Category: hume


We read a ‘characterisation’ of empiricism by R. F. Holland from his book Against Empiricism: on Education, Epistemology, and Value, in which he alludes to three potential problems with empiricism. He believes that the empiricist account of the origin of ideas involves ‘raw materials’ entering the ‘factory’ of the mind in which they are ‘processed and emerge cut and dried.’ 

The notion of the ‘mind ‘processing’ ideas seems to be beyond the explanations of empiricist theory; neither Locke nor Hume offer any detail on this ‘process’, but then how could they? Why would they? What does Holland want? Mmm..?
Holland also, perhaps more importantly, brings up what we might call the homunculus problem‘. He characterises the empiricist theory of the way ideas spring from sense data as requiring a ‘mind’s eye’ that ‘surveys the products of its own efforts’, as if a little man (homunculus) is required to look at the ‘processed’ sense impressions in order to make sense of them. This of course suggests another homunculus inside the first and so on into infinite regress. 
I think Holland is probably missing the point, but this is not the time to say why. His criticism is powerful. 
Holland also gently mocks Hume’s notion of the pre-established harmony’  by which ‘we find that our thoughts and conceptions have occurred in an order matching the order of events in the other works of nature.’  Holland is here referring to the apparent flaws in empiricist thinking that seem to lead to ‘solipsism‘. If we never ‘advance a step beyond ourselves‘ as Hume suggests then how come we can reach agreement about the contents of our own minds?
Advertisements
We saw how Hume, writing some 60 years later, builds on Locke’s empiricist foundations and develops many of his views. Hume also rejects innate ideas and believes that all our thoughts are given through the senses.
Hume believes that;
we can divide the mind’s perceptions into two classes, on the basis of their different degrees of force and liveliness. The less forcible and lively are commonly called ‘thoughts’ or  ‘ideas’.
For Hume, these ideas are pale copies of the more direct and immediate perceptions we have when we are actually experiencing something rather than thinking about it. He calls these more direct perceptions ‘impressions’, and explains that he uses this term to mean, ‘all our more lively perceptions when we hear or see or feel or love or hate or desire or will.’
So Hume thinks that ideas are got from the way we experience the world physically, emotionally and intellectually (although I’m not sure if he would approve of those divisions of our experience) but that all our ideas are ‘fainter perceptions of … our impressions.’ As he puts it, ‘all our ideas or more feeble perceptions are copies of our impressions or more lively ones.’




Hume’s Marvelous Method for Solving Philosophical Disputes!

As Hume believed that all ideas were faint ‘copies’ of the sense ‘impressions‘ that they originated in, he was able to propose a method for solving certain philosophical problems by tracing the ideas these problems involved back to their original ‘impressions‘. If an idea could not be traced back to its original sense ‘impression‘ then it must be empty, meaningless and not worth pursuing. 


I got you to try to apply this ‘method’ to the notion of  ‘a time when nothing happens’. This caused a lot of confusion and ‘debate’, but eventually we all agreed (I think) that because we could not have experienced a time when nothing happens, we cannot have a sense impression to base our idea on and therefore the idea was empty and meaningless. 

It is confusing because we ‘think’ we can imagine such a time, but we tend to imagine ourselves or someone ‘observing’ nothing happening, but of course the observation itself is something happening.

So we agreed that what we actually experience as ‘time’ is in fact change and ‘time’ as a ‘substance‘ separate from change does not exist if Hume is correct. 

Some catching up is required – apologies – sometimes life gets in the way. 


So I’ve lumped together several things, all of which are very important and your grasp of them will be crucial to your success. They are quite difficult ideas because they are counter-intuitive – we’re not used to thinking them, and so they tend to slip away if you don’t keep going over the ideas in your mind. If my explanations aren’t good enough for you there are lots of excellent resources on the internet, in particular the podcasts available at …….


Lets start with Wittgenstein


Wittgenstein asks us to imagine that everybody has a matchbox with a beetle in it (init?). No-one can see inside anybody else’s box, but we all agree that what’s in the box is ‘beetle’. The point is that it doesn’t actually matter what’s in the box, we could all have different things, or nothing at all, as long as we ‘play’ the language game referring  to the things in the boxes as ‘beetle’ it doesn’t matter. The meaning of the word exists in the ‘language use’ about the things in the boxes; the meaning is dependent on this community of language users. The meaning of the word does not depend on what’s in the box, but on the language use in which it is referred to. The meaning is not in the ‘label’ that the mind attaches to the sense impression, it is in the ‘negotiation’ and interaction with other language users that the meaning comes about. 

This is most relevant for us because it sheds light on the empiricist idea that words name sense impressions that are ‘sealed’ inside the heads of individual observers, hidden away from everyone else just like the beetles. Because we cannot share the sense impressions, but we clearly share meaning, the meaning must be outside our heads in the use of language within our language community. 


The idea that we all name the same ideas inside our heads – that all our beetles just happen to be identical is clearly absurd. (well, when I say ‘clearly’ …) Nigel Warburton in his excellent book Philosophy the Classics describes it like this;  
I have privileged access to the contents of my own mind that does not extend to the contents of yours. It is as if I have special access to a private cinema in which my thoughts and feelings are displayed; no one else has any idea of what happens within my private cinema. My experience is private to me, and yours to you. No one can really know my pain or my thoughts. I can describe my inner experience to myself, and no one else is able to judge whether or not my descriptions are accurate.

SOLIPSISM

Once you have fully grasped the notion of ‘sense impressions’ as things that exist inside the mind then it’s not difficult to see how empiricism falls into solipsism
Be certain you really get what is implied when Hume says,The mind never has anything present to it except the perceptions, and can’t possibly experience their connection with objects.’ 


Although Hume has little in common with him, it might be useful to think of this as a little like Plato’s ‘cave’ analogy. All the prisoners had were the shadows on the wall, they could not turn their heads or leave the cave to check the status of the shadows; it would never occur to them to do so because, to them, the shadows were reality. Similarly we cannot leave our heads to check how fully sense impressions mirror reality. 

Hume didn’t see this as problematic, but the kind of philosophers who want to find some objective ground, some ‘certainty’ beyond the particular circumstances of time and chance do. The kind of philosophers who want to escape the ‘cave’ and see the ‘reality’ behind the appearance, do. But Hume insists that, ‘We never really advance a step beyond ourselves, nor can conceive any kind of existence, but those perceptions, which have appeared in that narrow compass.’  For Hume, we just are inside our heads with the ideas that are ‘dimmer’ copies of the original sense impressions. 

So if we are locked into our heads with our own individual sense impressions then how do we come to attach any meaning to the ‘ideas’ that the sense impressions leave us with? 

PRIVATE LANGUAGE

Wittgenstein’s so called ‘private Language Argument makes  the point that a language that attempts to ‘name’ or give meaning to private sensations is impossible because it has no ‘touchstone’, no point of reference to keep its meaning consistent. This argument seems to rely on the very concept of ‘meaning ‘ being almost synonymous (meaning the same thing) with ‘sharing’.  If it isn’t then you wouldn’t need a ‘touchstone’.  

If language is an intrinsically public phenomenon, and language sets the limits of our thoughts then the contents of our minds don’t seem as private as we might have believed.  Certainly it seems to make the notion of solipsism illogical. How can we define ourselves as solitary and locked in when the very use of the word shows us to be part of a language community.

If a private language is impossible then simply knowing a language refutes solipsism. We cannot be locked in if we are part of a language community and simply knowing a language confirms us as members of a language community

I’m beginning to repeat myself, so I’ll stop.

You should be aware that this interpretation of Wittgenstein’s views is known as the community view for obvious reasons, it is not the only view, but it is the one that makes the most sense to me. (And Nigel, I believe.)

Kant believed that claims about the world could be both ‘synthetic‘ in that they could tell us something about the world that isn’t contained in their own terms, and ‘a priori‘ because they can be known independent of experience of the world. 


This is a response to Hume who had denied such a possibility. ‘Hume’s fork‘ (see previous entry) made a strict separation between synthetic propositions, which for him could only be known ‘a posteriori‘ and ‘analytic‘ propositions which could be known a priori, but told us nothing about the world that was not already contained in their terms. 

To understand this we have to look at the way the sentences we use to make propositions and claims about the world work. Sentences consist of subjects (the thing the sentence is about) and predicates (the words that say something about the subject). So, the sentence ‘Some frogs are green’ has ‘Some frogs’ as its subject and ‘are green’ as its predicate. 

Both Kant and Hume thought that ‘analytic‘ statements are those in which the subject contains the predicate and consequently they don’t add any information about the world: an example of this would be the sentence ‘green frogs are green’, or to push it a little further, ‘kangaroos are animals’, because we could claim that the concept of ‘kangaroo’ contains the concept of ‘animal’, so if we already have the concept of ‘kangaroo’ we already have the concept of ‘animal’ and we know this independent of (further) experience’, we know it ‘a priori

On the other hand the predicates of ‘synthetic‘ statements are not contained in the subject, so they do give us additional information about the world; for example ‘This frog is green’ or ‘this kangaroo has a stamp collection.’

But Kant thought that statements like ‘7 + 5 = 12’ were both ‘synthetic‘ and ‘a priori‘, in fact he thought that Mathematical judgments are all, without exception, synthetic.’ For Kant, there is nothing contained in the concept of ‘7’ and ‘5’  that makes the knowledge that that adding them together will result in ’12’ immediately obvious or unavoidable. What he was getting at is perhaps easier to see if we consider larger numbers like for example, 38976 and 45204; their sum 84180 certainly does leap out at me, but I’m v. poor at maths. I think this gives an inkling of what Kant meant, but an awful lot of reading is really required to work your way into his idea. 
Kant  also thought that science could come up with synthetic a priori statements. He claimed that the statement, ‘In all changes in the physical world the quantity of matter remains unchanged.’ was such an example; he said;

Now, in  thinking the concept of matter I do not think its permanence but only its presence in the space that it fills. Thinking that matter is permanent isn’t like thinking that women are female, or that tigers are animals. In judging that matter is permanent, therefore, I go beyond the concept of matter in order to add to it something that I didn’t think in it. So the proposition isn’t analytic but synthetic; yet it is thought a priori.

He also claimed that the statement, ‘When one body collides with another, action and reaction must always be equal‘ was synthetic and a priori

Again it is not obvious (not to most mortals anyway) exactly what he meant, but if we consider his ideas about the ‘categories‘: how we experience the world in the way we do because time, space and cause and effect are built in to the way our minds are set up to experience the world, then we begin to see how we might know ‘a priori’ the stuff above about action and reaction, and such ‘knowledge’ certainly seems to add to our information about the world and is therefore ‘synthetic‘. Hume, of course denied that ideas about cause and effect, action and reaction etc. were anything other than the product of experience and as such, although synthetic, could only be known ‘a posteriori’.

So, I hope that’s clear, now. Another Saturday afternoon bites the dust of metaphysical speculation. And I haven’t marked your essays yet!

We read Section 3 – 4, of David Hume’s  ‘Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding‘. It is the ‘billiard ball‘ bit and it’s about causation and inductive reasoning. 


The fact that these ideas seem counter intuitive (seems daft) is the whole point. Hume points out that ‘custom’ and ‘habit’ has a very strong grip on our ways of thinking and this is why we think there is a law or ‘principle’ of cause and effect operating in the physical world. 


What we need to grasp is the difference between: 

1. predicting that event ‘A’ will be followed by event ‘B’ just because it always has in the past


and 


2. believing we have uncovered a ‘law’ of the physical world that says event ‘A’ will always be followed by event ‘B’ regardless of the time, circumstances (and universe) that those events occur in. 


No one (certainly not Hume) is saying that we shouldn’t use our ability to predict and control the world through the knowledge we gain through experience, but we must not formulate laws based on what are always limited observations of ‘recurring phenomenal patterns’. In other words however many times you observe a billiard ball striking another it will never be enough to conclude or infer that the second ball will always move.


To do so would be to use induction or inductive reasoning. Induction works like this:


  • All the ice I have ever touched was cold, therefore all ice is cold. 

Or

  • All the one billion billiard balls struck with a cue moved, therefore all billiard balls move when struck with a cue. 

It is to taking particular events and making them the basis of universal laws. You might think this is daft, but even Stephen Hawking agrees! He says,

“No matter how many times the results of experiments agree with some theory, you can never be sure that the next time the result will not contradict the theory.” 


Finally we must be careful not to confuse induction with deduction. Wikipedia explains something like this:


Deductive reasoning, sometimes called deductive logic, is reasoning which uses deductive arguments to move from given statements (premises) to conclusions, which must be true if the premises are true.[1] An example of deductive reasoning, given by Aristotle, is

All men are mortal. (major premise)

Socrates is a man. (minor premise)

Socrates is mortal. (conclusion)


So, we can see that deductive reasoning moves from a general principle to a particular example, whereas inductive reasoning moves from a particular example to a general principle.



Swimming Upstream

David Hume made some very telling comments on the problems we face in getting to grips with new ideas. In trying to explain his seemingly counter-intuitive ideas about ‘induction’ – the way we infer effects from causes, he suggested that we struggle to grasp new ideas, and quickly slip back into old ways of thinking because of the force ‘custom or habit’ on our minds. He said that we are;

inclined to behave or think in some way, not because it can be justified by reasoning or some process of the understanding but just because we have behaved or thought like that so often in the pass.

Thinking in a new way requires effort and concentration, and once we let that effort drop the old way of thinking seems to take over again. It is perhaps a bit like trying to swim against the current of a fast-flowing river: if we swim really hard we can make progress, but as soon as our work rate decreases the current quickly sweeps us back in the opposite direction. 

Whilst we are in the midst of reading and thinking about new ideas we can understand them, but once we ‘relax’, the understanding fades away. The only answer to this is to practise thinking the new ideas, so that they become ‘custom and habit’, and we build the strength of our ‘thinking muscles’.

We considered a ‘characterisation’ of empiricism by R. F. Holland from his book Against Empiricism: on Education, Epistemology, and Value, in which he alludes to three potential problems with empiricism. He believes that the empiricist account of the origin of ideas involves ‘raw materials’ entering the ‘factory’ of the mind in which they are ‘processed and emerge cut and dried.’ 


The notion of the ‘mind ‘processing’ ideas seems to be beyond the explanations of empiricist theory; neither Locke nor Hume offer any detail on this ‘process’, but then how could they? Why would they? What does Holland want? Mmm..?

Holland also, perhaps more importantly, brings up what we might call the ‘homunculus problem’. He characterises the empiricist theory of the way ideas spring from sense data as requiring a ‘mind’s eye’ that ‘surveys the products of its own efforts’, as if a little man (homunculus) is required to look at the ‘processed’ sense impressions in order to make sense of them. This of course suggests another homunculus inside the first and so on into infinite regress. 

I think Holland is probably missing the point, but this is not the time to say why. His criticism is powerful. 

Holland also gently mocks Hume’s notion of the ‘pre-established harmony’  by which we find that our thoughts and conceptions have occurred in an order matching the order of events in the other works of nature.’  Holland is here referring to the apparent flaws in empiricist thinking that seem to lead to ‘solipsism‘. (See Solipsism above).

As Hume believed that all ideas were faint ‘copies’ of the sense ‘impressions‘ that they originated in, he was able to propose a method for solving certain philosophical problems by tracing the ideas these problems involved back to their original ‘impressions‘. If an idea could not be traced back to its original sense ‘impression‘ then it must be empty, meaningless and not worth pursuing. 


I got you to try to apply this ‘method’ to the notion of  ‘a time when nothing happens’. This caused a lot of confusion and ‘debate’, but eventually we all agreed (I think) that because we could not have experienced a time when nothing happens, we cannot have a sense impression to base our idea on and therefore the idea was empty and meaningless. 

It is confusing because we ‘think’ we can imagine such a time, but we tend to imagine ourselves or someone ‘observing’ nothing happening, but of course the observation itself is something happening.

So we agreed that what we actually experience as ‘time’ is in fact change and ‘time’ as a ‘substance‘ separate from change does not exist if Hume is correct. 

You went on to apply this method to love / hate and innate ideas and of course you could find the impressions that the ideas of love and hate come from, but not those for innate ideas. This would have made Hume happy. Well done people!

We saw how Hume, writing some 60 years later, builds on Locke’s empiricist foundations and develops many of his views. Hume also rejects innate ideas and believes that all our thoughts are given through the senses.


Hume believes that;

we can divide the mind’s perceptions into two classes, on the basis of their different degrees of force and liveliness. The less forcible and lively are commonly called ‘thoughts’ or ideas’.

For Hume, these ideas are pale copies of the more direct and immediate perceptions we have when we are actually experiencing something rather than thinking about it. He calls these more direct perceptions ‘impressions’, and explains that he uses this term to mean, ‘all our more lively perceptions when we hear or see or feel or love or hate or desire or will.’


So Hume thinks that ideas are got from the way we experience the world physically, emotionally and intellectually (although I’m not sure if he would approve of those divisions of our experience) but that all our ideas are fainter perceptions of … our impressions.’ As he puts it, ‘all our ideas or more feeble perceptions are copies of our impressions or more lively ones.’




Today I tried to speed you up a bit. You did the following:

1. You tried to answer the very easy question, ‘What is the relationship between thought and reality?’  This is what we’ve been trying to do all along in case you hadn’t noticed. It is the question at the heart of epistemology.  The way to approach a question like this is to define your terms: what do we mean by ‘relationship’, ‘thought’ and ‘reality’? 
Then think about whether there is anything anything implied by the question that might prejudice your answer? Are there assumptions built into the question? Yes. Lots of them.
Most of you had a good stab at answering it and that’s the most important thing.

2. As a an anecdotal follow up to our discussion of innate ideas, I explained how Mr Scarisbrick’s view of human nature informs his political stance. As mine does my own. Even though I don’t think we have one. A ‘human nature’ that is.

3.  We read a little more of Locke on innate ideas and how he thought that experience occured in the womb. Which is interesting. Isn’t it?

4.  We read some of the text book as preparation to reading some Hume, and saw how he thought that as all ideas come from experience it is possible to ‘spot’ pointless abstract theories by tracing their origin and seeing if they can be traced back to experience. 
His example of trying to conceive of ‘a time in which nothing happens’ caused some debate and confusion. and we will have to return to it, so I’ll save my feeble explanations for later. 

5.  I told you about the homework which is below.