Katie Boyd (ktessays) wrote,
Katie Boyd

Hume's Impressions and Ideas

Alright, I've actually gone and written down a few of my ideas that have crossed my mind as I've been studying. There's just this thing that keeps bugging me about Hume. So, here it is. Please give it a read.

Could I possibly expand on this enough to write a 10-20 page essay?
If so, is this topic interesting enough to do so and to possibly submit it to an essay contest?
Please give me content criticism.

The distinction between Impressions and Ideas in Hume's philosophy causes endless problems and contradictions within it.

“All the perceptions of the human mind resolve themselves into two distinct kinds, which I shall call Impressions and Ideas. The difference betwixt these consists in the degrees of force and liveliness, with which they strike upon the mind, and make their way into our thought or consciousness. 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. I believe it will not be very necessary to employ many words in explaining this distinction.” (Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. Book, I, Part I, Section I, p. 1.)

However, in the very same paragraph, Hume admits of some exceptions to the obviousness of this distinction. In a few instances, it is difficult to tell the two apart. Sometimes there are faint impressions, or overly vivid ideas. He does not let these get in the way of establishing this distinction as obvious, justified, and appropriate. I am not so easily convinced. When two things are given a distinction as being of a degree only, it is suspicious when they overlap or become difficult to differentiate.

As shaky a differentiation this is, between impressions and ideas, it is what Hume is satisfied with. But the word choice lends toward a different direction in definition. Don’t you want to think that the defining feature of an impression, as opposed to an idea, is that it is impressed upon us, by something else, something external? Or that an idea is naturally something that originates in the mind? This is exactly the kind of distinction made by Kant and other philosophers. (On an interesting note, Locke seems to want to mean such a distinction but does not use different terminology for these different kinds of ‘ideas’.) But Hume can’t do this. He cannot separate Impressions from Ideas by way of their origin. If he were to claim that impressions were defined by being caused by things external to us he would fall into contradiction with his famous arguments regarding both causation and externality. Causation is only an idea of mental determination, and not a property of physical things. So, physical things cannot cause our perceptions in the way that we usually think of causation. Also, Hume will seriously question the possibility of external things, and our ability to know of them. So, he must begin without assumptions of these concepts he will come to question, in a big way, later in his work. The only thing he is left with to define Impressions and Ideas is that of degree. But is this distinction really reliable, if they overlap, and we have no other qualification to turn to?

One of the first things Hume attempts to accomplish in his Treatise is that all ideas come from impressions. He makes two arguments for this. First, he reminds us that every idea coincides with some impression. They come in pairs. There is not one that does not have a corresponding copy. So, with that connections established, we just need to show which one comes from which. He establishes, through the fact that the impression always comes before, in time, the idea, it is the idea that is the copy of the impression. The second argument is that an individual that lacks a sense to perceive a certain sense, he will also lack all ideas of the sort. (Does this not also seem to imply that he really wants to make the distinction between impressions and ideas based on the source?) However, he immediately acknowledges a counterexample. His example is that if anyone has never seen a particular shade of blue, and is shown a continuum of shades of blue, a person can have the idea of this missing shade of blue. However, he blows this example off as unimportant. “I believe there are few but will be of opinion that he can; and this may serve as a proof, that the simple ideas are not always derived from the correspondent impressions; tho’ the instance is so particular and singular, that ‘til scarce worth our observing, and does not merit that for it alone we should alter our general maxim.” (Treatise-I.I.I., p.6) I would be much more willing to accept this, if it weren’t that he makes such a case for his argument by challenging us to find a counterexample. For, in his Enquires he says, “…we shall always find, that every idea which we examine is copied from a similar impression. Those who would assert that this position is not universally true nor without exception, have only one, and that an easy method of refuting it; by producing that idea, which, in their opinion, is not derived from this source.” (Enquires Sec. II, p. 19) But he has already supplied such an idea, in his Treatise. If it is only one required, there you have it. If he really wants a more significant idea, one not so “particular and singular” I will give him that too.
Amongst his discussion of the concept of cause and necessary connection, a very famous piece of his doctrine, he attempts to search for an impression from which this idea is copied. He aims to prove that there is no impression, and therefore, that this is not a genuine idea, but only a false one. However, can we not take this back to his original argument that every idea comes from an impression, and rather than considering this to be already proven, show this idea of cause as a counterexample? Hume could scarcely consider this an idea “so particular and singular, that ‘til scarce worth our observing,” as his first supplied counterexample. And now this seems to turn into an attack on his general argument against the common conception of causation. If we don’t just assume this initial distinction and relation between impressions and ideas as proven, and solid, but look closer, we see that it causes problems for arguments very central to Hume’s philosophical stance.

Comments made:
Let's make sure we agree on Hume's stance. He is indeed arguing against a realist position that would establish a permanent external "anything", whether it's causation, or material laws of nature. (He also rejects any "internal" permanence or identity). It's a skeptical position that effectively seeks to undermine the "solidity of the world", the continuity of the self, eternal laws of nature, etc. This is only a philosophical argument against dualism, he's not advocating that we should live chaotically or anything like that (no social philosophy there). In fact, he describes human nature as habit-bound in other works.

I don't have any counterexamples for knowing things that we cannot experience. Certainly science takes it for granted that a hypothesis can be made but needs to be confirmed by experience.

Perhaps your point about causation should be based on something else than just empirical examples of causation. Hume ends up reducing (empirically observed) causation to mere regularities in nature. There's no necessary cause-and-effect relation observed, all we notice are regularities which we have no future guarantee of. Therefore we infer future regularities, but we could be wrong, since there is no logical necessity for the sun to rise tomorrow.

My response:
I agree with you.
The parts about causation are a bit muddled because I wanted to refer to it, not make it the center of what I was saying. My point is about his definition of Impressions. Due to his theories of causation, I don't think he can use impressions to involve external causes, and he doesn't. He only defines them by degree, as more vivid than ideas.
In addition, and this is probably the part you were refering to, I think causation can work as a counterexample to ideas all being copies of impressions simply because of the method that he uses. He starts off his argument by looking for the impression that the idea of causation could have come from. He doesn't find one, so... and we get the rest of his argument about necessary connection being in the mind and such, basically exactly what you say in your last paragraph. But, because he starts with failing to find an original impression, and thinking that that proves something, I see his argument as falling in on itself.

Does that make sense? Am I addressing your concerns? or just repeating myself?

Maybe my point shouldn't be about Impressions, but I should really dig more into how this affects his arguments regarding causation. If the argument from lack of impression means nothing, can the rest stand on its own? If so, can impressions just be subtracted from his doctrine to solve these inconsistencies? Or, is there another way to "fix" this part of his theory? Is it an inconsequencial, trivial criticism? Or could it have large effects?
OK, I know what direction I'm going to research in next.

His response:
OK, I kind of had launched into my own spinning 2-bit summary on Hume's causation before re-reading your question. So, your objection to that first premise about Impressions/Ideas is that they're not just different in degree, but substantially different. You're also seeing problems with Hume's claim that there is a lack of impression for some ideas, like causation. After all, we have many abstract ideas like in calculus, that are just about other ideas and not about a concrete experienced impression.

If you feel strongly about these problems, then they could be contention points for his theory. I would that this could be a strong argument against Hume's skepticism. Maybe others who are more versed in british empiricism can suggest more, I'm kinda curious myself.

comment by synanimus
Undercutting the Copy Principle would destroy Hume's arguments entirely.

Sounds like fun, doesn't it? >:)

comment by nanikore
I'm going to cut and paste something I've posted before, and then quote myself again because I'm just that vain.

The Concious Progression

When the supposed world that is inside of the mind is joined with what is outside of the mind, the boundary between the mind and non-mind becomes indistinct; There is no longer separately identifiable "inner mental realm" and "outer physical realm." There is no longer a clear demarcation between the perceiver and the perceived, the subject and the object.

A. We start with no preconceived notion of existence of anything

B. We go on to perceive the world, including our selves

The realistic portion

The appearance of things come from the external direction. Once internal,they become the particulars of perception and eventually inwardlyimpressed as mental facts

C. "Magical realm". What goes on in here during the transition between perception and conception? Maybe there is no transition, and the processes (internal to external, external to internal) are simultaneously occuring. What is the structure of reality? Does it conform to what is described in internalism, externalism, or neither? I tend to think it involve both, and my view is similar to that of positive transcendence.

D. On this side of the transition, we define the world including our selves

The anti-realistic portion

The particulars of perception is manipulated by the mind and translated to the generalities of conception. They are projected outward and expressed as mental truths. Once external, they become abstracted ideas.

E. We end up with conceptions of what and how things are

The abstracted ideas in turn can be picked up by perception as the progression reverses/repeats. Appearance of things-->particulars(facts)-->[???]-->generalities(truths)-->Conception of things-->[repeat/reverse]

Since her language in her assessment wasn't of the condemning sort I think she's still in the process of making up her mind whether (to put it bluntly) that partcular Humean argument is bunk.

I just want to share what I'm seeing. I do not think Hume has to be pitted against those philosophers that make the internal/external distinction. "Internal" and "external" are just terms we use to describe our experiences of whatever we deem as "internal" and "external." Let's look at what I have scribbed above. Now if I look at it in a skeptical angle, I might as well say "Hey, there really is no internal or external; I'm just describing layers of processes."

To me Hume is thinking of the "anti-realistic layer." Projecting from the mind. There would be a differentiation of mind versus reality anyways (the reality and the mind that made it?) I suppose that somehow figures into Humean causation. I have no idea, never read 'em... I love making wild guesses.

"The particulars of perception is manipulated by the mind and translated to the generalities of conception." - me

Now we might as well just take that, and change it to "The vividity of impression is manipulated by the mind and translated to the vagueness of ideas."

Same difference really... we're just recycling the same ideas over and over and then arguing among ourselves when we get a bunch of different terms after we're done with our closetting sessions.

Again, once we toss out terms like "external" and "internal" what really differentiates between realists and anti-realists (if people want to get picky with me about how I abuse terminology, please go ahead- that's how I learn how different people use them. Philosophical dictionaries only go so far) is mere "direction of reality realization" as shown by my scribbling. This difference is ultimately not much of a difference anyhow in the grand scheme of things since it could all just be an in-out, conversion-inversion cycle.

To Katie:
I looked at your essay journal. I think you might find this discussion of interest as far as "The Locke versus Hume Issue" is concerned:


another comment by synanimus
Man, it's an interesting topic, and I've written term papers on Hume's Causation, Hume's moral theory, Hume's Skepticism, & really anything and everything I can write about Hume. Hume is taught at my university the way that Wittgenstein is taught in Vienna. We offer classes in intro to Hume, Hume, and advanced studies in Hume. So, on one level, I'd love to talk some Hume with you. But, man, this is some serious digital ink you're asking for. Generally speaking, I disagree with almost everything you said. But I'm just not up for the four-hundred pages we would have to spend hashing out this topic, so I'll content myself with a single objection and a single teaser.

Objection: You note that the missing shade of blue is an illustration of a violation of the Copy Principle. You note that Hume disallows the idea of necessary connexion based on the CP. On both these points, you are right. You assert that the CP should not be allowed to stand due to the missing blue - that is potentially allowable. But then you say that since the CP does not prevent us acquiring an idea of the Missing Shade of Blue, it might not prevent us acquiring an idea of NC either. The trouble here is that you're really taking two approaches. First, you're simply saying, "I disallow the I/I distinction and the Copy Principle, therefore I disallow Hume's skepticism." Second, you're saying, "There is a problem with Humean argument 1, that is analogous to a problem in Humean argument 2." On the first point, you may have something - more on that below - but it's going to take a lot more work than noting "Sometimes they don't work so well" to undercut the I/I distinction and the CP. On the second point, the comparison between the problem of the missing shade of blue, this chain of reasoning isn't going to go much of anywhere as it stands. Simply put, the method that allows us to derive the MSB does not apply to attempts to derive the idea of NC. The MSB works exactly, precisely, and only because it is a continuum argument. Deriving the idea of NC, although it seems like an extrapolation type of continuum derivation, is a fundamentally different type of abstraction. Example: Take a quality or quantity X that permits of increase along a continuous progression. Now if I have an idea of X, I have the ability, potentially, to derive the idea of a slightly increased form of X. That's a continuum approach, very roughly speaking. That's what happens, in type, with the MSB. The idea of NC doesn't work this way. NC is not a greater of lesser application of some continuous quantity or quality. At least, it doesn't seem to be. If you could show that it is, you'd be doing some really groundbreaking stuff.

In sum, attacking the I/I distinction and the CP is potentially a good approach, but you need to take a lot more time with it. Comparing NC to the MSB is probably not a very good line of argument, in my opinion.

Teaser: Since you don't like the I/I distinction and the CP, and since you like the MSB, consider this. What if I saw, say, ten shades of blue, each lighter than the one before, all in a row. Seems like I could imagine the next lighter. And if I have an idea of the next lighter? What could I do then? Where else might this apply?

All in all, best of luck. I've been immersed in Hume for a long time, and the puzzles never go away. IF you really hate him, though, then talk to jupitah. I'm sure she'll be willing to convert you to Kantianism :)

comment by remohraz
He aims to prove that there is no impression, and therefore, that this is not a genuine idea, but only a false one. However, can we not take this back to his original argument that every idea comes from an impression, and rather than considering this to be already proven, show this idea of cause as a counterexample?

Unfortunately, no. Here's why.

In order to be a counterexample, you would have to be able to show that causation (a) is a genuine idea and (b) does not come from an impression.

However, simply asserting (a) and (b) is not enough, as it would beg the question. That is, without further argument, the only way you could have gotten (a) and (b) is by pre-supposing "Not all genuine ideas come from impressions," which is really your conclusion. So we need to get (a) and (b) from somewhere else.

Now, we can grant (b), since Hume grants us that causation does not come from an impression. The point of contention, then, is (a).

In order to get (a), you'd need to be able to show that there is an independent critereon for a "genuine idea," and that causation conforms to this critereon. Furthermore, you'd need to show that this independent critereon is also consistent with Hume's notion of a "genuine idea." This is absolutely critical, because if Hume's "genuine idea" doesn't confrom to the critereon, then you're both talking about two different things - two different "genuine idea"s, so to speak.

Kant tried to do something similar in response to Hume's "necessary connexion." However, the basic premises of Kant are so wildly different than Hume's that Kant's "necessary causation" cannot possibly be considered as a counterexample to Hume. At best, we can say that they have two distinct, not necessarily contradictory, notions of causal necessity.

If you can, however, show that causation is a geunine idea and that Hume would agree with your critereon for a genuine idea, then you do, indeed, have a counterexample.

Mind you, if, for Hume, a "genuine idea" is defined as "something that comes from impressions," then you don't really have any case except to say that Hume's definition is a bad one. An okay thing to argue, of course, but in that case, causation technically isn't a counterexample.

In general, though, there should be more than enough material out there to write a paper on the topic you've suggested, but perhaps not in the manner you've proposed.

Hm. I suppose that, where I say, "unfortunately, no," what I really mean is, "yes, but it requires being able to demonstrate that Hume uses a critereon for a genuine idea that is independent of impressions, and that causation agrees with that critereon." Rather a far cry from "unfortunately, no," I'd say. :)

(Although, perhaps not so far, as I think it will be quite challenging to demonstate the independent critereon.)

I never got around to responding to these comments. If I ever get around to writing an essay on this topic I want to be able to find them easily so that I can take what they say into consideration and use them for inspiration. So, here they are.

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