Wednesday, 17 November 2010

David Hume – Seminar Notes and Lecture Summary

Born in 1711, Hume was an empiricist who believed events in the universe are actually constructed in our minds through sense experiences. Furthermore, as an empiricist, Hume thought that all our knowledge comes from experience, which goes against the idea of innate knowledge.

According to Hume, the idea of 1 thing happening after another exists only in our head. Any relation of causation you see is not in nature, it's purely a mental phenomenon. Essentially, the idea here is don't jump to conclusions. This idea can also be related to Hume's discussion with regards to what he calls 'miracles', where he states: “Wise men proportion their belief to evidence”. You can't technically prove causation, which leads into the Billiard Balls analogy / Sun analogies. Just because the sun rose today and yesterday does not guarantee that it will rise tomorrow. It could just be a coincidence. In other words, it's never possible to say that it will happen again in the future.

'Induction' is defined as an act or an action that sets in motion some form of events. Hume believed that statements could be either synthetic or analytic. A synthetic statement can be verified, as long as the axiom is accepted as true. For example, 'All humans are mortal, I am human, therefore I am mortal' is an example of such a statement. On the other hand, an analytic statement is where the conclusion can be derived from the subject, which means they're self evident. Hume wasn't an admirer of the concept on induction as he felt there was 'no place' for it in the world.

Hume's Epistemology:
Hume believed that sense impressions only exist in our minds, and we use knowledge as building blocks in order to imagine more complex concepts. For example, we can imagine an angel by combining our knowledge of a human and a bird. This action is called synthesising, as we're building our knowledge using simpler elements. Building a tower, for example, is a synthetic action.

In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume elaborates on the idea of synthetic actions. He states: “When we analyse our thoughts or ideas, we always find that they resolve themselves into such simple ideas as were copied from a precedent feeling”. Here, Hume highlights the idea that original ideas are actually combinations of previous pieces of knowledge. He goes on to say: “All ideas, especially abstract ones, are naturally faint and obscure: The mind has but a slender hold of them”, showing that when we are faced with a complex concept, we break it down and relate it to simpler ideas that we are familiar with in an attempt to further our understanding.

This idea of growth of knowledge could be linked to Hume's discussion of a blind man . He says: “A blind man can form no notions of colours”. Give a blind man sight, and he forms new ideas and perceptions of the world around him. This also brings forward Hume's opinion with regards to sense experiences. However, Hume seems to suggest there's a limit to human knowledge in his enquiry, writing: “Nature has kept us at a great distance from all her secrets, and has afforded us only the knowledge of a few superficial qualities of objects”.

The Verification Principle:
Hume felt that anything that can't be verified is gibberish. Instead, any truth statement must be capable of independent verification. Hume categorised statements into the following:
  • Statements which can be verified as provisionally true (e.g. Non contradictory)
  • Statements that can be verified as definitely true (e.g. Contradictory)
  • Statements that cannot be verified – Gibberish!
The Bundle Theory
Hume's bundle theory describes how there is no such thing as an actual object; it is instead made up of properties. If you strip it of its properties, it becomes non existent. The YouTube video below discusses this concept and touches on some more of Hume's theories too. This clip discusses the philosopher in a humorous but intelligent manner. I recommend subscribing to CollegeBinary's channel because the other videos they post are also particularly good.


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