David Hume portrait.

This is the third part of a twelve-part series, where I will share my summaries of sections (chapters) of David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. I would be making these summaries for myself regardless, however, I realized they might come in useful to some philosophy undergrads who are late with their assignment. These are very short summaries based on how much of space was available in my notebook with two pages dedicated to each section. Hume’s special vocabulary for certain sections took up a great deal of space and thus the summaries had to be shortened. Regardless, I hope you will find some of Hume’s thoughts interesting and maybe you will pick up the book yourself.


Of The Association Of Ideas


In this section, Hume argues for underlying principles that govern the way ideas are associated to one another in the mind. (as a caveat Hume uses the word principle in the sense of a cause) Hume claims even in the craziest imaginations or dreams, the principles are at play, and I would add they are present even more distinctly. According to Hume, there are only three of them, three principles of connexion between ideas, and they are resemblance, contiguity (in time or place), and causation (cause or effect). The principles of connexion govern/explain how one idea leads to another idea within the mind.



The simple example Hume offers is of seeing a picture and then thinking of the individual captured on the picture.



Although this is not Hume’s example, it is easier to understand: “I am thinking of the schoolyard at my primary school and then I suddenly think of what was it like when I was a student there,” or vice versa. The connexion is facilitated by the physical proximity of the content of those ideas. Hume’s example is that the mention of one apartment in a building leads to an enquiry about the other apartments.



Hume explains when thinking of a wound we can hardly resist thinking about the pain that follows it. This connexion occurs because there is a perceived causal relationship between the two ideas.

However, the idea of causation is present in all three principles if we understand Hume’s usage of the word principle in the sense of a causal agent.

Hume goes on to show how the three principles manifest themselves in literature both in prose and poetry. His motivation is to show these principles are the only principles of connexion. To briefly describe Hume’s comments on literature, he shows how different works always start with a purpose in mind, a purpose that gives structure to the story. The structure is then determined by the desired result of reading. For example, if the goal of the author is to arouse the sentiments of its readers a poetic, versed structure is fitting, possibly employing all three principles of connexion. A historian will employ the principle of contiguity when writing about a particular event. The smaller constituent parts will be united by the contiguity of time or place or both. 


In regards to whether Hume succeeds in demonstrating there are no other principles of connexion I remain skeptical.


In my reading and quoting from the version of Oxford Philosophical Texts, edited by Tom L. Beauchamp

ISBN 13: 9780198752486


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