David Hume’s Epistemology (Epistemology, Philosophy of Knowledge)June 26, 2021
Hume carried British empiricism to the extreme, and succeeded in completely excluding some metaphysical concepts, which he saw in Locke and Berkeley and believed to be moribund, from the system.
Initially, he believed in a scientific study of human nature. The developments in the natural sciences had led him to an optimistic attitude in this regard. The nature of the scientific method seemed to him sufficient to solve all the problems of the universe: it would be possible to illuminate the workings of the human mind with such a method.
However, Hume discovered that there was no way to justify the idea of using the scientific method to describe the mechanism of human thought. So he abandoned his reliance on reason and relied on the method of common sense. Like Locke and Berkeley, he thought it appropriate for an empiricist to start from the problem of the origin of ideas.
He says about this:
“In order to solve the elusive and ambiguous philosophical problems, it is necessary to make a serious study of the nature of human understanding. This research should take the form of an analysis of the powers and capacities of the mind.”
Thus, starting with an account of the contents of the mind, Hume could not avoid his own skeptical conclusions, together with a careful analysis of other related concepts.
Contents of the Mind: According to Locke and Berkeley, all our mind content is given to us through our senses and experiences. All that exists in our minds, as he puts it, are perceptions in general terms; These perceptions in the mind exist in two forms; these are impressions and ideas. It should be emphasized that Hume understood mental contents such as thought, concept and image when he said ide. According to him, these impressions and ideas constitute the content of the mind. The original raw material of thought is an impression, and an idea is a mere copy of an impression. The distinction between an impression and an idea is only a distinction in the degree of their vitality.
Authentic perception is the impression we get or experience while hearing, seeing, feeling, loving, hating, desiring. These impressions are vivid and clear as we have them; when we reflect on these impressions we have ideas of them, and these ideas are less vivid versions of original impressions. Feeling pain is an impression; remembering this pain is an idea. In every particular case, the correspondence of the impressions as ideas is similar to each other, but the difference is that while the impressions are alive, the ideas are the dimmed and dulled forms of the impressions. Beyond this difference between them, Hume argues that the existence of ideas depends on impressions. After all, an idea is a simple copy of an impression. That is, a first impression must be found for every idea. However, not every idea may have an impression.
For example, we have not seen any flying horses or mermaids, but these ideas are in our minds: Hume explains that this happens as a product of the mind’s acts of displacing, subtracting, combining, material given by the senses and experience. In this way we form our unified or complex ideas.
According to Hume, all perceptions in the mind exist in two forms: impressions and ideas. What Hume meant by ideas; mind contents such as thought, concept, image.
The mind transforms the material given by the senses and experience into unified or complex ideas by acts such as displacement, reduction, combination.
When we think of a golden mountain, our imagination goes to combine the ideas of gold and mountain with each other. We have already received the original impressions of these ideas through the senses. Yet there is no distinctive impression of a unified idea like the golden mountain. If all ideas originally had an impression, then there would be no such thing as falsehood or nonsense. But as can be seen from the example, many ideas in the mind do not have an impression.
If we doubt that we are applying any philosophical term as devoid of meaning or idea, we must ask and investigate from what impression the said idea was derived. If it becomes impossible to make sense of it, our suspicion will continue to be reinforced. Hume says that when even the idea of God is tested in this way, we go to form an idea of God in our minds by “infinitely magnifying” the goodness and virtue we experience among people. Therefore, the idea of God is also a complex idea and the question of whether it has a unique impression still awaits an answer. If ideas generally follow impressions, how can we explain what we call thinking, or the practices that group ideas themselves?
Prepared by: Sociologist Ömer YILDIRIM
Source: Omer YILDIRIM’s Personal Lecture Notes. Atatürk University Sociology Department 1st Year “Introduction to Philosophy” and 2nd, 3rd, 4th Grade “History of Philosophy” Lecture Notes (Ömer YILDIRIM); Open Education Philosophy Textbook