An Introduction to Hume & Empiricism

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An Introduction to Hume & Empiricism

David Hume: A Journey into Empiricism

Introduction to David Hume

David Hume was a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist, who lived from 1711 to 1776. He is considered one of the most important figures in the history of Western philosophy, and his work was influential in the development of both Empiricism and Utilitarianism.

What is Empiricism?

Empiricism is a philosophical approach that emphasizes the importance of experience and observation in the formation of knowledge and beliefs, and it challenges traditional philosophical approaches that rely on reason and intuition to provide certain knowledge. David Hume’s intellectual legacy is a journey into Empiricism, examining the key ideas of his philosophy and its impact on modern thought.

Key Ideas of David Hume's Empiricism

Some of the key ideas of Hume’s Empiricism include: no innate ideas or knowledge, experience is the basis of all beliefs and knowledge, and causation is not observable or rational.

There are no innate ideas or knowledge.

All knowledge comes from sense experience. Suppose you are born with a blank slate of mind, and you have no idea what a triangle is. You cannot form the concept of a triangle without seeing or imagining some examples of triangles. You cannot know the properties of a triangle, such as that the sum of its angles is 180 degrees, without learning them from experience or reasoning based on experience.

Experience is the basis of all beliefs and knowledge, which can be revised or corrected by new evidence.

Suppose you observe that the sun rises every morning. You form a belief that the sun will rise tomorrow based on your past experience. However, your belief is not certain, and it can be challenged by new evidence. For example, if you learn that a solar eclipse will occur tomorrow, you may revise your belief and expect that the sun will not rise as usual.

Causation is not observable or rational because it is a habit or custom to associate events that occur in sequence.

Causation is not observable or rational. Suppose you see a billiard ball hit another billiard ball and make it move. You infer that the first ball caused the second ball to move. However, you cannot observe the causal connection between the two balls, and you cannot prove that the first ball necessarily made the second ball move. Your inference is based on your habit or custom of associating events that occur in sequence, and not on any rational principle.

More on Hume's Views of Causation & Induction

Hume’s Empiricism denies that we can observe or prove any necessary connection between cause and effect. He argues that all we can observe are events that follow each other in time, and that our belief in causation is based on habit and custom, not reason. For example, suppose you see a person walking towards a glass of water on a table. You may expect the person to drink the water, knock over the glass, or ignore the glass, based on your past experience of similar situations. But you cannot know the cause of the person’s action, or the effect of the person’s action, with certainty. You can only observe the events in sequence, and associate them based on your habit and custom.

Hume’s Empiricism also challenges the validity of induction, or the process of inferring universal laws from particular observations. He argues that induction is based on habit and custom, not reason, and that it cannot provide certain knowledge or objective truth. For example, suppose you are a scientist who observes that birds sing along when you play a certain song. You may conclude that the song causes the birds to sing, and that this is a universal law of nature. You may also predict that the same thing will happen in other places and times, based on this law. But you cannot prove that the song will always cause the birds to sing, or that there are no exceptions to this law. You can only observe the events in sequence, and generalize them based on your habit and custom.

Comparing David Hume's Empiricism with Descartes' Rationalism

David Hume and René Descartes had different views on the sources and limits of knowledge and beliefs. Descartes was a Rationalist, who believed that reason and intuition could provide certain knowledge, and that some ideas were innate and independent of experience. Hume was an Empiricist, who believed that experience and observation were the only sources of knowledge, and that all ideas were derived from sense experience. Descartes also distinguished between the mind and the body, and claimed that the mind could know things without the senses. Hume, on the other hand, argued that the mind and the body were not fundamentally different, and that all mental phenomena were based on sense experience.

A hypothetical example of the difference between Descartes’ and Hume’s views is the following: Suppose you want to know if God exists. Descartes would argue that you can use reason and intuition to prove the existence of God, and that you have an innate idea of God that does not depend on your experience. Hume would argue that you cannot use reason or intuition to prove the existence of God, and that you have no innate idea of God, but only a vague idea based on your experience of the world.

Criticisms & Debates Surrounding Hume's Empiricism

David Hume's Empiricism has been the subject of much debate and criticism, most notably that Empiricism leads to skepticism and the rejection of certain knowledge. Some critics argue that Hume's emphasis on empirical observation and experience leads to a relativism that undermines the possibility of objective truth and certainty. Suppose you and your friend witness a car accident. You may have different accounts of what happened, based on your different angles of observation, your attention, your memory, and your interpretation. According to Hume’s Empiricism, neither of you can claim to have the true or certain knowledge of what happened, and your accounts are only relative to your experience and perspective.

Another criticism of Hume's Empiricism is that it fails to provide a satisfactory account of the nature of causation. Critics argue that Hume's rejection of necessary connections between cause and effect undermines our ability to make sense of the world and to engage in effective scientific inquiry. Suppose you see a match being struck and producing a flame. You may infer that the match caused the flame, and that this will always happen. However, according to Hume’s Empiricism, you cannot observe or prove any necessary connection between the match and the flame, and your inference is based on your habit and custom of associating events that occur in sequence. You cannot rule out the possibility that the match will not produce a flame in the future, or that some other factor may intervene and prevent the flame from occurring.

The influence of David Hume's Empiricism on modern philosophy

David Hume's Empiricism profoundly impacted modern philosophy, particularly in the areas of epistemology and metaphysics. Hume’s critique of causation and his emphasis on experience challenged the traditional views of knowledge and reality, and inspired the development of scientific methodology and the philosophy of science.

Hume's Empiricism also impacted ethical theory, most notably in the development of Utilitarianism. Hume argued moral judgments are ultimately based on sentiment, or emotional responses to actions and situations, rather than reason. This idea was developed further by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, who developed the theory of Utilitarianism, which holds that the rightness or wrongness of an action should be judged based on its ability to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

The Impact of David Hume's Empiricism on other Disciplines

David Hume's Empiricism impacted on a wide range of disciplines. His emphasis on empirical observation and experience has been influential in the development of the scientific study of human behavior, particularly in the areas of perception, memory, and learning. Hume's critique of causation has also influenced the development of behavioral economics, which emphasizes the importance of understanding the social and psychological factors that influence economic decision-making. Ultimately, David Hume's legacy empiricism and skepticism shaped various aspects of modern philosophy, such as scientific methodology, the philosophy of science, ethics, and the problem of induction. His ideas have also challenged the foundations of epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics, and inspired the emergence of postmodernism. Hume’s legacy remains relevant and influential in contemporary philosophical discourse.

Just Weighing Separator

By Allan RamsayPublic Domain

Hume, D., A Treatise of Human Nature, L.A. Selby-Bigge (ed.), Oxford University Press, London, UK, 1975.