Truth suffers from too much analysis

David Hume: Origin of Our Ideas

Posted by allzermalmer on April 20, 2011

David Hume was a Scottish philosopher who lived during the 17th century, and followed the British Empiricism of John Locke and George Berkeley. This group said that all our knowledge of the ‘world’ comes from the senses. This is called empiricism. David Hume is said to be the apex of empiricism of his time, even though this could be debated. It is also thought, from the time of Hume on, that empiricism has followed some of his general ideas with some modifications. It is even Hume’s philosophy that is supposed to spurred Immanuel Kant to come up with his Critique of Pure Reason.

David Hume wrote one book when he was in his early to mid 20’s. This book was called A Treatise of Human Nature. This book starts out with Book One, which is called Of Understanding. Book One is broken up into four different parts, and each part has a sub-section on a specific topic. However, all of Hume’s philosophy starts from Book One, Part One, Sub-Section One. This part is called Of Origin of our Ideas. All of David Hume’s philosophy, and therefore his empiricism, follow from this section. So it would be wise to pay close attention to this section of his book. I have given a link to this section of the book.

Hume opens up Part 1 with this statement: “All the perceptions of the human mind resolve themselves into two distinct kinds, which I shall call Impressions and Ideas.

Right away Hume is breaking up our experience, those things present to our awareness, into two types. Impressions are those things of the senses, and Ideas are those things of thought. I find myself to be having something impinging on my awareness that I call a computer screen, and words moving across it. This is all impressions. While I have these impressions, I also find myself having ideas, which is what I am thinking about. I have these ideas, and they show up in my awareness.

But Hume tells us that there is a difference between our impressions and ideas. He goes on to say, “The difference betwixt these consists in the degrees of force and liveliness, with which they strike upon the mind, and make their way into our thought or consciousness.”

So when I am having this impression of the computer screen, I find it to stand out more than my ideas as I am typing. The force upon which it hits my consciousness is stronger than the ideas I am having. Have you ever heard someone say, “Will you shut up?! I can’t hear myself think”? This shows that the impressions, which would be that of a loud sound, have more force than that of our own thoughts, or Hume’s ideas.

We find Hume telling us the explicitly difference between Impressions and Ideas. “Those perceptions, which enter with most force and violence, we may name impressions: and under this name I comprehend all our sensations, passions and emotions, as they make their first appearance in the soul. By ideas I mean the faint images of these in thinking and reasoning; such as, for instance, are all the perceptions excited by the present discourse, excepting only those which arise from the sight and touch, and excepting the immediate pleasure or uneasiness it may occasion .”

He comes to let us know that our ideas can sometimes approach the liveliness and force of impressions, but that they don’t exceed those of impressions. So if I were to have an anxiety attack, I would feel this very strong idea that obsesses my mind, and comes to feel as strongly as that of my impression of a computer screen. While on the other hand we can have some faint impressions, and could find them to be very similar to ideas.

Hume goes on to tell us that those things present to our awareness are broken into two things, and that these two things are themselves broken into two things. These are called simple and complex impressions and ideas. “Simple perceptions or impressions and ideas are such as admit of no distinction nor separation. The complex are the contrary to these, and may be distinguished into parts.”

Now Hume, seems, to have taken a note from George Berkeley here. Take the example of experiencing an apple. This apple is a complex impression, and these complex impression has a copy that we call a complex idea. Now this object can be broken down into different constituting parts. It has a particular color, a particular smell, a particular taste, and different particular qualities. Each of these qualities can be separated from the object as a whole. So we find that the complex impression, and by default complex idea, can be reduced to simple impressions and simple ideas. This is a form of reductionism.

Now Hume goes on to think that each to think that our ideas and impressions correspond. For every impressions, through reflection on it, we have a corresponding idea to match that impression. So I am having an impression of a room right now, which means that I should have a corresponding idea of it that should match it when I reflect on the impression. So I close my eyes and I should have an idea that matches to the impression of the room that I have. Is this accurate? Hume thinks it is amazing, so it makes him wonder if this is correct.

Hume thinks that he has been carried away too far to be lead to such a situation, and so he falls back onto his idea of the distinction between simple and complex impressions/ideas. He uses this distinction to get ride of the general idea that all our ideas and impressions are resembling. I can imagine a city like El Dorado. I cam imagine this city made of nothing but diamonds, and streets full of gold, and buildings having gold and rubies over certain parts of it. I have never had an impression of such a place, but I can form this complex idea of such a place. But I do have a complex impression of a certain, and thus a complex idea of this city. However, when I close my eyes, I cannot make an exact copy of this city in proportion. Thus, for Hume, we find that our idea that ideas have impressions that resemble to them to be the case. Thus, he comes to rely on his simple and complex distinction.

So Hume presents a general rule to follow, which goes without exception, which is this: “every simple idea has a simple impression, which resembles it, and every simple impression a correspondent idea.” So the simple idea of red is derived from the simple impression of red, and the only difference is that of the force of them. The idea is weaker than the impression, but the idea corresponds to the impression, and both are simple.

What we find is that all simple ideas resemble simple impressions, but it does not hold that all complex ideas resemble complex impression, as we can find with my complex idea of El Dorado.  Hume goes on to say that we find this constant conjunction of simple impressions before simple ideas, and thinks this is to hold in infinite cases, and thinks this does not happen by chance. Which is when Hume goes on to say this, “I consider the order of their first appearance; and find by constant experience, that the simple impressions always take the precedence of their correspondent ideas, but never appear in the contrary order.”

Hume goes on to try to give an example of how we cannot have a simple idea without first having a simple impression. He goes on to say that a blind or deaf person cannot have a simple idea of color or sound, because they have not had the chance of having the simple impression to have such a simple idea. This quote sums up such a position, “We cannot form to ourselves a just idea of the taste of a pine apple, without having actually tasted it.”

Hume does give us an example of what he thinks would contradict his thesis. The example is to show that it is not impossible for an idea to proceed an impression, or a simple idea to proceed a simple impression. His example follows like this: “Suppose therefore a person to have enjoyed his sight for thirty years, and to have become perfectly well acquainted with colours of all kinds, excepting one particular shade of blue, for instance, which it never has been his fortune to meet with. Let all the different shades of that colour, except that single one, be placed before him, descending gradually from the deepest to the lightest; it is plain, that he will perceive a blank, where that shade is wanting, said will be sensible, that there is a greater distance in that place betwixt the contiguous colours, than in any other. Now I ask, whether it is possible for him, from his own imagination, to supply this deficiency, and raise up to himself the idea of that particular shade, though it had never been conveyed to him by his senses?”

So we find that there are instances in which, it is possible, for Hume’s ideas to not hold in all cases in which we come to knowledge. This shows, or he at least admits, that this can happen.

Another idea that he presents, is to show how that ideas can produce images of themselves in new ideas. However, this new idea still has an idea that comes from an impression. So I can image a new idea, but this new idea was have part of the old idea contained within it. It would appear to be forming a complex idea that itself has a simple idea that started from a simple impression.

So when we are done following the general ideas that Hume presents for his empiricism, we find what Hume thinks we can come to know of the ‘world’. Those things that do not follow these ideas, Hume thinks we cannot know. He rejects these things as not being empirically justified, and that we are claiming things that are not justified as knowledge.

We find that Hume brings up two major thesis:

(1.) Copy Thesis: Simple Ideas are copies of simple impressions
(2.) Liveliness Thesis: Impressions are more lively than ideas

From some of these ideas of Hume, his whole philosophy is derived, which includes his skepticism. There is something that is interesting that follows from all of this, and one of them is what we can call idealism things are dependent on a mind.


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