David Hume’s Empiricism
Oakton Community College
Every philosopher begins with the premises from which he bases his entire philosophical theory. Descartes rejects all the premises and holds innate into question. He withholds all the assumptions and only believes in things that can be proven. His goal in subjecting everything to methodical doubt is you don’t know it is true until you have the proof. Descartes begins by doubting his own existence and starts with the premise, “I think I am therefore I am”. He is not sure whether he exists or not but the fact that he is thinking is the proof that his mind exists. Descartes is Mind-Body dualist and although mind cannot exist without a body, he believes mind and body are separate from each other. He proved that mind exists but that doesn’t prove that the body exists. He undertakes pyramidical approach and base of all his premise is that his mind exists and from there follows series of all other premises. He then proves that he has innate ideas from which he proves God exists which leads to the proof that his body exists. Descartes proves he exists by the virtue of thinking therefore he has the concept idea of “self”.
David Hume has different approach compared to Descartes who begins by proving his mind exists. David Hume doesn’t doubt existence of mind but he is interested in how does the mind really works. He starts from question where do ideas come from. He begins by distinguishing two kinds of perceptions of the mind: impressions and ideas. The most fundamental perception according to Hume is impressions. Impressions consist of direct sense experiences of things outside us or inside us i.e. sensations or passions and emotions. It is anything that we get from the real world. These impressions leave a mark upon the mind and thus according to Hume, mind consists of large number of such impressions. He uses analogy mind is like a wax sheet where coin is smacked on to it leaves an impression of coin. According to Hume, impressions are original, lively and active. Ideas according to Hume are nothing but copies of impressions. He says, “Everyone will readily allow that there is a considerable difference between the perceptions of the mind when a man feels the pain of excessive heat or the pleasure of moderate warmth, and when he afterwards recalls to his memory this sensation or anticipates it by his imagination.”(165). Thus according to Hume, ideas are secondary, they are dull and inactive / passive. The reason Hume says ideas are passive is because they are dependent on previous impressions. Impressions and ideas are different by the sense of their greater “force and vivacity”. According to Hume no matter how hard we try to impersonate perceptions of the senses they can never reach the exuberance of the original experience. Thus, unless the mind is disordered due to some disease or some madness, the liveliest thought is still inferior to the dullest sensation, “All the colors of poetry, however splendid, can never paint natural objects in such a manner as to make the description be taken for a real landscape” (165). Even when a person is going to similar situation as we have in past, we can imagine or think of the emotions, sentiments, and affections, but it won’t be as bright as when we originally experienced it. For example when we talk about riding roller coaster at six flags we can only imagine having fun, excitement and thrill about the ride, it will not be as lively as it was when we actually had the roller coaster ride. According to Hume, it is impossible to think of anything that you have not experienced or somebody else might have experienced it and then communicated to you. You cannot think of anything, no thought in your mind if you didn’t have preceding impression of which idea would be a copy of such impression. This is premise of David Hume is different to that from Descartes who says that every human being are born with innate ideas and...
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