The Problem of Knowledge in Hume's Philosophy

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Adnan ESENYEL[1]

The Problem of Knowledge in Hume’s Philosophy and

Kant’s Attempt to Solve it


The philosophical motion from Hume to Kant is a cornerstone in the history of philosophy. This is the motion which I will try to evaluate here. The problem of knowledge which was formulated by Hume shows us how the cartesian tradition since Descartes’ cogito finds itself in a blind alley. This is why Kant’s attempt to solve that problem is very vital for epistemolgy. First of all we will see how Hume’s empiricism ends with universal scepticism and I will try to show why he can not avoid that end. Then we will pass on Kant’s response to Hume’s scepticism. I will discuss whether his response is right and legitimate. In conclusion we will see that despite the strength which Kant’s response possess, it contains also some unsolved problems which open door for scepticism.

Key Terms

Hume, Kant, Scepticism, Matters of Fact, Causality, Synthetic a priori.

Epistemology or the theory of knowledge is one of the main issues of modern philosophy. Many reasons can be submitted for that fact, but it seems that the main reason is the idea that makes the subject the constituent of all our values, and philosophy as one of the values of mankind makes no exception. Since Descartes – from whom we start modern philosophy – philosophy is based generally on human existence. Almost all philosophers tried to derive everything from the subject, they tried to understand the world based on human existence, and by trying to understand the world based on subject they asked unavoidably the question :”How we know the world ?”. That manner I think is the foundation of modern epistemology and philosophy. Since Descartes’ cogito this is the question which guides mostly philosophy. And this is the question which motivates David Hume and Immanuel Kant. Although they start from the same question, very typical for philosophy they differ in the answer which they give for that question. When Hume came to the philosophical scene in the early and middle eighteenth century with his sceptical approach I think that modern epistemology which was discussed over two centuries since Descartes almost come to an end in the hands of Hume’s scepticism. This shows the strength of his philosophical conclusion about epistemology. It seems like something ended with Hume. Hume was a pure empiricist but unlike his predecessors – Locke and Berkeley – he accepted and derivered without exception all consequences of his empirical philosophy. This is the point which makes Hume unique in the history of philosophy. His consistency was so strong that in the end even when he was not happy with his conclusion about knowledge, he remained his philosophical position. In his book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Hume starts his investigation with the nature of our ideas and thoughts. He simply asks:’ what is the source of my ideas or thoughts?”. The only answer he can give to that question is experience. Then he makes distinction between two perceptions which come with experience: Impressions and ideas. Impressions are perceptions of our senses and ideas are pale copies of these impressions. He argues that to have a thought or idea about something we must have it’s impression which comes from experience. So each thought we have, must correspond to an impression. (Hume, 1976: 14) Thus our knowledge is strictly limited with impressions. If our reasoning doesn’t involve thoughts which come from impressions then our reasoning has not a legitimate ground. This point eliminates almost the entire metaphysics which was made until Hume because that metaphysics was made with concepts like “substance”, “essence”, “god”, “platonic ideas”, etc. It is clear to Hume that such concepts have not impressions and therefore it is pure nonsense to talk about them like they exist. Hume uses this approach to eliminate metaphysics from philosophy but we can see this...
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