Hume and the Deconstruction of Epistemology

Written by on August 29th, 2013. Subject: Philosophy. Filed in Epistemology, about Hume Empiricism

|||Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Edited, with Introduction, by Eric Steinberg. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co, 1993.|||

Statue by Alexander Stoddart We have sought in vain for an idea of power or necessary connexion, in all the sources from which we could suppose it to be derived. It appears, that, in single instances of the operation of bodies, we never can, by our utmost scrutiny, discover but one event following another; without being able to comprehend any force or power by which the cause operates, or any connexion between it and its supposed effect. The same difficulty occurs in contemplating the operations of mind on body; where we observe the motion of the latter to follow upon the volition of the former; but are not able to observe or conceive the tie, which binds together the motion and volition, or the energy by which the mind produces this effect. The authority of the will over its own faculties and ideas is not a whit more comprehensible. So that, upon the whole, there appears not, throughout all nature, any one instance of connexion, which is conceivable by us. All events seem entirely loose and separate. p. 49.

In a previous article, we discussed the view of Plotinus on the union of intellect with the objects of intellect. This becomes an increasingly important topic of debate after the 16th century, when certain key questions about the nature of knowledge and the process of learning are introduced. In his “Meditations” Rene Descartes divides all of Being into two distinct categories: res cogitans (thinking thing) and res extensa.1. In doing this, he sets the template for almost all epistemological investigation that proceed from his initial inquiry. Though there were many different currents of thought that occurred in the three centuries that followed, in general most philosophers tended to emphasize one of the two at the expense of the other. On the one hand are rationalists who stress the primacy of clear and distinct ideas in the acquisition and verification of knowledge. On the other hand are the empiricists, who contrapuntally emphasize the reflexive and self-evident nature of the objects of the senses, and make this the foundation of all knowledge and learning.

The first empiricist was an Englishman named John Locke, who shook the world of epistemology from its rationalist foundations with his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Sense impressions, he argued, were the sole basis for all knowledge.2. This system, interestingly enough, included notions such as necessary powers of various substances. He argued that sense impressions, aggregated over time in a variety of circumstances, eventually coalesced into certain complex ideas such as powers inherent in a substance. Simply put, if one event was observed to follow from another a sufficient number of times, one could justifiably state that the two events are the result of a power of the substance.3

It is precisely this notion that David Hume successfully critiqued in his “Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding”, and it is hard to argue against his conclusions if one assumes the premises of empiricism. At first glance, Locke’s notion of complex ideas resulting from the concatenation of simple sense impressions stored in the memory seems unassailable. Indeed, Hume has often been unjustly accused of being a pure skeptic by those who misunderstand that as his true target. His objection is not directed towards causality per se, but rather the idea of necessary connexion, which as noted above he seems to be inferred by sentiment and habit rather than any mental or extra-mental source. With this critique, however, he inadvertently created the philosophical assumptions that were to drive the creation and progress of the statistical sciences in the next century. The realization that certain effects proceeded from certain causes through a set of conditions that were (at least at the time) unknown led to the investigation of those conditions in the physical sciences. Although it is highly unlikely that he intended this, Hume’s enquiry had the effect of encouraging a new way of investigating nature that was quantitative and probabilistic rather than qualitative and necessary.

Qualitative and quantitative data, furthermore, are not as opposed as one might initially think. As has been pointed out many times, Hume does not arrive at his conclusions through an empirical approach. His epistemological system rests upon a number of metaphysical assumptions (the intelligible nature of Being, the objectivity of the senses, etc.) that are inherently qualitative in method. It is all well and good to think that the sun shines because that is its essence, but it becomes a hindrance to knowledge if it prevents one from probing further into understanding the nature of nuclear fusion. It is perfectly reasonable to suggest that if one wants the fullest possible notion of the sun, one would need to know both of these things. Thus Hume, while attempting to deconstruct the philosophy of knowledge, inadvertently provided one of its greatest supports by introducing the serious investigation of the conditions of substances.

About Thomas Chaney

Thomas Chaney graduated from the College of St. Thomas More in 2007, and is currently pursuing a MA in Philosophy at the University of Dallas. He currently works as a Scholar’s Associate in Philosophy with the Walsingham Society School of Liberal Studies.

Do you enjoy Netcrit Articles?

Use the affiliate link below to buy a book from Amazon. You’ll receive the gift of knowledge, and we will get a portion of the proceeds.

  1. Rene Descartes Meditations on First Philosophy, III. 

  2. John Locke An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, II.1.2 

  3. Ibid, II.12.1, II.23.7.