Classical Modern Philosophy

Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, I-II


I: Of the Different Species of Philosophy

Hume's interest: moral philosophy ("or the science of human nature")

note that this is broader than ethics, though it includes ethics

the "easy and obvious" philosophy

the "abstract and profound" philosophy

1. considers humans as "born for action" and as influenced by "taste and sentiment": the practical as more important than the theoretical, and desires and feelings as more important than reason 1. considers humans as "reasonable rather than active": concerned with theoretical rather than practical
2. has a practical result ("molds the heart and affections") 2. May not have any practical result: "vanishes when the philosopher leaves the shade"
3. examples: Cicero, La Bruyère, Addison 3. examples: Aristotle, Malebranche, Locke
4. more compatible with a balance between the reasonable, the social, and the active (science, company, and business) 4. risks incapacitating one for "other occupations and entertainments," and so makes the mixed life more difficult

1. Enables the easy philosophy to "attain a sufficient degree of exactness in its sentiments, precepts, [and] reasonings" (310). Compare the anatomist and the artist.

2. The results of such philosophizing will spread to other areas, e.g. politics and law.

3. satisfaction of curiosity

The danger of the abstruse and difficult philosophy is that it is "the inevitable source of uncertainty and error" (91). But, Hume suggests, while this may be true, it won't do to just ignore metaphysics; we must "inquire seriously into the nature of human understanding, and show, from an exact analysis of its powers and capacity, that it is by no means fitted for such remote and abstruse subjects." (Memorable metaphor: chasing the robbers into the forest.)

We may hope for two sorts of knowledge about human understanding: 1) the proper description and classification of mental phenomena (compare natural history or the descriptive part of astronomy), and 2) "the secret springs and principles, by which the human mind is actuated in its operations." Analogy with Newton (p. 93). (Hume hopes to do both.)

Hume's ultimate hope is to unify the two sorts of philosophy "by reconciling profound inquiry with clearness, and truth with novelty," and hopefully by doing so "undermine the foundations of an abstruse philosophy, which seems to have hitherto served only as a shelter to superstition, and a cover to absurdity and error" (95).

II. Of the Origin of Ideas

Hume argues that the contents of our minds are divided into two sorts, impressions and ideas. Ideas are merely copies of impressions; the only difference lies in their lesser "force and vivacity."

All ideas, then, for Hume, originate in sensory impressions. (This is much like Locke's view that all of our simple ideas come from experience, and all our complex ideas come from our simple ideas.)

Two arguments:

1. On reflection, we can determine that all of our ideas reduce to impressions (97-98). (E.g. the idea of God does; contrast Descartes.) (If we start from a word we think we understand, and try to trace its meaning back to impressions but fail, we realize that we have no idea corresponding to the word: 99.)

2. People who don't have certain sorts of impressions cannot acquire the ideas that derive from them (98).

Problem: the missing shade of blue (p. 99 top).

Last update: March 30, 2009. 
Curtis Brown  |  Classical Modern Philosophy   |  Philosophy Department  |   Trinity University