the never ending processes in life is the process of knowledge acquisition
which to the lay man may not constitute any problem as regards how it is
acquired. But to philosophers, from time past this has constituted serious
debacles. However, in philosophy, it has become the special concern of
epistemology one of it’s branches to analyze how knowledge is acquired.
has rationalism and empiricism as its most outstanding schools. These two
schools in analyzing how knowledge is acquired have come to be the opposite of
each other, because while rationalism hold that knowledge comes through
reason,empiricism on the other hand holds that it comes through
sense-experience. In this long history of philosophy, however, David Hume has
remained the most consistent empiricist and for some reasons, we deemed it
necessary to make the aim of this work be the critical analysis of David Hume’s
theory of empiricism so that in the end we would have demonstrated whether it
exhausts all possible knowledge of reality or not.
problem is what must have led to Hume’s radical position that sense-experience
is the only possible guide to the acquisition of knowledge that is certain? We
however, discover that it is not unconnected to the fact that the search for
knowledge that is certain, which Aristotle shifted to concrete objects through
experimentation and which also cut through the time of John Locke and George
Berkeley who laid emphasis on perception, influenced Hume to a great extent.
Therefore by building on the philosophy of Locke and Berkeley which emphasized
sense perception, Hume came to develop his radical position about sense
experience as the limit of human knowledge.
Hume categorized the objects of human reason into relations of ideas and
matters of facts and he concentrated on the latter which he argued can only be
ascertained through sense-experience. He went further to hold that these
sense-experiences are acquired as impressions that is at the time of direct
contact with an object, and later as ideas when the mind reflects on the
one discovers that impressions are however Humes only guarantee for measuring
reality, even the ideas in the mind he argued must conform to these impressions
so as to be considered as guaranteeing knowledge as real. In short, for
something to be considered as real, it must generate impression.
argued, causality can not be real because in reality, only what we experience
are the proceeding and succeeding events separately and not any causal relation
between the two events. All other metaphysical concepts are not real because
they do not generate impressions and therefore cannot be experienced. To
demonstrate his utter rejection of metaphysics, Hume campaigned for the burning
of every book that contains metaphysics.
of all these, Hume’s rejection of metaphysics was an unsuccessful exercise
because Hume used the method of knowledge acquisition through sensation which
does not apply to metaphysics.
our wonder, why should sense-experience be the only standard of the measurement
of reality for Hume? Are the senses not fallible? Of course, they are. Hardly
do two people perceive on thing the same way, what of illusions and
hallucinations, all these demonstrates that the senses furnish us most times
with appearances and not reality. It therefore amounts to wrong conception of
reality as guaranteeing reality.
sense furnish us with has to be moderated by human reason before they are
considered, qualified as certain knowledge.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
CHAPTER ONE: INTRODUCTION
CHAPTER TWO: HUME’S LIFE AND THE INTELLECTUAL
INFLUENCES ON HIM
life and works
influences on David Hume
overview of empiricist philosophy
CHAPTER THREE: HUME’S EMPIRICISM
theory of empiricism
of the mind and Association of ideas
concept of causality
attack on metaphysics
OF THE STUDY
The search for knowledge that is both absolute
and certain has been continuous. However, since at least the time of Aristotle,
there has been a strong epistemological tradition based mainly on human
experience, which is not directed towards the possibility of achieving absolute
This tradition is a typical example of the
doctrine of empiricism. Empiricists argue that it is unreasonable to set a goal
of absolute and all-inclusive knowledge, especially when there is close at hand
the power to increase practical knowledge by slower but dependable methods.
Empiricist are content in building a system of
knowledge that has a high probability of being true even though it’s absolute
certainty cannot be guaranteed.
David Hume is one of the greatest empiricists in
the history of epistemology and metaphysics who has distinguished himself as a
consistent and coherent radical empiricist.
According to him, the only true knowledge is
experimental, and any concept that is not available to sense perception is mere
The only abstract objects of the abstract science or of demonstration
are quantity and number, and all attempts to extend this more perfect species
of knowledge beyond these bounds are mere sophistry and illusion.1
With an ideological ferocity, he calls for a
book-burning campaign of any metaphysical work.
When we run over libraries persuaded of these (empirical) principles,
what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume: of or school metaphysics,
for instance lets ask does it contain any abstract reasoning containing
quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning
matter-of-fact and existence? No. Commit to it to the flames: for it can
contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.2
Hume’s proposal of vigorous sensism as an
alternative to our natural and acquired scientific, metaphysical and
socio-cultural deposits, creates more problems than it resolves. It withers all
foundation of science and philosophy. It leaves us in make-shift, sandy
subjectivism of dry empiricism.
David Hume’s empiricism within the context of
knowledge is great, but a consistent empirist will end up destroying the very
foundation of knowledge. The epistemological, scientific and ontological
heritage of humanity is we think more than a series of impressions.3
To reduce them as bundles of impressions. To reduce them as bundles of
impressions as Hume would want to believe is myopic.
The above as a way of introduction forms the background of our study.
OF THE PROBLEM
There are problems in Hume’s theory of
empiricism. The major one arises in an attempt to answer the question of how
reliable is our senses. Very often, our senses deceive us. This is true when we
see a mirage, in the changing size of objects according to our psychological
and physiological state, in hallucination and other forms of illusions.
The problem is that there is no way of
immediately differentiating the real from the unreal in such situations. The
mirage for example is an effect caused by hot air in deserts or on roads, that
makes you think you can see something, such as water, which is not there.
Now the question is, how do we differentiate
between a true sense experience from a false or illusory sense experience?
Thus, arises the famous arguments from illusion
which places doubts on the reliability of sense experience.
OF THE STUDY
It has already been pointed out that David Hume
maintained a radical stand in his position on knowledge acquisition by
maintaining that knowledge comes only from sense experience. He did this by
drawing out the problems inherent in reason as a source of knowledge.
The purpose of this study is therefore to examine
David Hume’s position and also to show that in as much as we agree that human
beings acquire knowledge through senses experience, sense experience alone
cannot constitute or guarantee knowledge. Just as Jacques Maritain pointed out
that every philosophical system contains some truth and tells something about
the real, some philosophies however exaggerate their claims and this is where
they then run into problems. This is so with David Hume, he ran into this kind
of problem and this was because though knowledge can be acquired through sense
experience, he exaggerated the position by maintaining that knowledge can only
come through sense experience.
It therefore becomes part of the purpose of this
study to point out some of these problems as we can in order to show that
though sense experience leads to knowledge, however knowledge does not stop
there after there are some limitations to the senses in epistemological
procedure so that whatever information we receive through the senses are
subjected to judgment before it is accepted.
OF THE STUDY
When this work is completed, it is our hope that
it is going to be of importance in the sense that at least we would have
succeeded in bringing to light some of the very important aspects of David
Hume’s empiricism and at the same time would have also succeeded in pointing
out problems inherent in it.
The work will equally be of help or assistance to
students who will want to do some works in the area of David Hume’s empiricism
as it will provide some aid to them by providing them with a kind of insight
into the nature of Hume’s empiricism. But we must point out here that this work
should not be taken as all there is in Hume’s empiricism. But where however, we
could not cover, the references. That appear at the end of the work will
therefore be adequate to direct or refer students to where information as
regards those areas will be gathered.
To people who may not be doing works on David
Hume`s Empiricism; to non-philosophers, who may thus be reading for knowledge
acquisition or for pleasure, this work will equally be of immense help as the
approach that will be adopted here and the choice of works will not be
difficult to understand.
We have already shown from the title of this work
that this work is concerned with providing a critique of David Hume’s
empiricism. However, just as it is done in every critical study, we are not
going to rush into the criticism just like that, we therefore will have a guide
or focus as regards what to criticize. Hume’s empiricism itself is to provide
the guide because, as we are going to criticize it, we will have to present his
empiricism so as to point out what it entails. After doing this, we will then
know how to anchor our criticism to the problems we will observe, having
discovered the nature of Hume’s Empiricism.
The method to be adopted in this work is that of
critical study. As the work is on David Hume’s empiricism, the method will
therefore be, first of all to present a general overview of empiricism. After
this we will then narrow our attention down to Hume’s notion of the subject
matter empiricism. It will be after presenting these that we will therefore
settle down to criticize.
For the purpose of convenience however, our
criticism is going to be in two phases.
The first phase will be to provide the attacks which had been leveled
against Hume’s empiricism by other people, this is because we are quite aware
that Hume’s empiricism has come under attacks over the years.
The second phase of the criticism will therefore
be our own criticism. We will here point out as will be able, some of those
problems Hume’s empiricism are shrouded with due to Hume’s radical position,
and based on these, we will therefore draw our criticisms against his
Our aim here is to provide the reader with the
knowledge of some of the texts used in this work. But first of all, David
Hume’s book constitute primary literature.
In his book, “An Enquiry Concerning Human
Understanding” edited by Eric Steinberg and published by Hacket Publishing
Company, Indianapolis in 1977,4 David Hume was bent on demonstrating
that an enquiry, the objects of human reason will be discovered to include only
relations of ideas and matters of fact. These are only two categories under
which any knowledge that is certain can be placed. All issues dealing with
numbers are intuitively certain and therefore under “relations of ideas” where
anything discoverable by experience is under “matters of fact”.
Also, in another book, “David Hume and problem of
reason; recovering – the human sciences” (published by Yale University Press in
1990)5, John Danford explained how skepticism concerning the ability
of reason to lead to knowledge acquisition led to Hume’s position was to show
that when reason is cut loose or severed from experience, it can only generate
irresolution and confusion.
In the book, A Critical Account of the philosophy
of Kant, published by James Maclehose in 1876,6 we see Edward. Caird
showing Hume claims about the passivity of the mind in knowledge acquisition on
through the ”association of ideas”. Here the mind is shown as not actively
dealing with given materials to come up with knowledge but as finding already
in the very data of sensation certain natural relations or associative
principle by virtue of which one idea calls up another and therefore present a
clear picture of something to the mind.