David Hume

This is the fourth 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.

Sceptical Doubts concerning the Operations of the Understanding

 

Hume first distinguishes two types of propositions or objects of human reason. Hume distinguishes Relations of Ideas from Matters of Fact. It is quite similar to Richard Swinburne’s distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions. Propositions of the relations of ideas are ones whose negation is nonsensical, whose negation produces a contradiction, e.g.: “A triangle is not a three-sided figure.” Negations of matters of fact still make sense, e.g.: “The sun will not rise tomorrow.” It is possible that could happen, however it is not possible that a triangle would not have three sides. 

 

Hume attempts to find the underlying principle that governs our reasoning about matters of fact. He claims that all reasoning about matters of fact seems to be founded on the relation of cause and effect. This is the connection between the present fact and that which is inferred from it. This causal relation is according to Hume present in all other reasonings. The causal relation is either near or remote, and either direct or collateral. 

Hume goes further to say the entire idea of a causal relation between two events following each other is purely experiential. That means we cannot be certain an event B will follow an event A. Our inference is based on previous observations. It is not a priori. We cannot be certain that the same event will follow every time we hit a billiard ball with another. It is conceivable that this one time upon being hit the billiard ball will not move. 

Hume further claims that while observing a new causal agent we cannot infer what will follow. We need observation to be able to give a prediction.

 

Hume then discusses how unfounded is it to claim that a similar cause to a cause A, a cause that has so far always been followed by X, will likewise be followed by X. Hume argues we have no a priori reason for this inference. Further, he claims that another of our laws bound to inference is the idea that the future will keep its past causal relations. We again only have past observations for supposing so, and thus Hume concludes inference, as the underlying principle of matters of fact, to be incapable of achieving certainty.

 

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

ISBN 13: 9780198752486