Home > Philosophy > Second Assignment: ‘In what ways does Kant’s transcendental critique answer sceptical problems posed by Hume, e.g. about space & time, cause and effect, and distinct and continued existence?’

Second Assignment: ‘In what ways does Kant’s transcendental critique answer sceptical problems posed by Hume, e.g. about space & time, cause and effect, and distinct and continued existence?’

David Hume was an 18th century empiricist philosopher who contributed important works to the philosophy of religion, causation, moral theory and more. Likewise, Immanuel Kant was also an important 18th century philosopher who contributed major works in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics. In the first half of this paper we will attempt to outline and briefly discuss Hume’s epistemological scepticism, and sceptical position, beginning with (1) his “Theory of Ideas” which will give us context to discuss as well as giving us his views on space/time, then (2) his argument on “Cause and Effect”. In the second half we will be reviewing, outlining and discussing Kant’s response to Hume’s sceptical challenge by looking at (3) his arguments on cause and effect, then (4) his “Transcendental Aesthetic” which discusses his response to Hume in regards to space and time. It is in (3) and (4) that we will flesh out examples and counter examples, where we will have our discussion, on these issues, as it makes no sense to do so before the initial concepts are presented.

(1)    Hume’s Theory of Ideas.

In Book I of his Treatise of Human Nature, 1739, and Section II and III of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume takes us through his ‘theory of Ideas’, to begin with we need to look at how Hume inspected mental content as this will become integral to any discussion of Hume’s notions of causality. As an empiricist, Hume deems there to be two different kinds of perception: (sense) impressions and ideas, the former meaning: “our more lively perceptions, when we hear, or see, or feel, or love, or hate, or desire, or will.” (Hume, 2007, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, p. 12) The latter meaning: the “faint images of these things in thinking and reasoning”. (Hume, 1985, A Treatise of Human Nature, p. 1) It is important to note the primacy of sense experience over a priori reason in this distinction; for Hume (contra to the rationalists), that faculty was to be reserved for mathematics and logic only, it is in perception and imagination that we would find the sole source of knowledge of the world. This is a two level approach for Hume that is mitigated only by experiences “force and vivacity” (meaning, for example: direct perceptions are clearer than memories). Primarily, impressions are the world taken in by our senses, and have greater “force and vivacity”, than his secondary notion of ideas which are those impressions of the world represented in our minds. Hume further divides impressions and ideas into two subdivisions: complex and simple. These subdivisions provide a more elaborate view of impressions and ideas. To Hume, complex impressions, such as that of Paris, which exists, for example, in his mind, are never exactly copied, or rather represented as similarly complex ideas (think of our ability to remember every street and house), and are made up of simple impressions. Whereas with simple impressions, it is always the case that we form them accurately “without exception”, 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, 1985, A Treatise of Human Nature, p. 3)

To further elaborate the issue for us, Hume breaks down impressions into two kinds: sensation and reflexion. He states sensation is that which “first strikes upon the senses, makes us perceive heat or cold, thirst or hunger, pleasure or pain of some kind or other.” (Hume, 1985, A Treatise of Human Nature, p. 11) From this sense impression a copy is taken to the mind, which retains the copy after the sensation abates, which then becomes what we call an idea, it is important to note, that to Hume, ideas never have the “force and vivacity” of their sense perceptions that exist in reality, they are merely copies (Fieser, 2011 states this is commonly called Hume’s “copy thesis”). Hume states that this is not a one way street however, reflective 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 give way to other impressions and ideas. Think of habit formation, for example when we experience pain by touching a hot oven, this forms in us a reflective impression, or habit: “aversion toward touching hot ovens”. We could, simply, consider reflexions to be; ideas about 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 occur 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.

To Hume ideas can be the objects of knowledge by seven philosophical relations: resemblance, contrariety, degrees in quality, proportions in quantity or number, identity, the situations in time and place, and causation.  This is a process come to by Hume, by what we might call levels of abstraction. As we abstract through reflective ideas, we end up with seven principle modes of reflective abstract ideas, ideas that have been stripped of their individual attributes, and capture the essence of essential characteristics and can be applied to more than one object, these are generalities that apply to, and are of interest to philosophy. To demonstrate an example of this would be to think of a car lot, with its variety of cars, to see several cars of the same brand, make and model, if we compared our ideas of the cars we would see that they are identical, in that we have ideas that are identical to each other. Again, continuing our example, if we see several cars of the same brand make and model but of different colours, when we form ideas of these cars, we form the idea of contrariety, and so on through the other philosophical relations.

It is under the banner of Hume’s theory of ideas that we may discuss his notions of space and time, as he considers them such. To Hume the limited idea we form of space is initially perceived by the senses (specifically the visual and tactile), these impressions are interpreted and structured by the imagination as an idea of what we understand spatial relation to be. We may note this process is similar to how Hume describes all idea formation.  It is also important to note that to Hume this quality is considered, as Fieser 2011 notes a la John Locke as a “secondary quality”, it is spectator dependant as in it relies on our perceptual physiology (mental processes). This, of course means that our ideas of spatial interpretations are not a “primary quality” that exist independently of our minds and those processes. Hume similarly defines time in much the same way as space, in that it is a “secondary quality” grounded in mental processes, not a “primary quality”, as Fieser 2011 states “a feature in the external world” (Fieser, 2011, David Hume (1711-1776). The idea of time, is not a simple impression to Hume, rather it is a more complex reflexive idea.

From this point, our discussion can begin to merge Hume’s ‘theory of ideas’, with his arguments on causation.

(2)    “Cause and Effect”.

Ultimately for Hume the aforementioned philosophical relations rely upon cause and effect, which is of special significance to us. 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. This notion is contra to the rationalists who proposed cause and/or effect as a property contained within substances. Hume notes, firstly, that whichever objects are considered to be causes or effects are contiguous, 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” and produce another object or action perfectly co-temporary with itself. To Hume, experience contradicts this assertion.

To Hume, the demonstration of 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?” (Hume, 1985, A Treatise of Human Nature, 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?” (Hume, 1985, A Treatise of Human Nature, 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”, (Hume, 1985, A Treatise of Human Nature, p. 83)  (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.” (Hume, 1985, A Treatise of Human Nature, 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 contiguous, 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” (Hume, 1985, A Treatise of Human Nature, 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,1985, A Treatise of Human Nature, p. 166)

Now that we have looked at Hume, his theory of ideas, and his arguments for cause and effect, we can now begin to look at Kant’s Transcendental Critique, from his book Critique of Pure Reason.

To Kant, all cognition begins in experience; here we see he might agree with Hume. Kant departs from Hume however, when he states that although cognition begins in experience, he does not think cognition arises from experience. To Kant, experience rouses our cognitive power to operation, objects bring about presentations and inspire our understandings activity to compare, connect or separate these presentations. This does not exclude, however the possibility that our experiential cognition is a composite of what we receive through impressions, empirically, or a posteriori, and what our cognitive power supplies from itself, a priori. Part of Kant’s thesis is to determine if our cognition does indeed supply basic material from itself, and how we might separate that from the basic material given to us by the senses.

At this point let us allow Kant to define a priori conditions for us: “not those that occur independently of this or that experience, but those that occur absolutely independently of all experience.” (Kant, 1999, Critique of Pure Reason, p. 15) Kant elaborates that he will call a priori cognitions pure if nothing empirical whatsoever is mixed with them. Moreover there are two other senses, that we should briefly note, in which Kant uses the term: a priori claims are necessary in the above definition and also universal (this will be important when we discuss synthetic a priori judgements).

(3)    Kant on cause and effect.

Before we can discuss what I call Kant’s “Transcendental Theory of Ideas” in relation to space and time we need to examine the distinction between analytic/synthetic, a priori/a posteriori judgements. To Kant, analytic judgements are those in which the predicates connection to the subject is made in thought by identity, the classic example would be: “all unmarried men are bachelors.” The predicate in this judgement, does not add anything to the concept of the subject, rather as Kant says it only dissects the concept, breaking it up into component concepts which had already been presented in the statement. Simply put, by way of the concept of the “unmarried man” we know that this is true of bachelors, we do not need to consult experience in order to discover the truth of this claim, which makes this assertion analytic and a priori. Synthetic judgments on the other hand do add to the concept of the subject a predicate that had not been thought of at all, and could not have been discovered by it, through dissection. An example would be: “Fe in H2O creates rust.” to discover the truth of this statement we would need to consult experience, as the subjects “Fe” and “H2O” do not contain within them the resultant effect, rust, this would be an example of a synthetic, a posteriori judgment. There are two more senses that we can apply our four concepts: analytic, synthetic, a prior and a posteriori; we have seen examples of the two most obvious, analytic a priori judgements, and synthetic a posteriori judgements, but what about analytic a posteriori and synthetic a priori judgments? Kant states that an analytic a posterior judgement is absurd, because we can formulate the judgement without having to go outside the concept, and hence do not require any “testimony of experience”. What of synthetic a priori judgments? This is where Kant wants to spend his time; this is the most philosophically fertile ground. What is a synthetic a prior judgement? Kant states that if he is to go beyond concept A “in order to cognize another concept B as combined with it, I rely on something that makes synthesis possible: what is that something, considering that I here do not have the advantage of looking around for it in the realm of experience?” (Kant, 1999, Critique of Pure Reason, p. 17) Kant asks we consider an example of a synthetic a priori judgement: “everything that happens – has its cause”. This is a relevant example due to our discussion on Hume, and his notions of causality, to Kant the concept of “something that happens” does cause one to think of an existence preceded by time, and hence this is a priori. The synthetic portion comes when we look at the concept of “cause”, this lies outside the earlier concept, when we consider it as belonging to “something that happens” necessarily (which coupled with universality is contained in Kant’s definition of a priori, as we saw above), it is the understanding which connects, or synthesizes the notion of cause to “something that happens”, hence making it a synthetic a priori judgement.

Kant saw cause as necessary and universally applicable to effect in the sense that he uses a priori, contra Hume, moreover to Kant the concept of cause would be completely lost if one pretended to derive it, as Hume did, from a frequent, empirical association of that which happens with that which precedes, thereby resulting in a merely subjective, custom of connecting representations. To Kant the subjectivity of Hume’s analysis of cause and effect is without basis when trying to establish an objective rule.

(4)    Kant’s Transcendental Aesthetic, a response to Hume in regards to space/time.

From here, now that we have very simply outlined Kant’s thesis, and definitions, we can begin to look at his transcendental critique of metaphysics, how Kant established his “Transcendental Aesthetic”. Kant calls his philosophy transcendental because he is not so much focused on objects but rather with our way of cognizing them, insofar as that way of cognizing is possible a priori (as we see above), he is looking for a system of concepts that he could label transcendental philosophy. As such he sees cognition to be broken down into two “stems” sensibility and understanding. By sensibility Kant means by which objects are given to us (through the senses); it’s through the understanding that objects are thought which give rise to understandings expression in concepts. It is only upon the first stem of “sensibility” will Kant’s discussion be relevant here, this is where he mentions his fundamental notions of cognition – space/time.


In Kant’s “Transcendental Aesthetic” he deals with what he calls the two pure forms of intuition, space and time. Before we can discuss them however, we need to elaborate on what Kant means by “intuition”: he means by it the direct and immediate apprehension of something in ones vicinity. By this he means the sense experience of an object; the red of a ball, the smash of broken glass, the smell of cooked steak etc. To Kant, his “Transcendental Aesthetic” is about establishing the a priori foundation for space and time that is they are logically prior to experience, they are innate a priori preconditions necessary to make experience of the world possible.

Kant states that space is not, contra Hume, an empirical concept abstracted from outer experiences. It must already be in our mind as a presentation (idea), so that we may have any perception of objects.  As McCormick, 2005 states Kant argues that we are unable to experience objects if we cannot represent them spatially. It is impossible to grasp an object as an object unless we delineate the region of space it occupies. Without a spatial representation, our sensations are undifferentiated and we cannot ascribe properties to particular objects (McCormick, 2005), to Kant space is a form of sensibility: “it must be considered the condition for the possibility of experiences and not as a determination dependent on them.” (Kant, 1999, Critique of Pure Reason, p. 28) As we have seen above this is a very different notion to Hume, who argued from the opposite position. To Hume, we interpret space empirically, or a posteriori, through our sense impressions, which are then taken to the imagination and formed as ideas, not a priori and independently of experience. The difference in Hume and Kant’s philosophy, as Kant might say, is that Hume’s philosophy presupposes those which it seeks to demonstrate, and is hopelessly circular. Kant sees his purpose in his “Transcendental Aesthetic” is to explain our base assumption regarding subject/object interdependence, how we come to know reality. Hume’s position, according to Kant fails to address the problem of understanding; he would say it is merely assertion, or “dogmatic”. Going further we see that according to Kant, Hume would not be able to address the issue of self, of the “I”, to Hume all experience has no transcendent grounding (i.e. synthetic a priori), hence no uniformity from which to rely. Kant’s criticism of Hume would be that under his view, continued existence would be a series of disconnected mess of sense experience. It is only under Kant’s transcendental philosophy, including that of concepts, an apriori grounding for space/time, and the self that there is a grounding to unify both sense and reason.

Time, is similarly addressed by Kant, he states it to be an empirical concept, that has been abstracted from any experience (like space), it is a necessary presentation that underlies all intuitions.  Succession, which is necessary for time, would not appear to us, if the idea of time did not underlie it, a priori, says Kant, it is only by presupposition of this presentation (idea) that we can think to order this and that as being simultaneous or sequential. Kant defends again, why time, like space cannot come from experience, he argues if it were it would not be apodictic or universal, we could say only that common experience teaches is that this aforementioned order is so (a la Hume). Under Hume’s view we could not come to know apodictic principles about relations of time, or of the possibility of axioms regarding time in general (such as time only having one dimension, different times are not simultaneous but sequential etc).


Hume’s theory of ideas is an interesting look at theory of mind; to Hume there are two types of experience, the route from which all knowledge is discovered: impressions and ideas.  The world is taken in, via the senses as impressions then stored in the mind as ideas, which can either be simple or complex. Complex ideas are interesting because they show us how abstract philosophical thought is possible under empiricism, to Hume, complex ideas can be considered reflexive in that they can reflect back in the mind and become habits. This is integral to Hume’s notion of cause and effect, as this is how we perceive it; it is a habitual reflexive idea, based of sense experience. It is important to note that to Hume we can only make probabilistic references to the notion of cause and effect and other related notions like continued existence, as experience is not discovered a priori.

Kant on the other hand disagrees with Hume, he states that under Hume’s view we would have no idea of a continued or complete existence; moreover that Hume has begged the question. He has taken for granted that there is a world to impact the senses, but has not explained that world sufficiently to justify its impact on our senses. This is what Kant’s “Transcendental Aesthetic” attempts to solve, by basing our perception of space/time in the realm of reason (a priori), rather than strict empiricism (a posteriori) our perception of continued existence becomes complete, and demonstrated. It becomes objective, transcendent, necessary, universal and based on pure intuitions and concepts that explain how the world of sense experience can lead to higher concepts such as an explanation for cause and effect.


De Perris, G, Friedman, M. (2008). “Kant and Hume on Causality”. The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-hume-causality/#IndNecConLawNat

Fieser, J. (2011). David Hume (1711-1776). The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://www.iep.utm.edu/hume/#SH3a

Hume, D. (1985). A Treatise of Human Nature. London, England. The Penguin Group. Pp. 1, 3, 11, 82, 83, 166.

Hume, D. (2007). Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, (Editorial Material, Peter Mullican). Great Claredon st, Oxford. Oxford University Press. P. 12.

Kant, I. (1999). Critique of Pure Reason, trans Werner S. Pluhar.  Indianapolis, IN. Hackett Publishing Company. Pp. 15, 17,  28

McCormick M, (2005). Immanuel Kant: Metaphysics. The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://www.iep.utm.edu/kantmeta/#H4


Categories: Philosophy
  1. Rebecca
    May 27, 2012 at 4:11 am

    The last line in your intro is funny… 😉 There are other interesting ways to present material 😛
    I enjoyed reading your essay – I would have gone off on tangents, you seemed to hold it together well! Had I managed it though, I notice that I would have written even the same points differently. I find it amazing 😉
    Do you have an opinion on who is right? Or, rather (since they may both be wrong) does Kant succeed in his project to rewrite metaphysics after Hume?
    That is probably the main question for me – it doesn’t seem like you’re putting forward an argument – just an explanation. There might not be anything wrong with this though.

    • May 27, 2012 at 2:17 pm

      Thankyou for the kind words Rebecca!

      I didn’t think it was within the scope of me, as a meathead you dabbles in philosophy to say who was right, Kant and Hume are far beyond my ability to judge. I felt it was within the scope of this essay to merely state each of their positions. A literal intperpretation of the topic question suggests I only needed to merely show how Kant answered Hume’s sceptical objections. A more liberal intepretation meant I could have seen it as my job to see who was right, but I simply didn’t have the room to do that, as it is I barely had room to flesh out both positions at 1,300 words over the prescribed minimum. I took this que from my first assignment, and Paul’s notes, he stated that when addressing Descartes argument for the existence of God, that we would not, at our level, be able to successfully, in the space we had, refute him, so we might like to instead see how the argument was convincing to him. I took much the same approach for this assignment, though I could have stated that a bit more firmly I think. We’ll see what marks I get as to whether my plan was a wise one, lol.

      • Rebecca
        May 31, 2012 at 3:18 pm

        You may be a meathead, but I’d rather that than what I am. 😛

        We will NOT go into my opinion of the statement ‘at our level….’

        I think that is a point of frustration for me in since coming to Murdoch. The options for exploration have been exposition only – no scope to do actual philosophy…

        Like I said – your method could very well be right (as in what lecturer wants) – but philosophy is meant to be about critical thinking, and argumentation. If you’re not willing to take a stand…

        Believe the question was ‘In what ways does Kant answer the skeptical arguments of Hume….’ The question firstly, directly implies that Kant did so – do you think he did? If so, how did he do it? Thesis in agreement – Kant successfully countered Hume in regards to… by ….’
        If you think he didn’t… Kant attempted to counter Hume in regards to…. by…. however did not succeed because of ….’

        Dammit. I should have done this question. Hindsight is a wonderful thing 😦

  2. May 31, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    Lol I guess we can both admit to not being perfect. 🙂

    Interesting points, and I agree with them. I’m not actually sure Paul was looking for simple analysis, as opposed to engagement. I have my fingers and toes crossed. I’m not as advanced as yourself and others I’ve seen on the FB page, I’m glad to deal with these issues rather simply.

    I think in the essay I covered, perhaps poorly and incoherently, Kant’s answer to Hume, and why he at least, thought Hume had been answered. I take your point that I could have taken a stronger stance, put my 2c forward so to speak. But given my level of knowledge on this subject, I don’t put so much worth in my logical and research skills to demonstrate accurately how either might be wrong. I’m certainly not brave enough to do so in an assignment, perhps on the blog I could explore those issues, where there’s less of a pass/fail mentality.

    Thanks as always, for your thoughts.

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