An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding | Study Guide

David Hume

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An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding | Section 9 : Of the Reason of Animals | Summary



Hume argues that human and nonhuman animals share a considerable number of mental capacities, including causal reasoning. Though the nonhuman variety does not produce the general principles humans do, their behaviors suggest they engage in the same process, namely, "the animal infers some fact beyond what immediately strikes his senses." Other similarities between humans and animals include the capacity to feel fear, pain, and emotions, to learn, and to make inferences.

These inferences show that there is no process of reasoning involved. Hume has already made this argument in Sections 4 and 5. Here, by analogy to animals, he introduces another argument for this view. If humans and animals both make causal inferences and animals do not employ rational principles, such as relations of ideas and matters of fact, then humans do not do so, either. He bridges the gap between humans and animals by way of children, who are also "not guided in these inferences by reasoning." Instead, instinct is their guide.


In a break with a tradition of classification begun by Aristotle, Hume regards biological life not in terms of a taxonomy with fairly clearly demarcated boundaries separating kinds, but in terms of degrees of difference. In addition, Hume does not restrict cognitive capacity to humans, as does Descartes, who thinks of animals as mere machines lacking any consciousness. He does not, however, consider animals to have the same capacity as do humans for levels of social organization reflected in, for example, politics, morality, and religion.

Given the positive comparisons between humans and animals, Hume applies the results of previous sections devoted to the analysis of the mind to animals. A naturalistic account of mind explains not only human psychology, but also, to some extent, that of other animals. In this section, then, Hume provides an argument from analogy to show that the human mind is deeply embedded in the natural world. Humans are not special in their capacity to reason, particularly as rationality has nothing to do with drawing causal inferences. Instead, humans are natural creatures that, like other natural creatures, have minds equipped to learn from experience.

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