An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding | Study Guide

David Hume

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An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding | Context


A Treatise of Human Nature

The failure of A Treatise of Human Nature to live up to Hume's expectations prompted the writing of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. The ambitious Treatise covers much of the same conceptual territory Hume takes up in the Enquiry. As he writes in the advertisement accompanying the revised editions of the Enquiry, "Most of the principles, and reasonings, contained in this volume, were published" in the Treatise. Nevertheless, there are some important differences. For one thing, Hume himself later disavowed the Treatise as "juvenile." More substantively, however, he writes that he wrote the Enquiry to "cast the whole anew ... where some negligence in his former reasoning and more in the expression, are ... corrected." In any case, the shorter second work—the Enquiry—focuses on the core argument concerning the nature of the idea of causation and its implications for other areas of human knowledge.

Indeed, Hume's Enquiry was a response to the disappointment of the Treatise not only insofar as it was a much shorter work, but also in that it aimed at a conceptual departure from its predecessor. That said, it may be the case that Hume did not alter the substance of the text so much as the manner of presentation. This may account for his claim of having corrected "some negligence in his former reasoning and more in the expression."

Hume is concerned in both texts with employing an "experimental method" of analyzing human nature. In other words, he takes an empirical approach to an investigation into the organization, structure, and function of the human mind—in short, Hume aims to map the geography of the human mind. This means, then, that he is committed to rejecting "every system ... however subtle or ingenious, which is not founded on fact and observation." Among the topics of investigation are beliefs about the persistence of objects over time and the existence of objects external to the mind, along with the nature of ideas, perceptions, sensations, passions, emotions, and memory. The reader is, therefore, rewarded by studying both works, rather than privileging one over the other.

The Enlightenment and Scottish Enlightenment

Hume lived and worked during the powerful intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment, which occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was marked by a confidence in human reasoning to discover important truths. This confidence reflected a new, albeit often tentative, independence from Church dogma, which at that time controlled all facets of people's lives.

From the eastern edges of what is now Germany, through France, and over to the British Isles, Enlightenment thinkers generated theories that would inspire great experiments in democracy, like that expressed in the United States. The philosophical underpinnings of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution have a clear lineage going back to Enlightenment thinkers from English philosopher John Locke to Rousseau.

The Scottish Enlightenment was prominent during the second half of the 18th century, and Edinburgh was its epicenter. Important thinkers of the day included David Hume, Adam Smith, Thomas Reid, and Robert Burns. These philosophers, architects, historians, poets, and other literary and intellectual giants inspired the French writer Voltaire to declare, "Today it is from Scotland that we get rules of taste in all the arts, from epic poetry to gardening." From pamphlets to books, from dining rooms to taverns, the men of the Scottish Enlightenment engaged in vigorous discussion and debate.

British Empiricists

John Locke

John Locke (1632–1704) was an English philosopher whose work in epistemology and political philosophy profoundly influenced Enlightenment thinkers, and the effects of this influence are still felt today. For example, ideas and ideals in his The Second Treatise of Civil Government (1689) permeate the content of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

As an empiricist, Locke was concerned to show how knowledge is derived from experience. In his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), he argued against the view that ideas are innate. In other words, he argues against the view that certain ideas are inborn. For example, rationalist philosophers such as Descartes held that there are ideas prior to and independent of all experience, that is, a priori. This is in contrast to ideas developed with or from experience, that is, a posteriori. One such idea is articulated in the principle of noncontradiction: a statement cannot be simultaneously true and not true. It is not an idea one acquires from experience, according to the rationalist, but is a feature of rationality. Locke develops several arguments against this view in order to clear the ground for his account of ideas as developing entirely from sense experience.

Human beings are born as "white sheets of paper" (tabula rasa), entirely devoid of ideas. It is only through the gradual process of sensations that the mind becomes "furnished" with them. The organs of sense allow in simple visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and gustatory ideas. Eventually, reflection on the ideas of sensation produces further ideas, such as pleasure and pain.

Hume is among the first thinkers to develop a number of ideas first proposed by fellow empiricist Locke. The conclusions he reached, however, seriously challenged long-standing, and often cherished, beliefs. As empiricists, both Locke and Hume agree that all knowledge begins with, and is derived from, sense experience. Every idea, therefore, comes from the external and internal sensations. But where Locke, for example, preserved belief in divinity, arguing that the existence of God alone explains how thought is possible in a material world, Hume concluded that such a world precludes any divine force.

Hume's empiricism led him to other startling conclusions, some of which significantly departed from generally accepted views. For example, from the starting point that all knowledge is derived from sense impressions, Hume concluded that there is no such thing as a self, at least conceived as the enduring subject of experience. Instead, the self is a bundle of perceptions—there is no fundamental entity or "I" that exists beyond various mental properties. Because there is no sense impression of persistence, there can be no idea of a persisting self.

George Berkeley

George Berkeley (1685–1753), Irish philosopher and Anglican Bishop of Cloyne, was also a significant empiricist—the second of the three so-called British Empiricists, after Locke and before Hume. Berkeley's philosophical output warrants its own study, but for the purposes of this guide, it is useful to read him not only as a critic of Locke's epistemology, but also as one who anticipates at least part of Hume's skepticism.

Berkeley's critique of Locke's epistemology centered on the complaint that it invites skepticism about the material world. According to Berkeley, knowledge is limited to ideas, which are equivalent to sensations, passions, and memory. There is nothing to infer beyond or apart from these ideas, so an object just is the idea one has of it. An apple, for example, just is the collection of sensations associated with it: this smoothness, this firmness, this color, this crunchiness, and so forth. Locke holds that objects exist independently of any perception of them, but Berkeley thinks this drives an unbridgeable gap between object and idea. There is, on Locke's view, something entirely unknowable about the object, which, Berkeley thinks, leads to doubt about knowledge.

There simply is no proof, Berkeley argues, for the view that there is any mind-independent reality. Consequently, "esse est percipi," that is, "to be is to be perceived." This does not mean, however, that things don't exist if one does not perceive them. Berkeley argues that God, the all-perceiving mind, does. His argument is that ideas are generally unbidden—one opens one's eyes and simply sees the apple; one does not choose to hear the sound of thunder. Human minds are not, then, responsible for causing many such ideas. There is, then, some other mind that does, and this is God.

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