Harrison Middleton University

Knowledge According to Hume

Knowledge According to Hume

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


October 7, 2022

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“a man’s vision is the great fact about him” – William James

At the outset of The Pluralistic Universe, William James asks that all citizens learn to think for themselves. Furthermore, he feels that students should think for themselves rather than expect, await and rely upon classroom lectures for insight. He encourages interest in patterns of thought, interest in language, interest in simplicity. It bothers James that philosophy students are often asked only to think in terms of previous arguments and then define their thoughts as associated with previous philosophers. James writes, “You must tie your opinion to Aristotle’s or Spinoza’s; you must define it by its distance from Kant’s; you must refute your rival’s view by identifying it with Protagoras’s. Thus, does all spontaneity of thought, all freshness of conception, get destroyed. Everything you touch is shopworn. The over-technicality and consequent dreariness of the younger disciples at our American universities is appalling…. American students have to regain direct relations with our subject by painful individual effort.” I cannot speak to the way typical American universities function or teach (truly, I do not know exactly what “typical” might mean either), yet the idea that, broadly speaking, we do not teach simple thought analysis strikes me as accurate. I find this of increasing relevance as we enter a fully technological world.

James continues, “In a subject like philosophy it is really fatal to lose connexion with the open air of human nature, and to think in terms of shop-tradition only.” This fatality, however, does not look like we might expect – extinction or eradication – but rather it appears as stagnation. Things that stagnate have no life-force or soul of their own. James underscores the importance of critical thinking by all citizens. He specifically asks that everyone participate in a philosophical endeavor which involves strenuous thought. If we did this with popular culture in mind, we might question some of the backbones of society – which might lead to both fruitful (and probably painful) discussions. Instead of following a small in-group of philosophers, James wants everyone to experiment with thought. Ask difficult questions. Reason. Counter. Argue. Discuss. Outlandish arguments may be more reasonable than at first thought, and you may also find yourself more aligned with your neighbors than you imagine. On the other hand, truly outlandish and useless arguments will be pushed out of common discourse by communal effort and dialogue. In other words, there is no dumb question, only dumb silence.

In these same lectures, James feels that philosophy is of universal interest, and asks us to follow the model set by David Hume. Of course, James admires the nature of Hume’s work, though he eventually disagrees with Hume’s conclusion. One example of Hume’s thought process occurs in A Treatise of Human Nature, Book I “Of the Understanding,” where Hume describes how integral belief is to our thoughts and behaviors. He writes:

“[B]elief does nothing but vary the manner, in which we conceive any object, it can only bestow on our ideas an additional force and vivacity.”

“Reason can never satisfy us that the existence of any one object does ever imply that of another; so that when we pass from the impression of one to the idea or belief of another, we are not determin’d by reason, but by custom or a principle of association. But belief is somewhat more than a simple idea. ‘Tis a particular manner of forming an idea: And as the same idea can only be vary’d by a variation of its degrees of force and vivacity; it follows upon the whole, that belief is a lively idea produc’d by a relation to a present impression, according to the foregoing definition.”

“This operation of the mind, which forms the belief of any matter of fact, seems hitherto to have been one of the greatest mysteries of philosophy; tho’ no one has so much as suspected that there was any difficulty in explaining it. For my part I must own, that I find a considerable difficulty in the case; and that even when I think I understand the subject perfectly, I am at a loss for terms to express my meaning. I conclude, by an induction which seems to me very evident, that an opinion or belief is nothing but an idea, that is different from a friction, not in the nature, or the order of its parts, but in the manner of its being conceiv’d. But when I wou’d explain this manner, I scarce find any word that fully answers the case, but am oblig’d to have recourse to every one’s feeling, in order to give him a perfect notion of this operation of the mind. An idea assented to feels different from a fictitious idea, that the fancy alone presents to us: And this different feeling I endeavour to explain by calling it a superior force, or vivacity, or solidity, or firmness, or steadiness. This variety of terms, which may seem so unphilosophical, is intended only to express that act of the mind which renders realities more present to us than fictions, causes them to weigh more in the thought and gives them a superior influence on the passions and the imagination.”

As Hume investigates knowledge, something integral, but little understood, he also discovers how closely it relates to and perhaps stems from belief. With a series of “unphilosophical terms,” he tries to describe what rests at the root of knowledge and how it becomes knowledge rather than conjecture or something less concrete. Later, he defines knowledge as a belief that has been tested. On the whole, Book I “Of the Understanding,” is an excellent adventure in foundations. Hume maps the path of human thought through a focus on belief, knowledge, memory and imagination, all vital in understanding our experience of reality.

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