A Critique Of David Hume’s Empiricism

A Critique Of David Hume’s Empiricism

Hume’s Life and the Intellectual Influences on Him

2.1     Hume’s Life and Works

David Hume was born on April 26, 1711, in Edinburgh, Scotland which is very close to his family’s estate at Ninewalls, Berwickshire. In the early 1720’s, he entered the University of Edinburgh, although he left the University a few years after without any degree. He was urged by his family to read law, but he could not, as law was not appealing to him, so instead of reading law, he showed keener interest in the ancient writers of history, natural science and philosophy. In 1734, he went to France and stayed for three years, it was during this time that his major works in philosophy began.

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He served as tutor to the mad marques of Annandale from 1743 – 1746 and as librarian of the advocates library in Edinburgh from 1752 – 1757. He also served in Paris as secretary to Lord Hertford who was Ambassador of Scotland to france, from 1763 – 1765.

Despite however that he served in many capacities during his time, he was never a University professor, unlike other contemporary philosophers of his status. Although, he was twice nominated for such positions, the extreme opposition of the Scotish clergy prevented him from being accepted.

This kind of opposition from religious angle however not a surprise to Hume as he was always confronted with it because of his writings that were considered blasphemous and which at one time, nearly resulted in an excommunication by the General Assembly of the Kirk.

Hume made friends with such notable personalities of his time, which included Adam Smith whom shortly before his death, he entrusted the publication of his manuscript “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religions”, and Jean Jacques Rosseau whose relationship with him ended in a dispute. Nevertheless, Hume spent much of his time during his last years amending and correcting some of his already published works.

His work however include “A Treatise on Human Nature”, which was an attempt by him to introduce the experiential method of reasoning even in moral subjects. The book was made up of three volumes, the first two were published anonymously in London in 1739 and the third published in 1740. Hume though later rejected the “Treatise”, which according to him “fell dead-born from the press1, without reaching such distinction as even to excite a murmur among the zealots”1.

After Hume rejected the “Treatise” he later reworked much of the material, so that they appeared in other forms first, as “Philosophical Essay Concerning Human understanding”, but was titled “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, this was first published in 1748, after this came the “Dissertation of the Passions” published in 1757, then the book III of the reworked “Treatise”, which is, “An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals” published in 1751.

Hume however, wrote some other books after the publication of the “Treatise” and these includes “The Essays On Moral and Politics”, “Political Discourse”, published in 1752, “History of England”, published between 1754 and 1762. There is also a pamphlet which he wrote to clarify issues about his dispute with Jean Jacques Rousseau, the title of which is “A Concise and Genuine Account of the Dispute Between Mr. Hume and Mr. Rousseau”, this appeared in 1766. Lastly, there is an autobiographical sketch of his life which was titled, “My Own Life”.

But of all these works, Hume preferred the “Enquiry” most, as he continually referred students and critics of his philosophy to the “Enquiry” saying that, henceforth the author desires that the following pieces (the enquiry) may alone be regarded as containing his philosophical sentiments and principles”.2

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It is not contestable that Hume’s works are great in contributing to the progress of philosophy (empiricism in particular), it is however still common to find him and the individuality of his philosophy considered merely the third major representative and logical outcome of British empiricism, John Locke and George Berkeley being therefore his two predecessors. Undoubtly, Hume’s writing owe much to the influence of Locke and Berkeley. The major principle which Hume formulated in his “Enquiry concerning Human Understanding”. “All our ideas are copies of our impressions”3, considered a re-echo of Locke’s fundamental views in his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding”. Most of Hume’s arguments concerning the nature of objects and ideas were taken almost directly from Berkeley. This is very evident because during Hume’s youth, when he was a student in Edinburgh, he belonged to a society of young men, who were engaged in discussing Berkeley’s conception of the material world and those who were also in correspondence with him (Berkeley). Berkeley’s influence on Hume was even confirmed by Hume, himself when he said that the writings of that very ingenious author – referring to Berkeley from the best lessons of skepticism which are to be found either among the ancient or modern philosopher. He however maintained that the skepticism of Berkeley’s arguments stems from the fact that they admit no answer and produce no conviction. This kind of skepticism that admit no answer and produce no conviction was not therefore satisfactory to Hume as he battled to correct the shortcomings of this skepticism in his own philosophy.

However, though Hume was influenced by Locke and Berkeley, it was not to the extent of drawing the same conclusions with them as the resulting philosophy constructed with the aid of their views by Hume differs sharply from theirs. Unlike both Locke and Berkeley, Hume broke completely away from the orthodox philosophical assumptions then in dominance – the dogmatic rationalism of the seventeenth century most notably it’s appeal to God. Hume himself recognized and confirmed this fact when he wrote to Henry Home in 1739 saying that, “my principles would produce almost a total alteration in philosophy: and you know, revolutions of this kind are not easily brought about”.4

From this therefore, it becomes clear that though Locke and Berkeley influenced Hume a lot, Hume never however allowed himself to be so carried away by their philosophical views as of course he did not agree with them in many areas. We thus discover that Hume only used the epistemological procedures of Locke and Berkeley as a ladder to aid him climb to his own epistemological procedure and after this, he discarded the ladder. He mostly used Locke and Berkeley’s views to bring out the absurdities inherent in the epistemological traditions, he was attacking dogmatic rationalism.


In philosophy, “Empiricism is the theory which holds that all knowledge is derived from sense experience”.5 Empiricism, as a philosophical tradition, however came up as a result of doubts concerning the rationalist  theory of knowledge which maintains that knowledge can be acquired through reason alone, because man possess certain innate ideas. Instead of seeking absolutely certain knowledge about an ideal world, which rationalist or idealist point towards, empiricists try however to demonstrate how and where we really acquire our information from and to what extent, this information we acquired is reliable. Empiricist therefore demonstrate that our sense experiences are the source and basis of what we know and have tried to construct an account of knowledge in terms of sense experience.6

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When we analyze the above, we come to discover that empiricism maintains that all knowledge are derived from sense experience. Empiricist thus hold that, man acquire knowledge through the observation of the nature and activities of the outside world and that meaningfulness of any statement can be verified only by checking it against the world as perceived through the human senses.

Empiricism thus, as a reaction against rationalism denied the major claim of rationalism which is that man possesses innate ideas which makes it possible for man to acquire knowledge through mere reasoning. As innatism was denied, empiricism thus in it’s place held that perception through the senses is the only sure guide to knowledge acquisition.

Denial of Innate Ideas: Rationalist maintains that man is in possession of certain innate ideas that makes it possible for man to know reality through reason and reason alone. Empiricist however denied this and put some arguments forward to consolidate their stand. Let us point out here that, though Locke was the empiricist who denied innatism categorically in his work, we still discover that other empiricist like George Berkeley and David Hume also denied it, though not categorically but at least by holding that knowledge is experiential, they have denied innatism.

“Locke, in stating this belief in innatism wrote that it is an established opinion of some men, that there are in the understanding, certain innate principles stamped upon the mind of men, which the soul receives in its very first being, and brings into the world with it”.7

What are these innate principles? Locke held that these principles which some men claim are innate include, what is, is,  which is the principle of identity, there is also the principle that, it is impossible for the same thing to be, and not to be, which is the principle of non-contradiction. But Locke asked, are these principles innate? No, is his answer. To prove this as not true, he said that these principles of identity and non-contradiction are not innate because they are not actually known by all human beings. Neither children nor idiots are aware of these alleged innate truths. To say that these truths are in their minds, even though they do not know them, is nonsense, because to say that a notion is imprinted on the mind and yet, the mind is in ignorance of it, amounts in itself, the denial of innatism. He only accepted that “some truths are early in mind, but in a way that shows them as not to be innate. For if we will observe, we shall find it still as ideas not innate, but acquired”.8

Locke therefore maintained that if everyone should look at his own observations and experiences, we will realize that originally the mind was just a “tabular razar” or blank sheet devoid of all characters, without any ideas. All our information are therefore based on experience which is either through sensation or by reflection on these sensation. Locke and other empiricists thus by denying innatism held that knowledge comes through sensation.

Knowledge is Based on Sensation: When empiricists argue that knowledge is experiential, what they mean is that we acquire knowledge based on information we receive through the senses. Whatever exists in our minds never came to exist there because of the mind’s ability to produce such things, but because they came in through the senses and stored in mind, because the mind is the store house of our sensations. This gave rise to the empiricist maxim that, “there is nothing in the mind, that was not first in the senses.

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This is the main maxim, which revolves around the empiricist philosophies of Locke, Berkeley and Hume. Locke’s theory is that knowledge can only come through “sensations and reflections”, George Berkeley is known for his “esse est percipi“ to be is to be perceived”, while Hume in his own empiricist theory placed knowledge acquisition on impressions and ideas”.

Locke’s Sensations and Reflections: John Locke held in his epistemological theory, that our knowledge is restricted to ideas that are generated by objective experience. The origin of ideas to Locke is experience, but experience itself takes two forms, which are “sensations and reflections” from this, Locke concluded that all our ideas come to us through the senses, through which we experience the world external to us, and also through reflections upon these ideas, which are experiences internal to us. This implies then that all our knowledge are nothing else but experiences, even those knowledge that some people regard as innate, Locke through his formula that, they are nothing but reflection on former sensation which therefore imply that they are experiences, but in this case, they are internal experiences.

In reflection, he said that the mind takes notice of it’s operations, but at the same time, it’s operations can only start when it has been provided with ideas, which of course come through the senses. Based on this, Locke concluded that man’s mind is in the beginning “a tabular razar” or blank sheet upon which experience or perception alone can subsequently write knowledge as he declared “where this perception is, there is knowledge, and where it is not, there though we may fancy, guess or believe, yet we always come short of knowledge”.9

Berkeley’s Esse Est Percepi: This is the high point of Berkeley’s empiricism, through which he conformed to the empiricist tradition, to sensation been the true guide to knowledge acquisition. In this “esse est percepi” – “to be is to be perceived”, we still sieve out the empiricist tradition of sensation, because we discover that in this maxim of “to be is to be perceived”, what plays the role of perception are the senses and through this perception, knowledge come to be acquired by the human mind. Berkeley still went further to argue that “physical matter exists only in relation to the mind that perceives it”.10

A Critique Of David Hume’s Empiricism


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