David Hume: His Philosophical Empiricism and Skepticism

    Born to a decent family in Edinburgh, Hume (1711-1776) was an intellectually gifted child since childhood as most of his philosophical work dates from his earlier years, particularly originating from an inscrutable intellectual revelation he seems to have experienced at the age of just eighteen. His father demised when Hume was just two and taken care of by his mother only. When he was twelve, he entered the University of Edinburgh where he developed passion for classics. For the next three years, he studied philosophy and endeavoured to create his own philosophical programme.

    At the time of Hume’s birth, European philosophers were mooting the nature of knowledge. In his philosophical work Discourse on the Method, Rene Descarte had greased the wheels of modern philosophy and thus triggered a movement of rationalism in Europe. According to this concept, knowledge can be gained by rational reflection alone. According to Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, rationality is defined as the view that reason, as opposed to, say, sense experience, divine revelation, or reliance on institutional authority, plays a dominant role in our attempt to gain knowledge. Different forms of rationalism are distinguished by different conceptions of reason and its role as a source of knowledge, by different descriptions of the alternatives to which reason is opposed, by different accounts of the nature of knowledge, and by different choices of the subject matter, for example, ethics, physics, mathematics, metaphysics, relative to which reason is viewed as the major source of knowledge.

    John Lock broached his way of understanding knowledge and came up with an empiricist argument that knowledge can only be derived from experience. According to Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, empiricism stresses the fundamental role of experience. As a doctrine in epistemology, it holds that all knowledge is ultimately based on experience. Likewise, an empirical theory of meaning or of thought holds that the meaning of words or our concepts is derivative from experience.

    After Locke, George Berkeley broached his own version of empiricism. According to his view, we understand knowledge through perception. According to Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, perception is defined as the use of our senses to acquire information about the world around us and to become acquainted with objects, events, and their features. Traditionally, there are taken to be five senses: sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste.

    Although empiricist arguments by Locke and Berkeley were influential enough to refute rationalism concerning the nature of knowledge, it was Hume who deeply clobbered rationalism in an argument that was presented in his Treatise of Human Nature. This paper took him around ten years to complete which he did in 1737 at the age of 26 and published two years later. His most authoritative work was split into three portions, scilicet Of the Understanding, Of the Passions, and Of Morals. In Of the Understanding, he addressed his concept of empiricism.

    Hume maintained that the idea of drawing knowledge from experience is well-founded. Besides, it can also be said that there is no difference between ideas and experiences because simpler ideas are formed by the impressions created by our senses and these simpler ideas lead to complex ideas. Apart from that, Hume asserted that when something is termed as a matter of fact, it is a matter that must be experienced. That is to say, it cannot be established only through reasons or instincts.

    By the dint of his argument that experience is necessary for knowledge, Hume disputed the notion of the existence of God and the soul. He maintained that there is no real reason to believe in the existence of God or the soul as people cannot experience them.

    In his Treatise of Human Nature, Hume provided the following three tools for philosophical inquiry: microscope, razor, and fork. According to Philosophy 101 by Paul Kleinman, the tool microscope is used to understand an idea, one must first break down the idea into the simplest ideas that it is made up of.

    The tool razor is used if a term cannot come from an idea that can be broken down into simpler ideas, then that term has no meaning. Hume uses the notion of the razor to devalue ideas such as metaphysics and religion.

    Fork states that truths can be separated into two types. One type of truth states that once ideas (such as a true statement in math) are proven, they remain proven. The other truth relates to matters of fact and things that occur in the world. The former is termed as a demonstrable statement while the latter is called a probable statement.

    The truth and falsity of a demonstrable statement are self-evident. To substantiate this point, consider the statement 1+1= 2. This statement cannot be denied, otherwise, it will involve some logical contradictions, such as the inability to understand the meaning of “1”, “+”, “=”, etc. In mathematics, logic, and deductive reasoning, demonstrable statements are known to be true or false prior to experience.

    Contrary to the demonstrable statement, the truth or falsity of the probable statement is not self-evident because it requires empirical facts. This point can be substantiated through any real-world example, let us say Johnny Depp is a good actor. This is a probable statement because to establish it as a true statement, one has to look at his record in the film industry, what do critics say about him? How many awards does he have? Or how many successful movies has he worked in? After seeing all these facts, only then one can be certain about the truth and falsity of the statement “Johnny Depp is a good actor.”

    In fine, it can be stated that David Hume was irrefragably the most influential philosopher of his age. Owing to his immense contributions to the field of philosophy, his ideas are collectively called Humeanism today. Besides, Hume is known as one of the most important figures of the Enlightenment because of his emphasis on observations and experience which are fundamental elements of science.

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