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David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature: Origin of our Ideas

2 Nov

I’m treading ground that I have not yet treaded as a thinker and philosopher. I normally have sided and defended Kant in all situations, without having read his empiricist enemies like Locke, Hume or Berkeley. I purchased David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature this weekend and have been reading it. I want to talk today about the very beginning of it in Of the Origin of our Ideas. I have a problem or two concerning the things he says in this section, but I shall address it all here.

Hume states that all ideas originally come from perceptions. He divides perceptions into impressions and ideas. Impressions: “Those perceptions, which enter with most force and violence, we may name impressions, and under this name I comprehend all our sensations, passions and emotions, as they make their first appearance in the soul. By ideas I mean the faint images of these in thinking and reasoning; such as, for instance, are all the perceptions excited  by the present discourse, excepting only, those which arise from the sight and touch, and excepting the immediate pleasure or uneasiness it may occasion” (Hume).  This distinction between impressions and ideas of our perceptions easily makes us understand what Hume means. Perceptions are things we sense, feel, and understand. An impression, I see it, are obvious things that are made apparent to us, that immediately impresses upon our soul. Ideas are things we achieve through reasoning, logic, and forced understanding. I think about impressions and ideas, and am brought back to Kant’s analytic and synthetic. This connection can help one understand Hume and Kant together even if they both opposed each other in other ways. The impressions immediately impressing upon our souls, need no further understanding or logical processes to ‘get’ them, just like Kant’s analytic. The ideas, needing much reasoning and logical processes, are just like Kant’s synthetic for this reason. The synthetic is like the ideas for another reason I shall explain later that is the dominating thing to understand when reading Hume’s Of the Origin of Our Ideas in the Treatise of Human Nature.

Hume makes a second distinction of perceptions (again just like Kant does) where he divides them into simple and complex. Simple perceptions “…admit of no distinction nor separation.” Simple perceptions do not divide because of how abstract they are.  Complex perceptions may be “….distinguished into parts.” I really like how Hume exemplifies this: ” Tho’ a particular color, taste, and smell are qualities all united together in this apple, ’tis easy to perceive they are not the same, but are at least distinguishable from each other” (Hume). When I first read this, I got an apple out of my fridge, and looked at it and understood what a complex perception is. The entire perception of one logically constructed object, has many perceptions, so I can understand why the whole perception is complex.

Looking further, I can understand and even exemplify a complex idea or complex impression. A complex impression could be, for example, the result perception if you found your significant other with another person, feeling sadness and anger at the same time, and also, having another anger just for the person your significant other is with. That can be broken down to at least 3 simple impressions. I can think of a complex idea also. Such as,  if I was trying to understand sense data, the sense data is making its presence by size, shape, and color before me, and I have to figure out how much it represents a material object, and I would list reasons why it does or does not.

One big claim Hume makes overall in Of the Origin of Our Ideas is: “That all our simple ideas in their first appearance are derived from simple impressions, which are correspondent to them, and which they exactly represent.” More simply, our ideas are derived from our impressions. Impressions intrude our senses, and I think that ideas follow because we always want to make sense of them. Referring back to the complex impression where one finds their significant other with another person, and feeling sadness and anger for the significant other, and anger for the person with the significant other,  ideas will certainly follow from this. Reasoning and logical processes are used to create ideas to fathom what happened. I totally agree with the main drive this section of Treatise of Human Nature has.

I have one issue with it that occurs in the beginning of the section, which I purposely neglected until now. Once Hume distinguished perceptions into impressions and ideas, stating that impressions enter our senses with ultimate force and violence causing X, Y, and Z effects, and stating that ideas are faint perceptions from reason and logical processes of understanding, he made a disclaimer that nullified everything he just said:

” As on the other hand it sometimes happens, that our impressions are so faint and low, that we cannot distinguish them from our ideas.”

Not only does the above nullify his distinction between impressions and ideas, but it nullifies what he states later when he says that ideas are derived from impressions. This statement that he says nonchalantly in the beginning of the section just nullifies everything. If any perception is faint and low, it is probably an idea. I cannot understand why Hume would make this statement because that would blend ideas with impressions and vice versa. Furthermore, since impressions and ideas cannot be distinguished from each other, how can an idea come from an impression. It is my opinion that in the event of an impression, if it is like the analytic (using Kant’s term), it is immediately understood, and any perception beyond that instance, is just idea.  This is a way to distinguish them.

There is no impression that is so faint that it can be blended with ideas. I think Hume made a confusion here. I do not know why, but I prefer Kant’s definition of ideas because of that one sentence that nullifies everything. Because of that one sentence is one reason I felt I should talk about Hume’s division of perceptions anyway.

Thanks for the support, More on Hume’s Treatise of Human nature to come….