Tag Archives: David Hume

Commit it then to the flames

David Hume

David Hume, 300th birthday today.

We may observe in human nature a principle which, if strictly examined, will be found to diminish extremely the assurance, which we might, from human testimony, have, in any kind of prodigy. The maxim, by which we commonly conduct ourselves in our reasonings, is, that the objects, of which we have no experience, resemble those, of which we have; that what we have found to be most usual is always most probable; and that where there is an opposition of arguments, we ought to give the preference to such as are founded on the greatest number of past observations. But though, in proceeding by this rule, we readily reject any fact which is unusual and incredible in an ordinary degree; yet in advancing farther, the mind observes not always the same rule; but when anything is affirmed utterly absurd and miraculous, it rather the more readily admits of such a fact, upon account of that very circumstance, which ought to destroy all its authority. The passion of surprise and wonder, arising from miracles, being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events, from which it is derived. And this goes so far, that even those who cannot enjoy this pleasure immediately, nor can believe those miraculous events, of which they are informed, yet love to partake of the satisfaction at second-hand or by rebound, and place a pride and delight in exciting the admiration of others. (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding)

As a (William) Jamesian, Hume was the precedent. Called the greatest philosopher “who wrote in English,” to me, he was the foremost “proto modern philosopher,” and the philosopher, besides, James, I’ve spent the most time with. From my perspective, skepticism as empirical approach, is what allows for one to see the many, albeit partial, sides of a problem, viewpoint, ideology. Also, as approach and attitude, it’s related to systems awareness in our modern sense, thus, for example, this moves us to regard all the factors of influence and inflection, especially the human subjective factors, in any description, explanation, prediction, or idealization of a system, or systems of systems.

But setting aside some metaphysicians of this kind, I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement. Our eyes cannot turn in their sockets without varying our perceptions. Our thought is still more variable than our sight; and all our other senses and faculties contribute to this change: nor is there any single power of the soul, which remains unalterably the same, perhaps for one moment. The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, repass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations. There is properly no simplicity in it at one time, nor identity in different, whatever natural propension we may have to imagine that simplicity and identity. The comparison of the theatre must not mislead us. They are the successive perceptions only, that constitute the mind; nor have we the most distant notion of the place where these scenes are represented, or of the materials of which it is composed. (A Treatise On Human Nature)

Robert Bell David Hume’s Fables of Identity

The Humean Assault


David Hume’s Birthday at Crooked Timber

David Hume’s Birthday at Cognition and Culture

The Hume Society

article by Yumiko Inukai, University of Pennsylvania The historical Buddha (Gotama), Hume, and James on the self: Comparisons and evaluations

We are inclined to believe that we are persisting, unified subjects that undergo experience, whether or not we believe in souls or substantial entities of some sort that are often posited as persisting subjects. Where does this belief come from? To deal with this question, I examine David Hume’s and William James’ accounts of the self, both of whom attempt to provide the empirical basis for such a belief. In the Appendix to A Treatise of Human Nature , Hume acknowledges that his account of our belief in a persisting self offered earlier in that work involves a profound problem that he has no hope to solve. Contrary to the common interpretation that puts Hume’s newly-found problem in his very account of the idea of the self, I suggest that it arises from his presupposition throughout Book One of the Treatise that perceptions are initially bundled together. I argue that Hume’s theoretical commitment to the radical independence of perceptions does not allow him to maintain the initial unity of perceptions (i.e., a unified self). Nor is he able to explain the formation of it. I call this the Bundling problem. In contrast, James improves upon Hume by developing more detailed descriptions of experience and simply avoids the Bundling problem by rejecting Hume’s atomistic theory of experience, affirming that experience is fundamentally unitary and continuous, which he calls “the stream of consciousness.” A rigorous analysis of experience enables James to account for our belief of a persisting subject on empirical grounds. Consideration of James’ accounts sheds a great light on Hume’s fundamental problem. I argue that Hume’s atomistic theory of experience–which proves to be the source of the Bundling problem–is a metaphysical theory, which is in conflict with his own professed empiricist methodology. The Bundling problem is not, therefore, inherent in his empiricism itself. Hence, there still is hope for an empiricist account of our belief in a persisting self, and this hope is found in James.

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Filed under philosophy, William James


It is remarkable, that the principles of religion have a kind of flux and reflux in the human mind, and that men have a natural tendency to rise from idolatry to theism, and to sink again from theism into idolatry. The vulgar, that is, indeed, all mankind, a few excepted, being ignorant and uninstructed, never elevate their contemplation to the heavens, or penetrate by their disquisitions into the secret structure of vegetable or animal bodies; so far as to discover a supreme mind or original providence, which bestowed order on every part of nature. They consider these admirable works in a more confined and selfish view; and finding their own happiness and misery to depend on the secret influence and unforeseen concurrence of external objects, they regard; with perpetual attention, the , which govern all these natural events, and distribute pleasure and pain, good and ill, by their powerful, but silent, operation. The unknown causes are still appealed to on every emergence; and in this general appearance or confused image, are the perpetual objects of human hopes and fears, wishes and apprehensions. By degrees, the active imagination of men, uneasy in this abstract conception of objects, about which it is incessantly employed, begins to render them more particular, and to clothe them in shapes more suitable to its natural comprehension. It represents them to be sensible, intelligent beings, like mankind; actuated by love and hatred, and flexible by gifts and entreaties, by prayers and sacrifices. Hence the origin of religion: And hence the origin of idolatry or polytheism.

But the same anxious concern for happiness, which begets the idea of these invisible, intelligent powers, allows not mankind to remain long in the first simple conception of them; as powerful, but limited beings; masters of human fate, but slaves to destiny and the course of nature. Men’s exaggerated praises and compliments still swell their idea upon them; and elevating their deities to the utmost bounds of perfection, at last beget the attributes of unity and infinity, simplicity and spirituality. Such refined ideas, being somewhat disproportioned to vulgar comprehension, remain not long in their original purity; but require to be supported by the notion of inferior mediators or subordinate agents, which interpose between mankind and their supreme deity. These demi-gods or middle beings, partaking more of human nature, and being more familiar to us, become the chief objects of devotion, and gradually recal that idolatry, which had been formerly banished by the ardent prayers and panegyrics of timorous and indigent mortals. But as these idolatrous religions fall every day into grosser and more vulgar conceptions, they at last destroy themselves, and, by the vile representations, which they form of their deities, make the tide turn again towards theism. But so great is the propensity, in this alternate revolution of human sentiments, to return back to idolatry, that the utmost precaution is not able effectually to prevent it. And of this, some theists, particularly the Jews and Muslims, have been sensible; as appears by their banishing all the arts of statuary and painting, and not allowing the representations, even of human figures, to be taken by marble or colours; lest the common infirmity of mankind should thence produce idolatry. The feeble apprehensions of men cannot be satisfied with conceiving their deity as a pure spirit and perfect intelligence; and yet their natural terrors keep them from imputing to him the least shadow of limitation and imperfection. They fluctuate between these opposite sentiments. The same infirmity still drags them downwards, from an omnipotent and spiritual deity, to a limited and corporeal one, and from a corporeal and limited deity to a statue or visible representation. The same endeavour at elevation still pushes them upwards, from the statue or material image to the invisible power; and from the invisible power to an infinitely perfect deity, the creator and sovereign of the universe.

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Filed under philosophy, psychology, Religion