Selected Critiques of Hume for PHH 3402 British Empiricism


     Copyright (c) 2015 Bruce W. Hauptli


1. Why accept the sort of beginning point which Hume takes from Descartes—one that separates ideas and things?  Cf., Thomas Reid and his direct realism:


The author of the “Treatise of Human Nature”....yields himself a captive to the most common of all vulgar prejudices—I mean the belief of the existence of his own impressions and ideas. 

  I beg, therefore, to have the honour of making an addition to the skeptical system, without which I conceive it cannot hang together.  I affirm, that the belief of the existence of impressions and ideas, is as little supported by reason, as that of the existence of minds and bodies.  No man ever did or could offer any reason for this belief.  Des Cartes  took it for granted, that he thought, and had sensations and ideas; so have all his followers done.  Even the hero of skepticism hath yielded this point....what is there in impressions and ideas so formidable, that this all-conquering philosophy, after triumphing over every other existence, should pay homage to them?  Besides, the concession is dangerous; for belief is of such a nature, that, if you leave any root, it will spread; and you may easily put it up altogether, than say, Hitherto shalt thou go and no further; the existence of impressions and ideas I give up to thee; but see thou pretend to nothing more.  A thorough and consistent skeptic will never, therefore, yield this point. 

  To such a skeptic I have nothing to say; but of the semiskeptic , I should beg to know, why they believe the existence of their impressions and ideas.  The true reason I take to be, because they cannot help it; and the same reason will lead them to believe many other things.1  


2. In his David Hume: Philosopher of Moral Sense, Anthony Flew offers a “Wittgenstenian” critique of Hume’s reliance upon “sense data” that emphasizes that we need to recognize that there are both “public” and “private” senses of ‘experience’ and that Hume may not handle these senses correctly: the ordinary and most useful sense a claim to have had experience of something is a claim to have been in direct contact with mind-independent realities; whereas Hume is supposed to be committed to the contentions that he, and we, are never so privileged....He, therefore, is entitled to employ the word ‘experience’, and all other terms with similar meanings, with reference only to ongoings  in his own mind—to his own Internal World, so to speak. 

  To bring out the enormous and vital difference between these two senses, consider the sad case of the philosophically scrupulous applicant, who responds to the advertisement of a farmer seeking to hire hands with experience of cows.  In interview he, or she, has to admit that—despite having both many dreams of cows and abundant cowish sense-data—he, or she, neither is nor ever will be in a position to know that there even are such things as cows.  Such an applicant would be lucky simply to be dismissed from the interview, without suffering any penalty for impertinence.2 


Flew criticizes Hume’s rejection of perception and reliance on ideas as follows:


in a less artificial terminology this amounts to saying that these Arguments from Illusion prove that there is in fact no such thing as perception; that we are never, that is to say, immediately aware through our senses of the existence and some of the characteristics of any mind-independent reality. 

  By thus showing that and how we are sometimes misled into sensory error, and by inferring from this that we can never truly and correctly perceive, Hume is presenting an argument of the same egregiously unsound form as that so memorably and so disturbingly unleashed by Descartes in the Discourse.... 

  The form of these arguments is egregiously unsound in as much as the desired conclusions, not merely do not follow from, but are also actually incompatible with, the proffered premises.  For if, in some area, we know some cases in which we have been mistaken; then we must have some knowledge, in that area, and cannot have been in every instance wrong.  (One popular and parallel fallacy, in a quite different field, is that of arguing that, since everything must have a cause, and since the chain of causes allegedly cannot extend indefinitely backwards in time, therefore there must have been, in the beginning, a First Cause!).”3  


Flew also notes that Hume challenges others to produce counter-examples to his “psychological” views by appealing to experience, while, at the same time, also contending that where he cannot find an impression, there is no valid idea; but Flew finds this suspicious:


but this—not to put too fine a point on it—is outrageous.  It is all very well to support such a psychological generalization by citing the kind of evidence which Hume does cite, and then to challenge all comers to produce a counter-example.  But it simply will not do at all to turn the generalization thus supported into the supposedly sure foundation of a method of challenge; dismissing anything which might be proferred  as a counter-example as being, on that ground alone, necessarily discredited.  He is arguing that, if we can find no impression of which some putative idea is a representation, then it cannot really be legitimate....4 


Flew points out, for example, that in his discussion of how simple impressions always take precedence over simple impressions, he discusses the impossibility of blind individuals having visual ideas:


to enforce the general point more firmly, reconsider the particular question of visual ideas enjoyed by those never vouchsafed visual impressions.  Suppose that we wish to test Hume’s general hypothesis by reference to this particular case.  We enlist the cooperation of a team of persons blind from birth.  They come trooping into our psychological laboratory, eager to serve as respondents to our questions, or subjects in our experiments.  But then what next?  Suppose further—what we probably believe to be practically impossible—that some or all of them have in fact enjoyed such visual imagery.  Then they will still not be able to tell us anything about its purely visual characteristics.5 


Flew also raises problems regarding Hume’s treatment of causation:


when later he came “to cast...that work [Treatise I.III.XIV] anew [in his Inquiry on Human Understanding (1748)]” there was a very significant addition, but made without explanation or justification.  We now have, much as before, “an object, followed by another, and where all the objects similar to the first are followed by objects similar to the second.”  But here a second sentence follows: “Or in other words where, if the first object had not been, the second never had existed.6 


....For that second clause expresses a subjunctive, contrary-to-fact conditional: “if the first object had not been, the second never had existed.”  But this conclusion obviously cannot be deduced from any non-nomological generalization stating only, as a matter of unexplained brute fact, that all objects of the first kind always have been, and will be followed by objects of the second kind.  All causal and indeed all nomological propositions, on the other hand, must sustain such inferences.  If, for instance, you maintain that the cause of the trouble is a lack of fuel in the tank, this entails that...had there been fuel in the tank then the machine would have operated.  While the defining difference between a non-nomological, brute fact generalization and a nomological stating a supposed law of nature precisely is that the one cannot while the other must sustain contrary-to-fact implications.7 


But Berkeley and these others are not, as they should be, credited with the genuine insight that human agency is and must be our paradigm case [for causation]; albeit a paradigm which permits extension to cover all manner of causes which are not agents.  It must be.  For how could your perfectly pure observer, an inert, incorporeal subject of exclusively private experience, a creature necessarily incapable of any action either physical or mental—how could such a wretch acquire the concept of agency?8 


3. In his The Quest For Certainty, John Dewey maintains that whereas traditional empiricists (Hume and Mill) sought the origins of mathematical ideas in antecedent experience, experimental empiricism “...recognizes that experience, the actual experience of men, is one of doing acts, performing operations, cutting, marking off, dividing up, extending, piecing together, joining, assembling and mixing, hoarding and dealing out; in general, selecting and adjusting things as means for reaching consequences.”9 


4. In his John Dewey and American Democracy, Robert B. Westbrook maintains that beginning with T.H. Green’s edition of Hume’s Treatise, idealists endeavored to reconcile religion and Victorian natural science via a critique of agnostic, empiricistic epistemology:


empiricists and idealists agreed that science was the knowledge of relations between things, but, the idealists argued, empiricism with its theory of knowledge as the impression of discrete sensations on a passive mind was unable to explain how such relations are known.  Insofar as they ordered sensations, these relations could not be the produce of sensations, for that view would be akin to a geologist’s teaching that “the first formation of rocks was the product of all layers built upon it.”  Thus the empiricists had to admit that ordinary experience as well as scientific knowledge presupposed a constructive function for consciousness which their epistemology did not allow.  Far from being the ally of science, empiricism rendered science impossible.... 

  ....The idealists advanced beyond Kant by means of their (controversial) theory of internal relations.  This theory held that all the relations of a particular thing were “internal” to it, that is, they were all essential characteristics of that thing.  Knowledge of any particular thing thus rested on knowledge of a connected whole of which it was a part, and the fact that all the relations of every particular thing were essential implied “the existence of a single, permanent, and all-inclusive system of relations.”  Moreover, because relations were the product of consciousness, there was further implied the existence of “a permanent single consciousness which forms the bond of relations.”“10 


Westbrook notes that Dewey criticized the empiricists “faculty psychology of sensationalism” because it “gave descriptions of that which has for the most part no existence, and but described and did not explain.” 


5. In his Wittgenstein’s Metaphysics, John Cook maintains that:


had Hume noted that we regularly say such things [“You can’t start your car with the battery disconnected,” or “A male cat can’t breed with another male cat”], he would have found this perplexing and in need of explanation.  Indeed, he would have declared that we can’t really mean what we say in such cases.  Why?  Part of the explanation is that he could find no impressions that would give rise to the ideas of necessity and impossibility in nature.  There was of course another option here, for it was open to him to regard such examples as showing that he was wrong about the ‘origin of ideas.’  But he had another reason for ignoring examples of the sort I have just given.  Early in the Treatise, long before he comes to the topic of causation, he says: “Tis an established maxim in metaphysics, That whatever the mind clearly conceives includes the idea of possible existence, or in other words, that nothing we imagine is absolutely false” (I,II,ii).  Hume does not tell us how he thinks this can be established, but it is clear that he takes this idea for granted throughout the Treatise, as when we find him saying “Anything may produce anything.”  How are we to take this?  Does Hume mean to say that two male cats can produce offspring?  And does he think that a child’s imagining two male cats producing offspring is enough to show that such a thing is not absolutely impossible? 

  The answer, of course, is that Hume isn’t talking about things like cats—not real flesh and blood cats.  Rather, he is talking about a world of ‘inert sensible qualities.’  For it is also very early in the Treatise that he makes clear that he follows Berkeley in dismissing Locke’s causal theory of perception by dispensing with the material, causal end and retaining the supposed effects, sensible qualities.  And given this ontology, Hume is obliged from the outset to think that anything that occurs in the world has no discernible why or wherefore.  Whatever happens, just happens.  And if something astonishing and inexplicable should occur, then that too just happens.  There is no limit on what can happen, since sensible qualities always come into being and pass away causelessly 

  So it is Hume’s ontology that leads him to see something fishy in the idea of necessities and impossibilities in nature.  Accordingly, if we do not share his ontological views, we have no reason to think that there is anything peculiar, anything we should want to explain away, in the quite ordinary examples given above.11 


6. In his “After Empiricism,” Hilary Putnam maintains that:


according to Berkeley and Hume, I do not have such a thing as an “abstract idea” or a “general idea” of green.  When a particular token—be it a green color-patch or a token of the word “green”—occurs in my mind, and is used as a symbol for the whole class of green sense-data, all that happens is that the token is associated with a certain class of other tokens to which it is similar or which are similar to one another.  Ayer and Russell depart from Berkeley and Hume on this point—and with good reason.  For they see that if I can think of a particular relation of “similarity,” then I am able to recognize at least one universal.  Thus universals cannot really be avoided in the way Berkeley and Hume wanted to do.12 


7. In his “Hume’s Theory of Mental Activity,” Robert Paul Wolff maintains that Hume’s explanation of how the imagination, when subjected to the repeated force of association, develops certain habits and customs is flawed:


this explanation, based on an analogy between gravitation and association, is not satisfactory as it stands.  According to Newton, two bodies attract one another without (so far as we know) the intervention of any third thing.  This is at least intelligible, for bodies can literally move about, toward or away from each other.  But an impression clearly is not a body which approaches or recedes from other impressions.  When Hume says that the cause and effect are “associated,” he means that the mind tends to think of one when presented with the other.  Thus the metaphor of “gentle force” is misleading.  The impressions affect the mind, not one another.  The question remains, by what means does the observed contiguity and resemblance become translated into a habit of association?13 


Wolff also maintains that:


“customary transitions” and “propensities” are mental operations or powers, not contents of consciousness.  If the ideas of necessary connection is a copy of the transition from an impression to its usual attendant, then it is a copy of a mental activity....In these passages we can observe Hume shifting toward explanation in terms of mental activity, while still tied to the language of mental contents.14 


Wolff also notes, in regard to Hume’s explanation of the nature of belief, that “the trouble with Hume’s theory is that it fails to explain why we do not believe vivid and affecting fiction, and yet believe dull history books.”15 


8. In his “The Pragmatic Justification of Induction,” Hans Reichenbach maintains that:


...Hume believed that any justified application of the inductive inference presupposes a demonstration that the conclusion is true.  It is this assumption on which Hume’s criticism [of induction] is based.  His two objections directly concern only the question of the truth of the conclusion; they prove that the truth of the conclusion cannot be demonstrated.  The two objections, therefore, are valid only in so far as the Humean assumption is valid.  It is this question to which we must turn: Is it necessary, for the justification of inductive inference, to show that its conclusion is true?16 


9. As Garrett Thomson notes, in his Bacon to Kant: An Introduction to Modern Philosophy:


...Hume actually gives two criteria for distinguishing between relations of ideas and matters of fact: knowledge and truth.  According to the first criterion, statements about the relations between ideas are known by a priori reasoning or, in Hume’s own words, “by the mere operation of thought.”  Statements of matters of fact are not knowable in this way.  According to the second criterion, statements of matters of fact are made true by what exists, and their denial can “never imply a contradiction.”  Statements involving the relations of ideas are true independently of what exists, and their denial implies a contradiction. 

  The difference between the two criteria is important in understanding Kant.  Kant distinguishes between a priori/empirical and analytic/synthetic.  Briefly, a priori truths are known independently of experience, whereas empirical or a posteriori truths can only be known through experience.  Analytic truths cannot be denied without contradiction, whereas synthetic truths can.17 


Thomson also notes that:


Hume claims that his fork has only two prongs.  Kant thinks there is a third prong: synthetic a priori truths. 

  ...Kant’s notion of synthetic a priori truths permits him to claim that the Universal Causal Axiom—that all events have a cause—is a necessary truth without being analytic.  In other words, it is not a statement of a relation between ideas, but neither is it a matter of fact.  Kant agrees with Hume that “Every effect has a cause” cannot be denied without contradiction (that is, it is analytic), and that “Every event has a cause” can be denied without contradiction (that is, it is not analytic).  Yet Kant argues that the claim “Every event has a cause” is a universal and necessary truth of which we can have a priori knowledge.  According to Kant, the claim is a necessary truth, but it is not analytic; it is synthetic a priori.  Kant tries to explain why the thesis “Every event has a cause” is synthetic a priori, by arguing that the concept of causation is a necessary condition of experience.  In this way he attempts to save causation from Hume’s scepticism.18 


Thomson also notes that:


At Treatise I.I.III, Hume tries to characterize the difference between imagining and remembering.  He thinks that there is an immediately perceptible difference between the ideas of memory and those of imagination; the former are more vivid and lively than the latter.  Now, even if all memory ideas are more vivid than those of imagination, this fact alone does not delineate the difference between remembering and imagining.  But in any case, some acts of remembering seem not to involve having ideas at all.  For example, I can remember that 2+2=4 without bringing any ideas to mind.  This point is important because Hume tends to explain all mental activities in terms of having perceptions, and he thinks of perceptions as impressions or the faint copies of impressions (that is, ideas). 

  A more Kantian approach to distinguishing between imagination and memory would be to describe what capacities are involved in being able to remember something and in being able to imagine something, rather than trying to specify some perceptible difference, or some difference of feeling between a memory idea and an idea of imagination.19 


10. Barry Stroud maintains that Hume’s treatment of belief is problematic:


Hume’s talk of believing as a feeling must not be misunderstood.  He is not saying that a belief differs from a conception or an idea solely in the addition of a certain mental item, viz. a feeling, to the original idea.  There would then be a difference in the items that are before the mind when someone believes something and when he merely thinks about it, and that is what Hume wants to deny.  It is rather in its effects on the mind that an idea that is a belief differs from a mere idea—it is said to ‘weigh more in the thought’, to have a ‘superior influence on our passions and imagination’, and to be ‘the governing principle of our actions’. 

  Hume seems never to have entertained the idea that this connection between belief and the passions and the will might constitute the very difference he seeks between belief and mere conception.  That is not to say that he simply missed something obvious.  No adequate theory of the nature of belief has been given to this day, and that is probably because it has been investigated in virtually complete independence from the notions of passion, desire, will and action.20 


11. As Terence Penelhum notes:


the doctrine of calm passions is Hume’s main card in the game against rationalist psychology.  Its main internal difficulty is the fact that it requires him to say that passions can be “in a manner, imperceptible,” while classing them as impressions (T 2.1.1, 276), despite the fact that he has earlier distinguished impressions from ideas on the basis of their force and vivacity and has even used the very word “violence” in doing so (T 1.1.1, 1).21     


12. In his The Last Word, Thomas Nagel maintains that:


since moral reasoning is a species of practical reasoning, its conclusions are desires, intentions, and actions, or feelings and convictions that can motivate desire, intention, and action.  We want to know how to live, and why, and we want the answer in general terms, if possible.  Hume famously believed that because a ‘passion’ immune to rational assessment must underly [sic] every motive, there can be no such thing as specifically practical reason, nor specifically moral reason either.  This is false, because while ‘passions’ are the source of some reasons, other passions or desires are themselves motivated and/or justified by reasons that do not depend on still more basic desires.22 


13. In his The Rational and the Moral Order: The Social Roots of Reason and Morality, Kurt Baier maintains that:


but if facts can be reasons for thinkings, then one can reason across a logical gap, since then one can reason from facts to what is not entailed by them.  Thus, even if there are no entailments between “is” and “ought,” this would not show that facts cannot be reasons for ought-judgments.23 


The dominant conception construes all kinds of reasons as logical or deductive ones.  But these are only a subclass of conclusive reasons which in turn is only a subclass of reasons.  Another subclass of conclusive reasons is based on conclusive evidence.  Thus, the fact that Jones’s fingerprints were on a certain gun is conclusive evidence that Jones actually held that gun.  But, not all evidence is conclusive, yet even inconclusive evidence can be the basis of a more or less weighty reason—i.e., warrant or rational justification—for believing that for which it is evidence.  Once we distinguish between reasons and their bases, we need no longer deny the existence of reasons for actions and choices, on the grounds that facts cannot entail these things or that such reasons cannot be based on entailment.  Once we accept this point, we have abandoned the dominant conception of reason.24 


It seems clear that we can take “is” to refer to constative facts and “ought” to cases such as those in which someone knows a fact and knows that it constitutes a conclusive or an all-things-considered reason for him to believe a certain thing, e.g., the fact that if a lump of sugar is a cube, then it necessarily has twelve edges.  For if he knows this fact about the lump of sugar and knows that it entails that the lump has twelve edges, then he also ought to know that he ought to believe that it has twelve edges, since he ought to know that it must be true.  Thus, the fact—I assume for the moment that it is a fact—that there can be no entailment between the fact that constitutes the cognitive reason and what it is a reason for, namely to believe something, is not an obstacle to reasoning soundly from “is” to “ought” since cognitive reasons are designed to enable us to reason precisely in this way.  And they are based on the same sorts of grounds on which the standard arguments employing (constative) fact-linking reasons are based.25 




1 Thomas  Reid, An Inquiry Into the Human Mind [1764], in Thomas Reid’s Inquiry and Essays, eds. Ronald Beanblossom and Keith Lehrer (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983), 56-57.  Cf., also, Reid’s Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man [1785], in ibid., pp. 140-141.  Back


2 Anthony Flew, David Hume: Philosopher of Moral Sense (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), p. 31.  Back


3 Ibid., p. 33.  Back


4 Ibid., pp. 20-21.  Back


5 Ibid., pp. 22-23.  Back


6 Ibid., pp. 74-75.  Flew is citing Treatise I III XIV and First Enquiry VII II.  Back


7 Ibid., pp. 75-76.  Back


8 Ibid., p. 78.  Back


9 John Dewey, The Quest For Certainty [1929], ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: S.I.U. Press, 1988), p. 125.  Back


10 Robert B. Westbrook, John Dewey and American Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell U.P., 1991), pp. 17-18.  Back


11 John Cook, Wittgenstein’s Metaphysics (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1994), pp. 170-171. Back


12 Hilary Putnam, “After Empiricism” [1985], in his Realism With A Human Face (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1990), pp. 43-53, p. 46.  Back


13 Robert Paul Wolff, “Hume’s Theory of Mental Activity” [1960], in Hume, ed. V.C. Chappell (Garden City: Anchor, 1966), pp.  99-128, pp. 104-105.  Back


14 Ibid., p. 112, footnote.  Back


15 Ibid., p. 113, footnote.  Back


16 Hans Reichenbach, “The Pragmatic Justification of  Induction,” in The Theory of Knowledge: Classical and Contemporary  Readings, ed. Louis Pojman (Belmont: Wadsworth, 1993), pp. 450-454; p. 451.  The essay originally appears in Reichenbach’s Experience and Prediction (Chicago, Univ. of Chicago, 1938).  Back


17 Garrett Thomson, Bacon to Kant: Introduction to Modern Philosophy (second edition) (Prospect Heights: Waveland, 2002), p. 219.  Back


18 Ibid., p. 228.  Back


19 Ibid., p. 217.  Back


20 Barry Stroud, Hume (London: Routledge, 1977), p. 74.  Back


21 Terence  Penelhum, “Hume’s Moral Psychology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Hume, ed. David Fate Norton (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1993), pp. 117-147, p. 127.  Back


22 Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (N.Y. Oxford U.P., 1997), p. 102.  Back


23 Kurt Baier, The Rational and the Moral Order: The Social Roots of Reason and Morality (LaSalle: Open Court, 1995), p. 33.  Back


24 Ibid., p. 34.  Back


25 Ibid., p. 47.  Back


File revised on: 04/03/2015


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