Home > Book Review, Philosophy > Notes For Second Assignment: Hume’s Skeptical Questions.

Notes For Second Assignment: Hume’s Skeptical Questions.

I have my second assignment due for ‘Critical Metaphysics’ in just over two weeks, the topic question I’ve chosen being:

In what way does Kant’s transcendental critique answer skeptical problems posed by Hume, e.g. about space & time, cause and effect, and distinct and continued existence?

I perceive my job, to be to delineate the essay into two halves, a brief presentation and analysis of Hume’s skeptical position, and where applicable, Kant’s transcendental response to such. This must begin by identifying what exactly Hume’s position was, and elaborating, however basically, notions integral to his theory of ideas.

The readings assigned to us, are Book I from Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, a chapter from The Study of Human Nature, by Barry Stroud, 1977, and Hume’s Scepticism from The Cambridge Companion to Hume, by Robert J. Fogelin, 1993. Perhaps it might be enough for now to formulate some preemptive notes on Hume, as thus far I have not done of the readings on Kant.

Book I

Obviously any annotation herein will not be exhaustive or entirely accurate, but that is the point of this exercise, to experience mistakes, and to find my path.

In Book I Hume takes us through his ‘Theory of Ideas’, while not specifically stated as such, we have come to understand in our study of Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Locke, that these metaphysicians all contributed to, or had their own novel, theory of knowledge, or theory of ideas, and their most prominent works, all begin with an exploration of such. For Hume, an empiricist, there are two different kinds of perception: impressions and ideas, the former meaning: sense experience, and the latter meaning: the “faint images of these things in thinking and reasoning”. (p. 1) This is a two level approach for Hume, primarily impressions are the world taken in by our senses, and secondarily ideas are those impressions of the world represented in our minds (it’s important to note, that like Locke, Hume takes a representational view of perception and idea formation). Hume further divides impressions and ideas into two subdivisions: complex and simple (p. 2) and these subdivisions provide a more elaborate view of impressions and ideas. To Hume, complex impressions, such as that of Paris, which exists in his mind,  for example, are never exactly copied, or represented as similarly complex ideas (think of our ability to remember every street and house), whereas with simple impressions it is always the case that we form simple ideas that are accurate “without exception” (p.4) . The example Hume provides is that of the colour red:

The idea of red, which we form in the dark , and that impression, which strikes our eyes in sun-shine, differ only in degree, not in nature. (Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, p. 3, 1739)

To further elaborate the issue, Hume breaks down impressions into two kinds: sensation and reflexion. To elaborate on what an impression is he states that it is sensation that “first strikes upon the senses, makes us perceive heat or cold, thirst or hunger, pleasure or pain of some kind or other.” (p.11) From this impression a copy (here we see the notion of representation realised) is taken to the mind, which retains the copy after the sensation abates, which then becomes what we call an idea. Hume states that this is not a one way street, ideas can cause impressions, in that the idea of pain or pleasure causes impressions or reflexions of aversion, hope, or fear, these can become ideas again in that they are copied by the memory or imagination and in turn gives way to other impressions and ideas.

To Hume, impressions are stored in the mind as an idea via the memory and imagination, it is through these that we come to “repeat” them, meaning experience them. Hume notes that the memory is a clearer form of storage for our impressions (representations of impressions as ideas), the imagination is less clear, but more able to vary the impression. Ideas are stored in the memory and imagination in either simple or complex forms: simple ideas associate with each other in the mind via three avenues: resemblance, contiguity, and cause and effect, which occurs in the imagination. Whereas complex ideas, which Hume states are the common subjects of our thoughts and reasoning and arise from some principle of union among our simple ideas are divided into three categories: relations, modes and substances.

Hume moves on to discuss epistemology, to him ideas can be the objects of knowledge by four (of which there are seven, three not being applicable here) philosophical relations: resemblance, contrariety, degrees in quality and proportions in quantity or number. Resemblance is easy enough for Hume to describe, he states that the resemblance of two objects strikes the mind and does not require a “second examination”, similarly it is also the case with contrariety and with degrees of any quality.

From here Hume moves on from his four philosophical relations to the remaining three: identity, the situations in time and place, and causation. The relations are not discussed in reference to his theory if ideas, necessarily (though they may apply). Ultimately for Hume these relations rely upon cause and effect, which is of special significance to us, as this brings us to the assignment topic. As in the case of identity, we suppose an object will continue individually the same, unless affected by an external cause, which might change its resemblance ,which would affect our sense perception of it. To Hume all objects are either a cause or an effect,  though there is no one quality which applies to all objects, forever, and we derive the notion of cause and effect from the relations of objects. Hume notes, firstly, that whichever objects are considered to be causes or effects are contigious, that nothing can operate in a time and place that is removed from its existence, although it might appear that distant objects may be productive of each other, upon inspection we will find a chain of causes, contiguous among themselves and distant to the objects. Hume considers contiguity essential to causation.  A second feature Hume finds essential to cause and effect is that of priority of time in the cause before the effect. Hume talks of objectors who state that this is not a necessary truth, that any object may, in its first moment of existence, exert its “productive quality” (p. 76) and produce another object or action perfectly co-temporary with itself. To Hume, not only does experience contradict this assertion, but we can buttress Hume’s claim to temporal priority by reason (which he does, and may be worth using in my assignment, but for our purposes here, is not relevant).

Hume considers his next task to be to discover why there is a necessary connection between cause and effect, he states that it is a general maxim in philosophy that “whatever begins to exist, must have a cause for its existence.” (p. 78) Hume states however that this maxim, which some philosophers would deem to be intuitively true, is anything but, he provides the argument that we can never demonstrate the necessity of a cause for every new existence, or modification of existence, without first showing the impossibility that anything can exist without some “productive principle”. If we cannot prove the latter principle, according to Hume,  “we must despair of ever being able to find the former.” (p.79) To Hume, all distinct ideas are separable from each other, similarly the ideas of cause and effect are also distinct, hence we can conceive of any objects non-existence this moment, and to be existent the next, “without conjoining to it the distinct idea of a cause or productive principle.” (p. 79) Hume considers this to be a demonstration that the imagination can show it is possible for cause and effect to be separate, hence it is possible in reality (as there is no contradiction in the idea). Hume provides two more arguments to show why it is not necessary that there be a relation between cause and effect, (1) if an object didn’t have a cause for its existence, it would be its own cause, which leads to a contradiction (we grant what we explicitly deny: a cause for an object that is self-caused), and (2) whatever s produced without a cause, is produced by nothing, but nothing can never be a cause, hence every object must have a cause for its existence. To Hume all of these arguments fall for the same reason, that when we exclude causes, we really exclude them, so that nothing, nor the object itself can be the cause of its own existence, if everything must have a cause, it follows, according to Hume, “that upon the exclusion of other causes we must accept of the object itself or of nothing as causes.” (p. 79) This begs the questions, the very issue at hand is whether an object has a cause or not.

The point of the above logical demonstration of the absurdity of the necessary cause, for Hume, is: to demonstrate that the necessity of cause to effect, must come from observation and experience, not from a priori reasoning, as he states, the way we discover the necessity of cause and effect is “how experience gives rise to such a principle?” (p. 82), or perhaps more aptly stated ” Why we conclude, that such particular causes must necessarily have such particular effects and why we form an inference from one to another?” (p. 82) Hume states that when we infer effects from causes we must establish the existence of these causes, which can only be done in two ways: (1) “either by immediate perception of our memory or senses”, (2) “or by inference from other causes, which causes we must again ascertain in the same manner, either by a present impression or by an inference from their causes and so on, til we arrive at some object which we can see or remember.” (p. 83) Hume sees it as his task to find some impression that would explain the necessity of cause to effect, how does he do this? He firstly considers in what objects necessity is commonly supposed to lie, he finds that it is always between causes and effects. He then turns his eye to two objects which are supposed to be in that relation, to examine them. What does he find when he does this? That they are contigious, that is, together in sequence, in time and place, and that the object we call cause, precedes the other we call effect, and in no circumstance has he found a third relation between them. This being so he “enlarges” his view to contain like objects and instances that exist in relations of contiguity and succession. Hume explores this notion and comes to the conclusion that the idea of necessity does indeed arise from impression, but it does not derive from sense impression, if you recall earlier we stated that impressions become ideas by two mechanisms: sensation and reflexion? It is upon internal reflexion that we come to understand the necessity of cause to effect, as there is no internal reflexion which has any relation to the exterior world. For example, the necessity of two plus two to equal four is a necessity that exists only in the mind, or the understanding as Hume would say, and is a way for us to explore these ideas. The power of a cause to create an effect lies only in the mind, in that, it lies in the understanding of the mind, the “efficacy, or energy of causes is neither plac’d in the causes themselves, nor in the deity, nor in the occurrence of these two principles” (p. 166) Hume states it:

… we repeat to ourselves, that the simple view of any two objects or actions, however related, can never give us any idea of power, or of a connexion betwixt them: that this idea arises from the repetition of their union: that the repetition neither discovers nor causes anything in the objects, but has an influence only on the mind, by that customary transition it produces: that this customary transition is, therefore, the same with the power and necessity; which are consequently qualities of perceptions, not of objects and internally felt by the soul, and not perceiv’d externally by bodies? (Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, p. 166, 1739)

This concludes the chapter we were given in our reader for Hume, I just listened to the lecture itself, and I think I covered most of the topics, I could have spoken more on his notion of abstract ideas in his theory of ideas though this doesn’t seem to affect the topic question. I’ve touched briefly on Hume’s notion of cause and effect, contiguity, space/time etc, which will need to be unpacked and explored in the assignemnt


Hume D. (1739). A Treatise of Human Nature (This translation first published by Penguin Books). London. The Penguin Group. P. 1, 2, 3, 76, 78, 79, 82, 83, 166.

Categories: Book Review, Philosophy
  1. El
    May 18, 2012 at 10:49 am

    Murdoch University?

  2. El
    May 18, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    yup, googled the essay question and you came up. pretty funny.

    • May 18, 2012 at 2:48 pm

      I’m an external student,if you like add me on Facebook (rob bezant), I’ll link you to the Murdoch philosophy page 🙂

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