiments to the utmost, and explaining all
effects from the simplest and fewest causes.” This may require us to revise
initial determinations in the light of new experiments (Hume’s evolving
characterization of the difference between memory and imagination is a prime
example), and obliges us to determine whether the fundamental principles of
human nature have even wider scope (thus Hume considered it a plus that his
account of human nature extends to animals as well). Finally, the mandate for
maximal simplicity means that the science of man should take the form of a
system, deriving its principal authority from “the agreement of its parts, and
the necessity of one to explain another” (I.iii.13 ¶20).

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2.1.1    The Elements of Hume’s Science of Human
Nature

Objects. Hume considered human nature
always and only in terms of perceptions. ‘Perception’ is Hume’s substitute for
Locke’s term ‘idea’, and refers to all objects insofar as they are immediately
present to us by consciousness, be it in sensation, reflexion, or thought
(‘reflexion’ is Hume’s catch-all term for the objects present to “internal
sense” or “inward sentiment,” including passions, emotions, desires, volitions,
and operations activity generally). For Hume, just as for Locke with ‘idea’,
the very indeterminacy of ‘perception’ – the impossibility of contrasting it
with anything that is not a perception because “The mind never has anything
present to it but the perceptions” Stanistreet,
Paul, 2002. Hume’s Scepticism and the Science of Human Nature, Aldershot:
Ashgate. Is its principal virtue. If things other than perceptions exist,
then, as what never “can be present to the mind, whether we employ our senses,
or are actuated with passion, or exercise our thought and reflection,” they are
no different from perfect non-entities so far as our thoughts and actions are
concerned. By contrast, even objects as fanciful as a billiard ball that
transforms itself into wedding cake upon being struck, though never present to
the senses, are still objects of our thought, and so too perceptions.

Perceptions come in two kinds, impressions and ideas. Impressions
comprise sensations and reflexions, and ideas thoughts (the mental contents of
thought, considered in themselves rather than in the capacity of signs used to
signify other perceptions, whether by resemblance, linguistically, or in any
other significant capacity). According to Hume, the sole and entire difference
between these two species of perception is that impressions, as a rule, have
greater force and vivacity than ideas. This does not mean that
impressions always make a strong impression, for they can be so calm as
altogether to escape notice. Nor does it mean that they are vivid in the usual
sense, since seeing a gray blur on an otherwise black night (visual sensation)
is still more “vivid” than a brilliantly lit, detailed image in a daydream
(visual idea). The best indication of what Hume had in mind by “force and
vivacity” is his subsequent equation of it with belief in the real existence of
a content present to us in sensation, reflexion, or thought, all perceptions.
According to Hume, we believe in the reality of something we merely think if
our conception of it exhibits force and vivacity, as when, upon seeing smoke
coming into the room, we not only think of a fire somewhere outside the room
but believe one really exist. Similarly, “the belief or assent, which
always attends the … senses, is nothing but the vivacity of those perceptions
they present” (THN I.iii.5 ¶7). More particularly, the vivacity of a perception
seems to consist in a feeling distinctive of the manner in which an
object in sensation or reflexion is apprehended, or object in thought
conceived, in virtue of which it is regarded as really existent – actual rather
than merely possible, fact rather than fiction. If this reading is correct,
then we need to distinguish two senses of ‘exists’ in Hume: an object, even if
it is a mere fiction, exists simply in being present to consciousness
(ii.6), but it really exists, and is actual, if, in addition, it
is perceived or conceived in a lively manner (iii.5-10). Sensations and
reflexions are impressions because human (and animal) nature is so constituted
that these objects have only to appear in order to be believed really existent,
whereas objects present to us only in thought are not believed really to exist
unless circumstances intervene to induce us to conceive them with a high enough
degree of force and vivacity. One of the principal occupations of Hume’s theory
of understanding was to determine what those circumstances are and to identity
the underlying principles. Finally, Hume distinguished perceptions according to
whether they are complex or simple. In general, an impression or idea counts as
simple if it cannot distinguished into two or more components (different
significative uses to which the same simple perception may be put do not
compromise its intrinsic simplicity). But Hume also allows that perceptions
distinguishable in this way may still be simple if it impossible for them to be
derived by the combination or blending of perceptions already in our possession
(for example, “The impressions of touch are simple impressions, except when
considered with regard to their extension,” Traiger,
Saul, 2006. The Blackwell Guide to Hume’s Treatise, Oxford: Blackwell.

2.2       Hume’s rejection of abstract ideas

Hume expressed complete agreement with George Berkeley’s exclusion
of abstract ideas from the explanation of general ideas and terms. The keystone
of this critique of abstraction is the separability principle which
Hume, like Berkeley before him, made a centerpiece of his philosophizing.
According to this principle, whatever objects (perceptions) are different are
distinguishable, and so separable in thought; and vice versa Radcliffe, Elizabeth S., 2007. A Companion to Hume, Oxford:
Blackwell. So far as abstraction is concerned, this means that we cannot
abstract any X from any Y unless X can be perceived and conceived even in the
absence of Y. For example, because the distinction between the shape and color
of a visible object fails to satisfy the separability principle, the notion
that these are distinct perceptions (different abstract ideas, as Locke
supposed) has to be rejected as an illusion cast by language. For while there
is indeed a significative distinction to be drawn in the use of the idea of a
visible object to designate, on the one hand, things resembling it in shape
and, on the other hand, things resembling it in color, when the idea is
considered in itself, apart from any significative use to which it may be put,
its shape and color are ineluctably one. Accordingly, differences of aspect –
that is, distinctions that fail to conform to the separability principle
(sometimes termed ‘distinctions of reason’) – are never intrinsic to the object
to which they are ascribed, but are instead always the by-product of the
relations in which it stands to other objects. Thus, a globe of white marble
may be found to resemble a black globe of paper maché, a white cube of sugar,
or an oblong piece of red marble; and since resemblance is an associative
relation, the facile transition from a white globe to a black globe will set up
an relational dynamic in which it becomes easier to transition next to the idea
of a blue globe, red globe, or yellow globe, than to any non-spherical white or
red object. In the same way, a transition from the white globe to a white cube
will make it easier to transition next to the idea of a white oblong or any
other white shape than to a black globe or red oblong. It is in these divergent
axes of resemblance relations, ramifying in various directions from the same
object, as it were, that aspects have as their basis.

Resemblance association alone does not, however, suffice to
explicate general representation. Custom is equally indispensable: “If ideas be
particular in their nature, and at the same time finite in their number, ’tis
only by custom they can become general in their representation, and contain an
infinite number of other ideas under them” (THN I.i.7 ¶16). The habits instilled
by frequently encountered axes of resemblance association lie in readiness to
be triggered by any of the infinitely many possible stimuli (determinate,
non-abstract impressions or ideas) capable of triggering it (representational
generality); and which of the many habits it happens to trigger will determine
to which species a given stimulus will be recognized as belonging (i.e. under
which general sort it will be subsumed or classified). For example, a single,
fully determinate (non-abstract) perception of an equilateral triangle one inch
in circumference can serve as a general representation of figures, rectilinear
figures, regular figures, triangles, or equilateral triangles, according to
which custom we use it to represent or which custom it triggers in a particular
context (¶9). Finally, with the addition of words to overcome the confusion
that would otherwise result either from the capacity of the same idea to
trigger any of various customs, or from the same custom to be triggered by very
dissimilar ideas, we arrive at Berkeley’s principle “that all general ideas are
nothing but particular ones, annexed to a certain term, which gives them a more
extensive signification, and makes them recall upon occasion other individuals,
which are similar to them” (¶1).

2.3 Impressions and
Ideas

Hume’s
theory of the mind owes a great debt to John Locke’s ideas. Hume names the
basic contents of the mind, and what we are immediately and directly aware of,
are ‘perceptions’, what Locke described as ‘whatsoever the mind perceives in
itself, or is the immediate object of perception, thought or understanding’
(Essay on Human Understanding II.viii.8). ‘Perceptions’ are divided by Hume
into ‘impressions’ and ‘ideas’, the difference between the two being by marked
by a difference of ‘forcefulness’ and ‘vivacity’, so that impressions relate
roughly to ‘feeling’ (or ‘sensing’) and ideas to ‘thinking’. ‘Feeling’ here
should be understood broadly, and Hume, again following Locke, divides
impressions into those of ‘sensation’ and those of ‘reflection’. Impressions of
sensation derive from our senses, impressions of reflection derive from our
experience of our mind, e.g. feeling emotions. Ideas are ‘faint copies’ of
impressions, ‘less forcible and lively’ (p. 96). Think what it is like to see a
scene or hear a tune; now what it is like to imagine or remember that scene or
tune. The latter is weaker, fainter. (Thinking, for Hume, works with ideas as
images in the same way as imagination and memory.) However, Hume immediately
qualifies his claim about liveliness – disease or madness can make ideas as
lively as impressions. This suggests that the distinction in terms of
liveliness is incomplete. So Hume’s claim that ideas are also copies of
impressions is important. So just as there are ideas of sensation (e.g. the
idea of a colour) and ideas of reflection (e.g. the idea of an emotion). Hume
later provides a third distinction between ideas and impressions: we are liable
to confuse and make mistakes about ideas, but this is more difficult with
impressions (p. 99). The basic building blocks of all thought and experience
are simple impressions – single colours, single shapes, single smells and so
on. And to each there is a corresponding idea. We can also have more complex
impressions, such as the colour and shape of something, e.g. a dog. The
corresponding idea we have of the dog can be made more complex by adding the
idea of its smell or the sound it makes. To think of it as a ‘dog’ is still
more complex, because it requires abstraction. The concept DOG doesn’t
correspond to any one particular set of impressions or any single dog. (When
referring to the idea, rather than what the idea stands for, I capitalize the
word.) When we abstract, we ignore certain specific features and concentrate on
others; so to develop the concept DOG, we ignore the different colours and
different sizes dogs are, picking out other features, like four legs, tail,
bark and hairy.

2.3.1 Complex Ideas

The
view that all ideas derive from sense experience is very appealing in many
ways. However, there are complex ideas that seem to correspond to nothing in
our sense experience, e.g. unicorns and God. (While many of us have seen a
picture of a unicorn, someone had to invent the idea without seeing a picture.)
So is it true that all ideas derive from sense experience? Hume does not claim
that complex ideas must be copies of impressions. It is only simple ideas that
are copies of impressions. But all complex ideas are composed of simple ideas.
This is easy to see in the case of unicorns: we have experiences of horses and
of horns and of whiteness; if we put them together, we get a unicorn. Hume
argues that in creating new complex ideas, we can only work with the materials
that impressions provide. No idea, no matter how abstract or complex, is more
than a combination, alteration or abstraction from impressions. Hume believes
this is an empirical discovery, rather than a necessary truth, and presents two
arguments for thinking it is true. First, all ideas can be analyzed into simple
ideas which each correspond to an impression. For example, in direct opposition
to Descartes, Hume claims that the idea of God, based on ideas of perfection
and infinity, is extrapolated from ideas of imperfection and finitude: ‘The
idea of God, as meaning an infinitely intelligent, wise, and good Being, arises
from reflecting on the operations of our own mind, and augmenting, without
limit, those qualities of goodness and wisdom.’ (pp. 97-8) We will challenge
Hume’s claim below. Hume’s second argument is that without having a particular
type of experience, a person lacks the ability to form an idea of that
experience. Thus, a blind man does not know what colour is and a mild man
cannot comprehend the motive of revenge. Hume argues that all complex ideas are
constructed out of simple ideas, which are copies of impressions. We can
therefore challenge him to give us his analysis of complex ideas, such as
NECESSITY, SUBSTANCE, or SELF. If he cannot give us a satisfactory analysis of
how we derive these concepts from experience, that is a reason to think that
the concepts derive from elsewhere – either they are innate, or they are
reached using a priority reasoning. If this is right, then Hume’s theory of the
mind is very seriously wrong. In fact, Hume argues that these three particular
examples cannot be derived from experience. His response, for each of these
examples, is that the idea – as we usually think of it – has no genuine
application. In their place, he suggests clearer ways of thinking, using ideas
that can be derived from experience.

2.3.1.1 Self

According
to our common sense idea of the self, the ‘I’ is something that exists over
time, persisting from one thought to another. Hume argues that we have never
have any experience of such a self: when I enter most intimately into what I
call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat
or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch
myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the
perception. (A Treatise on Human Nature, I.iv.vi) The idea of the ‘self’
as a thing distinct from thoughts and perceptions doesn’t survive the attempt
to find the ‘corresponding impression’ that is the test of meaning. Hume
suggests that the self is nothing more than a ‘bundle’ of thoughts and
perceptions, constantly and rapidly changing. This is all that we have
experience of. To come up with the idea of SELF as one and the same thing over
time, we’ve confused similarity – the similarity of our thoughts and feelings
from one moment to the next – with identity – the identity of a ‘thing’ to
which such mental states belong. We can object that there can’t be a thought
unless something thinks it. So the ‘I’ must exist in order to think thoughts.
Hume can ask how we know this. As he has just argued, our experience doesn’t
confirm it. So is it part of the definition of thought that thinkers exist to
think thoughts? This is hard to show.

2.3.1.2 Substance

Hume
makes a similar argument regarding (physical) substance. PHYSICAL SUBSTANCE is
the idea of a physical object as something that exists independently of our
experience, in its own right, and in 3-dimensional space. Hume asks how we
could have had an impression of such a thing (Treatise on Human Nature,
I.iv.ii). How can experience show us that something exists independently of
experience? I see my desk; a few moments later, I see it again. If my two
experiences are of one and the same desk, then the desk existed when I wasn’t
looking at it. But I can’t know that my two experiences are of one and the same
desk; I can only know that the two experiences are very similar. In coming up
with the idea of physical substance that exists independently of my
experiences, I have confused similarity with identity.

 

 

2.3.1.3 Objections

We
can object that Hume’s theory makes most of our commonsense idea of the world
wrong. This is unacceptable. Our ideas are coherent. The fact that we cannot
derive them from experience only shows that they are innate (or known through
rational intuition). We should really take Hume’s arguments to show, not that
the ideas are wrong-headed, but that they have their origins elsewhere. Second,
is Hume’s view that all ideas are derived from experience, or only that all
meaningful, coherent ideas are derived from experience? He explicitly asserts
the first claim, but then how can he account for ‘incoherent’ ideas? For
instance, if we cannot have got the idea of something existing independently of
experience from experience, where did the idea come from? – Because we most
certainly have it!

Hume’s
answer regarding SELF and SUBSTANCE is that we have confused similarity with
identity. How does this happen? Our perceptions of physical objects exhibit
constancy: if I look at my desk and then shut my eyes and open them again, the
desk looks exactly how it did before. On the basis of this similarity, the mind
simply has a tendency, says Hume, to imagine that what I see after I open my
eyes is not just similar but identical to what I saw before I close my eyes.
The origin of the idea of identity – and with it, the idea of something that
exists between and independent of perceptions – is the imagination. The ideas
that the imagination works with in creating the idea of identity is similarity
and unity (the idea of an individual thing, being ‘one’), both of which we can
derive from experience. We can distinguish between perceptions as different –
so each has identity; and we can tell when two perceptions are similar. (A
similar story applies in the case of the self). A final objection is that there
is good reason to think that Hume’s attempts at analysis will not work for all
complex ideas, even if they do work for SELF and SUBSTANCE.

For
example, attempts to analyze philosophical concepts like KNOWLEDGE, TRUTH,
BEAUTY into their simple constituents have all failed to produce agreement.
Perhaps this is because they don’t have this structure.

References

Abraham
Roth, “What Was Hume’s Problem with Personal Identity?” Philosophy and                              Phenomenological
Research 61.1 (2000): 91–114.

A.
E. Pitson, Hume’s Philosophy of the Self (London: Routledge, 2002), chap. 4.

Brendan
Lalor, “The Antilogistic Puzzle of Hume’s Appendix to the Treatise,”
Philosophical                    Inquiry
20 (1998): 22–30.

Donald
Ainslie, “Hume’s Reflections on the Identity and Simplicity of Mind,” Philosophy
and                Phenomenological
Research 62.3 (2001): 557–78.

Donald
Baxter, “Hume’s Labyrinth Concerning the Idea of Personal Identity,” Hume
Studies      24.2 (1998): 203–33.

John
Haugeland, “Hume on Personal Identity,” in his Having Thought: Essays in the                                
Metaphysics of Mind (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998).

Kenneth
Winkler, “‘All Is Revolution in Us’: Personal Identity in Shaftesbury and
Hume,”           Hume Studies 26.1 (2000):
3–40.

Vijay
Mascarenhas, “Hume’s Recantation Revisited,” Hume Studies 27.2 (2001): 279–300,                      especially 292–97).

 

 

 

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