Monday, 19 March 2012 07:38

David Hume: Men of Ideas

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David Hume (1711-1776) was a Scottish historian and philosopher. His text, The History of England was for many decades the standard text book on British History. However, we are interested in his philosophical musing.

Hume was an uncompromising empiricist. His book, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, argues that we can only understand the empirical world through our five senses and that any other type of understanding is speculative and not real understanding.

We can only understand the world through our five senses; any other claim to understanding of the world is spurious and cannot be demonstrated as true, believed yes but proved no.

For example, to say that there is a spiritual part of us that understands things apart from our five senses is nonsense since we cannot demonstrate that there is a spiritual part to us.  All we know for sure is the material world, a world we understand with our material senses.

Hume was an empiricist and a materialist. According to this view, all that exists is the world of matter and human begins are part of matter. We are parts of matter. This is philosophical material monism, as opposed to idealistic monism.

Idealistic monism presupposes that there is a non-material aspect to us. As Hume sees it, there is no divine mind and there is no human mind that is a miniature version of a so-called divine mind.

Hume was an atheist. Because of his atheism and rejection of God he was a marked man and could not obtain teaching work in his native Scotland.

Hume was influenced by John Locke and George Berkeley’s empiricism. He was also influenced by real scientists like Isaac Newton and William Harvey.

Hume's contribution to philosophical discourse is his insistence on empiricism and the scientific method (during his time called logical positivism).

In his psychology he talked about how we come to know what we think that we know. First is perception. Here the external world makes impressions on bodies, eyes and brains. We experience, see what is out there and what we see stimulate some thinking in us.

We formulate ideas about what we see. Clearly, our ideas about what see may or may not be correct interpretation of what we see.

The only way that we can ascertain that what we see, impressions, are true is through objective verifications of their existence, especially if more than one person can verify seeing the same thing.

On the other hand, we have ideas about what we see, about the external world. Those ideas, concepts, about the world may or not be true; they are unrealizable and not scientific. Clearly, impressions, perceptions, are more reliable information on reality than what we think of reality.

Human beings are motivated to attribute causal factors to events they see happening in their world. Through perception they conclude that when there is A there is B, that A causes B.

Empiricism or logical positivism would like to demonstrate the causal relationship between A and B. In many ways, it is possible to show the correlation of A and B. But upon closer observation we discover that things are not what they seem to be; there may be other factors that are not seen by the observer in A seeming to cause B.

We must, therefore, entertain some skepticism in attributing B to A. This is a necessary caution.

Hume talked about the problems of induction and drawing logical inferences in general. Induction or the scientific method builds theories on the basis of facts, observations. We observe how the world works and verify that they work so and draw conclusions that the world of the future would work like the world of the past.

We build theories regarding how the world works based on our past observations of the workings of the world, our observation of regularities in nature’s operation. Scientific theories are based on the regularities of phenomena. We perceive events always occurring in a certain manner and generalize that they would always do so in the future.

This generalization is a fallacy for there is no way that we can tell that what happened in the past would happen in the future. We cannot predict the future.

Consider. The sun has always risen, shone and enlightened the world. It has done so for billions of years. If we then assume that it would continue doing so in the future we are at fault for the sun may blow itself into smithereens tomorrow, and no longer exists.

We cannot predict what is going to happen tomorrow with one hundred percent accuracy. The past may shape the present and future but this may not always be so, for there may be no future.

Unfortunately, Hume did not follow his own advice. He observed the various races and noted that those living in Europe seem civilized whereas those living in the tropics, specifically Africa, seem uncivilized (given his idea of what constitutes civilization). He drew the conclusion that Africans are uncivilized. This is empirical enough. But he did not stop there and went on to say that Africans are incapable of civilization.

Hume’s racism prevented him from recognizing that the past does not predict the future. He saw Africans as uncivilized and assumed that they would always be so. Poor fellow; if he hangs around he would soon learn that the same Africans he believed were incapable of civilization would surpass his Europe.

We can go on and on talking about the specifics of what Hume said on specific philosophical issues. However, his most salient contribution to philosophical discourse is his pointing out the problem with induction and his insistence on empiricism. He did not say anything that in itself is scientific; he was not a scientist in the sense that Isaac Newton was; nevertheless, he contributed something to science; he was a philosopher of science clarifying the scientific method.

You know, what they say: those who can do science do it and those who cannot do it philosophize about it. Non scientists posit interesting philosophies of science. However, al the philosophers of science put together do not make one scientist.

It should also be noted that too much emphasis on correct methodology stifles creativity, kills the work of science. Would the scientific method have produced quantum mechanics?

Science is more than mere empiricism. Science is empiricism plus intuition plus many unknown factors.


David Hume. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. (1777

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176