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Hand-outs for Hume lecture of 2/14/00

Two Disasters of Empiricism and the Attack on Materialism

David Hume 1711-1776

“When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”
1. Hume’s Doctrinal Empiricism and Skepticism about Induction

-See the outline of the argument (other sheet)

-Hume’s own conclusion (32.8, 41.7)

-“none but a fool or a madman” (36.2); Hume “quite satisfied…as an agent” (38.6); “Nature will always maintain her rights” (41.7); “pre-established harmony” (54.8)

-Two propositions, one “justly inferred” from the other, but where’s the “medium”? Challenge: “produce that reasoning” (34.3; on the need for a “medium,” cf. 37.1)-“if there be any suspicion”; experience becomes “useless” (37.9-38.0)

-“We need only ask such a sceptic [the “excessive” sceptic] What his meaning is? And what he proposes by all these curious researches? He is immediately at a loss, and knows not what to answer.” (159-160)

2. Hume’s Conceptual Empiricism and the idea of Necessary Connection

-Impressions and Ideas (18)

-The Empiricist Principle (19, 62)

-Two Arguments for the Principle (19-20)

-“One Contradictory Phenomenon” (20-21)

-“Banishing Jargon” (21-22)

-“Power, Force, Energy, or Necessary Connection” (62)

-The Search for the Impression of Power, Part I: The Outward Senses (63-64)

-The Search for the Impression of Power, Part II: Berkeley’s “Pretension” (64-73) (see also section 28 of Berkeley’s Principles)

-Hume’s “Two” Definitions of Cause (76-77)

-Def. 1a (Constant Conjunction): “an object, followed by another, and where all objects similar to the first are followed by objects similar to the second”

-Def. 1b (Subjunctive Conditional): “an object, followed by another…where, if the first object had not been, the second had never existed”

-Def. 2 (Subjective): “an object, followed by another, and whose appearance always conveys the thought to that other”

-Hume’s admission: “Yet so imperfect are the ideas which we form concerning it, that it is impossible to give any just definition of cause, except what is drawn from something extraneous and foreign to it.”

3. Hume on Materialism (with some comparisons to Berkeley)

-Hume on common/vulgar/naive/unreflective/natural materialism

-a. Hume agrees with Berkeley about the content of the common belief: we take our sensations to be the physical objects, and we believe the objects to be mind-independent.

-b. He agrees with Berkeley that this belief, given the content specified in (a), cannot stand up to reflection; it is “destroyed by the slightest philosophy” (152)

-c. Hume does not offer Berkeley’s account of why we come to hold this belief (see section 56 of the Principles for Berkeley’s account), but instead claims that the belief is the result of a “natural instinct”.

-These aspects of Hume’s treatment of common materialism come out in several places in Part XII of the Enquiry, but, to just list one, features (a) and (c) are both shown in the following, rather compact passage:

It seems evident, that men are carried, by a natural instinct or pre-possession, to repose faith in their senses; and that, without any reasoning, or even almost before the use of reason, we always suppose an external universe, which depends not on our perception, but would exist, though we and every sensible creature were absent or annihilated….It seems also evident, that, when men follow this blind and powerful instinct of nature, they always suppose the very images, presented by the senses, to be the external objects, and never entertain any suspicion, that the one are nothing but representations of the other. (151)

-Hume on reflective/philosophical materialism.

-a. Hume seems to agree with Berkeley that this philosophical belief (that the real bodies are mind-independent resembling causes of our mind-dependent sensations), would need to be backed by some argument — we need some good reason to believe in the material objects posited by this theory.

-b. He agrees with Berkeley that there is no good reason for belief in these philosopher’s objects, though his argument(s) for this conclusion is significantly different from Berkeley’s (compare the argument on 153 with sections 18-20 of Berkeley’s Principles).

-[Note: Hume hints that the natural belief in matter may not stand in need of argument, or at least that a lack of justifying argument is less of a problem for natural materialism than it is for philosophical materialism. Like Berkeley, Hume’s “evidentialist” argument is aimed at philosophical materialism. His complaint against natural materialism is not that there’s no evidence for it, but rather that it’s evident to the slightest reflection that sensations can’t exist mind-independently.]

-c. In Hume, unlike Berkeley, the philosopher’s system is seen as inevitable outcome of reflection on the problems inherent in the common view — we are “necessitated by reasoning…to embrace [this] new system” (152). So this new system is, in its own way, natural; it’s the natural outcome of reflection. Hume writes, “These are the obvious dictates of reason; and no man, who reflects, ever doubted, that the existences, which we consider, when we say this house and that tree, are nothing but perceptions in the mind, and fleeting copies or representations of other existences, which remain uniform and independent.” In Berkeley, by contrast, one gets the feeling that the philosopher’s system is just an arbitrary attempt to escape the problems — an attempt that some philosophers just happened to come up with. In Hume, however, this system — perhaps more accurately called “reflective” than “philosophical” — is a natural and inevitable result of reflecting on the problems of the unreflective, instinctual belief.

-d. Still, Hume agrees with Berkeley that, in the final analysis, this reflective materialism won’t stand up to scrutiny.

-Hume’s solution? Berkeley has a solution to the problem: Ditch the philosopher’s objects, keep the common man’s objects — like the common man, take the sensations to be the bodies –, but just give up the mind-independence of bodies. For Hume, there is no solution. Nature is too strong for us to give up mind-independence. We could only pretend to be Berkeleyans. The common belief in matter will force itself back on us whenever we “leave the study”. In the study, when we reflect, we naturally tend toward a different materialism, but one which we can’t hold on to for long, and which ultimately doesn’t stand up to scrutiny anyway. There’s no good solution. This seems to be another display of the “whimsical condition of mankind” (160). As Hume writes, summing up our whimsical predicament:

This is a topic, therefore, in which the profounder and more philosophical sceptics will always triumph, when they endeavor to introduce universal doubt into all subjects of human knowledge and inquiry. Do you follow the instincts and propensities of nature, may they say, in assenting to the veracity of sense? But these lead you to believe that the very perception or sensible image is the external object. Do you disclaim this principle, in order to embrace a more rational opinion, that the perceptions are only representations of something external? You here depart from your natural propensities and more obvious sentiments; and yet are not able to satisfy your reason, which can never find any convincing argument from experience to prove, that the perceptions are connected with any external objects. (153-154)

The Kingdoms of Experience
In the precious winds, they rot


Hume’s Sceptical Argument of Enquiry, Sect. IV

Scope: All matters of fact that go “beyond the present testimony of our senses, or the records of our memory” (p. 26.3) — we will call these “S-propositions”

Force: ??? But we’ll start with knowledge. (For Hume’s own conclusion, see p. 32.8 and p. 41.7.)

P: When I release this eraser, it will fall.

U: Uniformity of Nature: “The future will resemble the past” (p. 37.9): The laws and regularities of Nature, for the most part, will continue to hold in the future. Better for Hume’s purposes would be: Phenomena I haven’t observed follow (or followed or will follow) the same laws and regularities that have governed what I have observed.

The Argument:

1. If a proposition is a matter of fact, then one can know it only if one has come to know it through experience.

2. P is an S-proposition.

So, 3. I can know that P only if I have come to know it through experience. (from 1,2)

4. One can come to know an S-proposition through experience only if one already knows that U.

So, 5. I can come to know that P through experience only if I already know that U. (from 4,2)

6. U is an S-proposition.

So, 7. One can know that U only if one has come to know it through experience. (from 1,6)

So, 8. One can come to know that U through experience only if one already knows that U. (from 4,6)

9. If one can come to know that U through experience only if one already knows that U, then one cannot come to know that U through experience.

So, 10. One cannot come to know that U through experience. (from 8,9)

So, 11. One cannot know that U. (from 7,10)

So, 12. I cannot come to know that P through experience. (from 5,11)

So, 13. I cannot know that P. (from 3,12)


*Drawn by Jesse Prinz.  Idea by Keith DeRose.  Impression from which idea was derived: Hume’s Enquiry concerning
Human Understanding, sect. VII.

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