Item description for An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Great Books in Philosophy) by David Hume...
How do we come to have ideas about the world and about the relationships of objects we perceive therein? Is all impressed upon the senses from outside or does the human mind have a significant role to play in how such concepts as "causality," "probability," "necessity," "contingency," "miracles," and others are to be understood? If so, what is the nature and extent of that role? In this classic work of early modern epistemology, Hume offers important insights about how we come to understand and have knowledge of our world and, in so doing, alter our relationship with it.
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David Hume (1711 - 1776) was a philosopher who wrote A Treatise of Human Nature and considered the nature of religion. JM Bell is Professor of Philosophy at the Manchester Metropolitan University and Head of the Department of Politics and Philosophy.
David Hume was born in 1560 and died in 1630.
David Hume has published or released items in the following series...
Reviews - What do customers think about An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Great Books in Philosophy)?
Not An Ending, But A Beginning Oct 14, 2007
This review mostly concerns the Enquiry. The Letter is primarily a defense of Hume's earlier Treatise of Human Nature, while his Abstract is an anonymous review of the Treatise. It strikes me as very funny, though not surprising, that Hume would review his own work. Funny because any author would give his right arm to get at least one favorable review when all the other critics are completely missing its point. Unsurprising because Hume was probably one of the only people alive at that time who could truly grasp all the facets of his radical philosophical claims.
The Enquiry was written after the Treatise. Hume, though he claimed the opposite, seems never to have really recovered from the blow he took from seeing his Treatise "fall dead born from the press." As a result, his Enquiry is far more cautious in the steps it takes. (For those of you who have read both, yes, I swear, Hume IS more cautious. Compare the claims.) A more robust philosophical stance is taken in his Treatise, while a more focused stance is taken in his Enquiry.
The Enquiry is mainly a work of epistemology and as such, scrutinizes our methods of acquiring knowledge. Making perhaps the most radical (and poignant) claim in all of modern philosophy, it posits, and supports, that there is NO causation, only conjunction. That, for example, when we see a glass drop and break, we cannot say we know gravity caused this (in the way we know two plus two equals four). All we see is constant conjunction. The connection is lacking, i.e., it is not inconceivable that the glass wouldn't bounce, turn to ash, or dissolve into sand (the way it is inconceivable that two plus two equals five). This, in effect, nullifies all the so called "laws" of nature that are formed by science. (Note that this does not state that there are no laws of nature, just that we really can never make the claim that we ever really know there are laws of nature.)
This could be thought of as the philosophical shot heard round the world. Agree or disagree, Hume must be answered. Hume has historically been charged with creating an intellectual and philosophical cul-de-sac with his skepticism. To paraphrase Bertrand Russell, Hume makes a claim which none can refute, but at the same time one which none can accept. In effect, Hume's philosophy seems to bind the human mind, stopping its journey of discovery and ultimately accomplishing what his predecessor, John Locke, set out to do, i.e., map the extent of human knowledge.
However, where one may see Hume's philosophy as shackles and fetters in the search for truth, one could also equally see his philosophy as liberation. Implicit in his philosophy is the idea that ANYTHING is possible. There are no shackles, no fetters, no limits; only those that we create for ourselves. Our limits are self-imposed, constructs of our observance (and inference) of connection. In this way Hume appears in the same light as the Eastern masters seeing that reality is not what we have (through experiential knowledge) believed it to be. It is something much more wondrous. In Zen, our causal thinking is the only barrier between the person and enlightenment. Hume could be seen as implying that when the idea of causality is removed, with only conjunction remaining in its place, the state of true knowledge and wisdom (true zen) is achieved.
This, of course, is only idle speculation. But it is stated so as to demonstrate the richness and immense possibility Hume's philosophy possesses when seen in the correct light. Instead of saying, "Nothing is certain," after reading Hume, one can say, with equal validity, "Anything is possible." The first statement approaches philosophy with despair. The second approaches it with a sense of childlike wonder and hope at the immense possibilities of reality. It approaches life as a beginning, not an ending. It approaches life as the philosopher approaches it.
Descartes' Ultimate Error Oct 9, 2005
If one accepts the methodology of Descartes in applying scepticism to reason and the senses, in effect denying the existence of all things but a "thinking thing," two entailments are logically consequent: Either Berkeley's idealism or Hume's scepticism. I don't accept Descartes' starting point, so I find the entailments confused and incoherent. But if one does accept Descartes' starting point, then the two extremes must be heeded. If for no other reason than observing the absurdity of either man's conclusions, it is valuable to read both entailments. But in their confused process, both men bring certain salient features to light.
Hume accepts Descartes starting point, making it his own. But to Descartes method, he adds Pyrrhonist scepticism: That all reason leads to infinite regress, and that all sensations (or impressions) can not be trusted.
Hume begins with the conclusion that all sense perception is either an impression or idea. Even memory and imagination, two other faculties of the mind, are conflated into these two species of perceptions, as impressions. Their difference is one of degree (vivacity), not of kind. Hence, Hume is the author of what is known as the "Copy Principle." Instead of unmediated, direct perception through the ordinary senses, all perception is mediated by the imagination into impressions and ideas. From this follows certain resemblances, contiguity, and causal associations between impressions or ideas, and from this association we develop a sense of self. But even the notion of causality here is one of implied inference, not of actual inductive reason. Hume denies there is any real causality that can be known, although we operate "as if" we infer cause from effect. Even probability is reduced to a mere association of ideas and/or impressions; because neither reason (which always leads to infinite regress) or senses (which can always be deceived) can actually be true. The Enquiry also treats of miracles and the testimony of others derisively; but don't we rely on the testimony of others who claim the earth is round rather than flat, just as we rely on others who testify to miracles in a byegone era? After all, few of us have direct experience with a spherical earth (Popper makes this observation).
Hume's method incorporates five kinds of scepticism: (i) methodological, (ii) conceptual, (ii) nomological, (iv) explanatory, and (v) reductive empiricism. His commitment to scepticism is not without some capitulation. While he denies absolute causality and inductive inference and probability in an actual senses, he relies on them for practical purposes. One can't remain a pyrrhonist for long; some elements of reason and some degree of confidence in impressions is necessary for ordinary life. But if one starts with Descartes' starting point, extreme scepticism is a necessary entailment. Which, after seeing Hume deny so much intuition, is it really worth starting with Descartes' scepticism? Answering that question is what makes Hume interesting.
Hume at his best Oct 9, 2005
David Hume was perhaps the leading light in the Empiricist movement in philosophy. Empiricism is seen in distinction from Rationalism, in that it doubts the viability of universal principles (rational or otherwise), and uses sense data as the basis of all knowledge - experience is the source of knowledge. Hume was a skeptic as well as empiricist, and had radical (for the time) atheist ideas that often got in the way of his professional advancement, but given his reliance on experience (and the kinds of experiences he had), his problem with much that was considered conventional was understandable.
Hume's major work, 'A Treatise of Human Nature', was not well received intially - according to Hume, 'it fell dead-born from the press'. Hume reworked the first part of this work in a more popular way for this text, which has become a standard, and perhaps the best introduction to Empiricism.
In a nutshell, the idea of empiricism is that experience teaches, and rules and understanding are derived from this. However, for Hume this wasn't sufficient. Just because billiard balls when striking always behave in a certain manner, or just because the sun always rose in the morning, there was no direct causal connection that could be automatically affirmed - we assume a necessary connection, but how can this be proved?
Hume's ideas impact not only metaphysics, but also epistemology and psychology. Hume develops empiricism to a point that empiricism is practically unsupportable (and it is in this regard that Kant sees this text as a very important piece, and works toward his synthesis of Empiricism and Rationalism). For Hume, empirical thought requires skepticism, but leaves it unresolved as far as what one then needs to accept with regard to reason and understanding. According to scholar Eric Steinberg, 'A view that pervades nearly all of Hume's philosophical writings is that both ancient and modern philosophers have been guilty of optimistic and exaggerated claims for the power of human reason.'
Some have seen Hume as presenting a fundamental mistrust of daily belief while recognising that we cannot escape from some sort of framework; others have seen Hume as working toward a more naturalist paradigm of human understanding. In fact, Hume is open to a number of different interpretations, and these different interpretations have been taken up by subsequent philosophers to develop areas of synthetic philosophical ideas, as well as further developments more directly out of Empiricism (such as Phenomenology).
This is in fact a rather short book, a mere 100 pages or so in many editions. As a primer for understanding Hume, the British Empiricists (who include Hobbes, Locke, and Berkeley), as well as the major philosphical concerns of the eighteenth century, this is a great text with which to start.
A comment on one part of Hume 's classic Feb 27, 2005
First I would like to commend the excellent review of this book by CT Dreyer in which he correctly shows how Hume extended the empiricism of Locke and Berkeley to the point where skepticism seemed our only honest way of thinking about our knowledge of the world. Hume's questioning of induction, of how we can be sure tomorrow will be like today , his questioning of how we can trust our senses to know the outside world, his questioning of how we can hold our world logically together when analysis reveals that there is no necessary connection between ' cause' and 'effect' in everyday life action means he wakened not only Kant from his dogmatic slumber but Philosophy itself from the sense that it will provide absolute understanding. Hume is a very clear writer. I remember reading the famous billiard ball account of causality in which our common sense view of ' before' and ' after' is questioned and taken apart. I believe Hume says after this account, something to the effect and ' still when we leave the room we leave by the door and not by the window'. A friend of mine in this class when the class ended opened the window ( on the ground floor ) and went out that way. This is difficult and great philosophy. I do not pretend to understand it or its implications fully. A test of the mind and a necessary read for anyone who would know Western Philosophy.
As Exciting and Thought-Provoking as Philosophy Gets Feb 27, 2004
Hume, I and many others think, was the greatest philosopher to have written in English, and this is the book to pick up if you want to introduce yourself to Saint David's distinctive brand of classical empiricism. This is a must-read for anyone with even a passing interest in philosophy, and it's hard for me to see how anyone interested in the history of modern thought can avoid reading this book or the corresponding sections of Hume's Treatise.
As is well-known, the Enquiry concerning Human Understanding was intended as an encapsulation and popularization of the views Hume defended in Book I of his magnum opus, A Treatise of Human Nature. Hume assumed that book's commercial failure could be accounted for by its length, difficulty, and lack of accessibility, and so, being a man who desired literary fame, he hoped to acquire commercial success by presenting the same ideas in a more appealing and accessible manner. Unfortunately, it seems Hume misunderstood what the literati of his day were looking for in a philosophical treatise. For the Enquiry, like the Treatise before it, didn't bring him the fame he sought. Still, Hume did understand what goes into writing excellent philosophical prose, and consequently this book is a much easier read than Book I of the Treatise. Indeed, this book constitutes an excellent introduction to Hume's thought, and, except for maybe Berkeley's Three Dialogues, I can't think of another primary source that would serve as a better introduction to classical British empiricism.
Now, let's get to the ideas here. Hume, like the other classical empiricists, was primarily concerned with the psychological question of the origin of our concepts. About the answer to this question, the empiricists were all agreed--our concepts are furnished by experience, which includes both sensory experience and introspection (i.e., the experience of our own mental states). And the empiricists also agreed about the way we can justify our beliefs. Some beliefs are true (or false) in virtue of the ideas they contained, and we can know their truth (or falsity) simply by thinking about them; other beliefs are true (or false) in virtue of how the external world is, and we can know their truth (or falsity) only by drawing on our experiences of the world. According to Hume, all substantial conclusions about the world fall into this second category. That is, the truth (or falsity) of all substantial claims about the existence and nature of things in the external world can be discovered only by checking those claims against the evidence of our senses.
The traditional way of placing Hume within the story of empiricism goes something like this. Hume takes up the empiricism of Locke and Berkeley and pushes it to its logical conclusion. Whereas Locke and Berkeley hadn't been wholly consistent empiricists, Hume, the true believer, demonstrates that classical empiricism leads to a pretty thoroughgoing skepticism. Since he's wholly convinced of the truth of his empiricist premises, Hume is willing to accept the skepticism that goes along with them. However, those who aren't convinced of that his empiricism is obviously correct think that Hume has actually demonstrated the implausibility of his empiricism. If this is where empiricism leads, they think, then it's clear that we need to reject empiricism. Indeed, some, like Thomas Reid, view Hume's arguments as constituting a reductio ad absurdum of his sort of empiricism. On this interpretation, Hume's philosophy essentially presents a dilemma for all future thinkers: abandon empiricism, or accept empiricism along with Humean skepticism.
But a different view of Hume, one of Hume as proposing a wholly naturalistic account of the human mind, has recently emerged as a competitor to the general conception of Hume's place within philosophy sketched in the previous paragraph. This interpretation downplays Hume's skepticism and emphasizes his professed intentions to provide a positive account of the operation of the human mind that appealed to nothing beyond the evidence of our senses. According to proponents of this interpretation, Hume is most interested in a description of the operation of the human mind. He's describing what human nature allows us to know and what it doesn't allow us to know. Furthermore, he argues that our nature is such that, where it fails to provide us with the resources to acquire the knowledge we might want, it provides us with a natural habit of forming the right conclusions anyway. Even though our nature limits our knowledge of the world, it ensures that we possess the habits of mind needed to make our way in the world. Hume dubs all these habits of mind "custom."
If this view is correct, then Hume has abjured many of the normative aims of traditional epistemological inquiry. He isn't attempting to show how we can answer a skeptic or why we have good reason to believe what we think we know. Instead, he wants us to stand back from our everyday beliefs and think about the natural processes that result in them. How, exactly, do our minds operate? How do we come to think what we do about the world? Hume thinks that this sort of inquiry will lead us see that, at some point, the explanation of why we think what we think reaches certain brute facts about the operation of the human mind. When we reach these points, there is nothing more to be said. We simply can't help thinking in these ways, and we lack the resources to demonstrate that these ways of thinking constitute an accurate way to represent the operation of the external world. And, Hume claims, it turns out that many of the fundamental elements of our conception of the world--the belief that things stand in causal relations to one another, the belief that we can know that there is a world outside our minds, the belief the future will resemble the past--end up not being open to ratification by experience. With respect to beliefs of these sorts, we ultimately have to appeal to custom in order to explain their existence and popularity. Hume, then, can be seen as demolishing the pretensions of reason in order to make room for a wholly naturalistic account of human thinking.