A number of philosophers have observed that philosophy could never be the same after David Hume. There is little doubt that David Hume has greatly influenced philosophy over the last two hundred years or so. For instance, in philosophy of science, Hume’s works would certainly be considered within the top five most influential. Philosophy of science in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries would not be understandable without Hume. But what is it in Hume’s perspective that has so enamored philosophers?
David Hume (1711–1776) claimed that he was doing for the mind what Sir Isaac Newton did for our understanding of the universe. He started by asserting that he, like Newton, would confine himself to hypotheses that could be tested by experiments or experience. He asserted that all our ideas are derived from perceptions of the mind (impressions of sense or inner feelings). Hume understood that impressions and inner feelings come to us as simple impressions that we link and build into more complex ideas. If this is true, then Hume saw a powerful critique against philosophers who would believe in innate ideas—that is, necessary truths that God would have to give us because we could not discover them from experience, things such as necessary truths of mathematics, morals, and metaphysics. But this is only the beginning for Hume.
Hume then turns his critique toward a number of basic concepts in philosophy and religion: cause and effect, space, and time, miracles, and God. His critique is based on the fact that within his system there is no way to go beyond our experience of what usually happens. For instance, we believe that the sun will come up tomorrow because it is a habit or custom that we have formed from our experience. Miracles, for instance, are completely ruled out because they are contrary to natural occurrences. We can only know the attributes of God that we have directly experienced through God’s effects in the world. Nothing more.
Philosophers of science and philosophers that are naturalists are most enamored with Hume. First, his system gets rid of speculative metaphysics that has made no progress at all because, in the end, it is about nothing that we can know. Likewise, most of religion is ruled out. We are mostly left with empirical science as the way to knowledge. In about 1900, a view called “scientism” predominated. In this view, science is the only way to knowledge. It certainly drew considerably from Hume. Also, our current belief that scientists are the ultimate authorities concerning what is true can be partly attributed to Hume.
During the last couple of weeks, I have had the opportunity to read David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding[i] with the juniors and seniors at Gutenberg College. Each time I read it I gain greater insight into Hume’s work. This time through two things struck me: First, Hume has seen deeper into the implications of the project Descartes started than anyone else. Second, Hume’s philosophy is fundamentally wrong.
Hume began his project by asserting that “…we may divide all the perceptions of the mind into two classes or species, which are distinguished by their different degrees of force and vivacity” (p98). If this is wrong—and I am convinced it is—then it will lead to errors throughout his system. He is not using Newton’s method. While it is true that philosophy will never be the same after Hume, it is also true that many of the implications that philosophers want to draw from Hume may in fact be fallacious.
[i] Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.